My Babes when she was two. Picture Copyright Frances Laing. All Rights Reserved.
A Sunday in January. I’m waiting for a national newspaper to phone about the e-petition. Fighting off a head cold – it’s a good time to put my thoughts in order…
I started this blog on August 4th. 2009. I mention this because I’ve learned that timescales are important in early years education. On August 4th. my daughter was three years and eleven months old. She was just about to make the transition from nursery to a state-funded primary school. She is summer-born.
Why did I start writing this blog anyway? The story goes like this: whilst working part-time I gained my Post Graduate Certificate in Adult Education at the University of Wales in 2003. Course members and colleagues were drawn from diverse fields. They included trainee teachers in adult education working in Sure Start projects. I started out teaching Basic Skills, and offering Social Sciences and German. As part of the course we completed an exercise and devised a curriculum for parents on health education. (I recall we got some excellent marks for that assignment, but at that time parenting was a theoretical exercise for me). Job and personal circumstances changed. In 2003 I was 38 years old – I’d written off the idea of ever ‘settling down’ and thought it most unlikely I would ever have a child).
But I did. At the age of forty I married my atheist husband at a Quaker wedding and about a year and 49 hours in labour later we were graced with our wonderful daughter. To say the first year was hard is the understatement of the century for me. Six weeks after the birth (both me and Babes still struggling with breastfeeding, my back so painful from the epidural that I needed help to lift my child) my Other Half experienced numbness on one side of his face. After nearly a year of repeated hospital visits and tests (we took the advice of our health visitor and took Babes along with us) Other Half was diagnosed with a chronic disability. We were lucky in that he can still work full-time in an area closely related to disability rights. His team has won a prize for outstanding work in welfare rights.
I’m telling you this reader, because I want you to know I understand that every parent has joys and challenges. And that’s directly relevant to the EYFS and they ways in which parents are dealing with it.
By the time the EYFS framework was made statutory, my child was three. As a new mother in those first few years, with all the challenges we had, my feet hardly touched the ground. I was on a fast learning curve. At that time I knew quite a bit about the adult education system, but I felt, precious little about early years education. My Other Half is a great dad (he’s the one who reads the stories). He has two grown up children. But I was still a relatively new mum. However one thing I knew well. My child.
Due to our circumstances I started to focus again on my writing, and became a card-carrying member of the NUJ three years ago. As part of my Post grad Certificate in Education – I had been required to engage in what is called ‘Reflective Practice’. To write journals and ‘critical incidents’ about my own educational progress and that of my students. Blogging can be a reflective practice too. It seemed to be the perfect synthesis of learning, journalling and writing and opened up a digital universe.
I believe in what they call ‘life-long’ learning. I will always try to help my child enjoy learning. It’s a great gift. As a mother when I first encountered the Early Years Foundation Stage I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. A framework was needed. That couldn’t be a bad thing. But something bothered me, so I kept writing, researching, learning and documenting facts and experiences on this blog.
The name of this blog is carefully chosen. “A parent’s guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage”. A blog for parents. I’d searched for information for parents about the Early Years Foundation Stage framework. There was quite a lot. Most of it though, was written by government departments or schools. And there was one significant thing about the government information I came across that caught my eye. It was completely uncritical of the EYFS framework. Something wasn’t right. I don’t use the word ‘propaganda’ lightly, but I’ll use it here.
The journalist in me began to ask the searching cultural and political questions as to why this propaganda existed. I wanted to put something else out there. As a Quaker and a member of the NUJ (adhering to the NUJ code of conduct and ethics) the writing needed to be as close to the truth as I could manage. My truth. A child’s truth. The truth of what governments are doing to childhood.
Nowhere in any government EYFS or schools document could I find anything truly reflective. I’m sure that most of the nursery and school staff we encountered on our travels had good intentions, but it was clear to me that many had stopped considering whether or not the EYFS learning and development compulsory requirements were a good idea. Alarm bells rang in my head. This approach had very little to do with what I understood by education.
And there was more. No-one appeared to be documenting the experiences of parents and children on the coal face of early years education. With the Early Years Foundation Stage and with the EYFS Learning and Development Requirements. That’s not surprising at all – given the realities of parenting. We only have one child under five. Parents who have several children and who are struggling to hold life, loves and jobs together are doing really well if they muddle through successfully on a day-to-day basis. You don’t have the time, the energy or the money to write a dissertation about it!
When I started writing this blog, back in August last year I could hardly believe the realities of the EYFS learning and development requirements. We applied for a parental exemption and honestly thought it was possible to succeed. I now believe it is highly unlikely that any parents could succeed with this process for lots of reasons. The guidance documents are thirty-five pages long. The process is difficult to understand and takes time. There are no support mechanisms to guide parents through the process. It’s stressful. Also, many parents just don’t feel confident enough to question what the nursery staff, the teachers and the government are telling them. And by the time you have got your head around what is happening, your child is through the early years system and you’ve got more, new and different challenges to face.
But the most significant thing here is: parents like us don’t stand a chance of gaining an exemption for their child in a state-funded school because the government doesn’t want us to succeed. Why not? Well – if they allowed us to gain exemptions – (in our droves) – it would be the final and conclusive admission that government education policies are fundamentally flawed.
The government wants to win the next election. They don’t want to admit that the “education, education, education“ Tony Blair (and later Gordon Brown) was talking about had very little to do with education in the truest sense.
What’s interesting and important though, is that criticisms of the EYFS learning and development requirements span ALL political parties and all types of school. EYFS exists in private schools and nurseries, independent settings, faith schools, at child minders. It even affects families who choose to home educate. (Some parents who home educate send their children to childminders on a part-time basis).
In the letter from our local authority which told us the school had refused our exemption application - Cheshire West and Chester local education authority took the liberty of trying to give us the impression that we were free to go elsewhere with our child (to seek another school). They enclosed a phone number for an education help line to help us choose one. But they knew that the EYFS learning and development guidelines apply at ALL nursery settings and all schools (unless that it the setting itself gains an exemption – some Steiner schools have done this as I’ve mentioned before on this blog – but we wouldn’t choose to send our child to a Steiner school and there isn’t one of these within a hundred miles of where we live anyway).
Where do parents of young children go, when, (late at night perhaps) they need advice and/or support on pre-school parenting? We know they often turn to telephone helplines, and ‘talk’ to peers via the internet.
Discussion threads such as the one I started at Mumsnet appear to reveal how little some parents understand about the Early Years Learning and Development Requirements. If there is a shortage of unbiased information, indeed, how can we know and understand the issues properly?
Journalists and the rest of the media are partly to blame here of course. How many sensationalist headlines have you seen which give you the impression it’s outrageous when children can’t write whole sentences by the age of five? The truth of that is: it isn’t a scandal. Children all learn and develop differently at different times.
Education policy does not fail because children aren’t schooled early enough – it fails because children are hot-housed too soon and are in danger of stopping engaging with education systems altogether in later life. Is this what governments really want?
Much has been made of the notion that the Early Years Learning and Development Requirements benefit so-called ‘deprived’ children and families in the first instance? Is this really true? Who is documenting how much money has been spent creating and upholding the EYFS system? We find ourselves in the middle of a recession which is hitting families hard. Safe and adequate housing is a huge and very basic issue. Homes are being repossessed at an alarming rate. What is the sense in prioritising the writing of ‘complete sentences with punctuation’ over safe, adequate and affordable housing (and food, for that matter)?
The Mumsnet thread is ‘robust’ to put it politely. I’ve been told that I’m ‘deranged‘ by fellow posters. Posters have tried to call my integrity into question (I’m telling ‘porkies’ with the parliamentary petition…). Posters have tried to say I’m a follower and supporter of Steiner schools and Anthroposophy. The fact is, I’m not. I’m not Steiner trained. We don’t send our child to a Steiner school. I’m familiar with some of Rudolf Steiner’s work (I lived in Germany for ten years) – but I haven’t read a great deal of it.
For the record – I am critical of Steiner philosophies and educational practices - at the same time I believe the re-evaluation of what Rudolf Steiner had to say in the light of our contemporary knowledge and best educational practice may be a valuable exercise. I’m not going to reject ANY sources of information that I believe may have something to offer in our understanding of what is happening to Early Years Education.
I’ve been told by fellow posters on Mumsnet that the EYFS learning and development requirements are not ‘compulsory’. I asked Dr. Richard House for his opinion on this today. I said: “people were trying to argue that ‘nothing happens to children if they don’t meet the goals“. (Of course we know that children are not expelled from school, for example).
Dr. House said:
“This assertion (i.e that ‘nothing happens to children if they don’t meet the goals’ F.L) is a complete misunderstanding of the implications and the effects of the EL goals – for the key point is that their very existence has all kinds of effects on their children, that simply would not occur if the goals did not exist. Or put differently, a very great deal will inevitably have happened to children in the course of their not meeting the goals to which practitioners/teachers are aspiring (and of course the same goes for children who do meet them).
To give just a few examples:
Because of the local authority Outcome Duty, and the way that the pressure from the DCSF and Ofsted works, pre-school practitioners/teachers are under constant pressure to try to ensure that their children meet the stipulated goals. This is the nursery-level equivalent of the now completely discredited “teaching to the test”, and it is nothing short of catastrophic that very young children are being exposed to such a fear-driven regime. The literature that now exists on how targets unhelpfully distort professional practice is enormous and incontrovertible, and it cannot be denied that the Early Learning Goals are indeed ‘targets’ in all but name, which will in turn inevitably distort the practice of early-childhood practitioners/teachers. Add to this, first, that many of the targets are age-inappropriate, and, second, that the very idea that it is legitimate to have generalised targets for young children’s learning anyway is contraindicated by the evidence, and we can see how the EYFS’s learning-goals approach is fundamentally flawed in both conception and content, and is likely to impact negatively on considerable numbers of children. In no conceivable universe can the latter situation be described as ‘…nothing happens to children if they don’t meet the goals’.
Also, we have to consider the impact on those children who do not reach the stipulated goals. Practitioners/teachers will tend to experience a range of emotions in the face of children not meeting the goals – not least, in terms of anxiety; and young children pick up on these feelings psychodynamically and are deeply affected by them. At worst, children will know at some level that they have failed – with all the knock-on effects in terms of damaged self-esteem, turning off from challenging learning, etc. Moreover, with a predominantly young early-years workforce that is notoriously under-trained, and therefore not likely to possess the personal confidence and authority to avoid unquestioning compliance with state-imposed injunctions, there is little if any prospect that practitioners themselves will be able to forestall such unintended negative outcomes of the learning-goals regime. Again, then, in no conceivable universe can the latter situation be described as ‘…nothing happens to children if they don’t meet the goals’. (Source: Dr. Richard House).
I’m running out of time. We’re all running out of time. A week, a month a year, can be a very long and crucial time in a young child’s life. We need to change this now. If you do nothing else, please sign the petition I initiated. Here’s the link. Thank you.