Archive for January, 2010

Is testing really necessary? Blair’s place in history…

This week (as part of their series, “Winning Women’s Votes”)  Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour focused on what might sway women’s vote at the general election.

On Wednesday, Jenni Murray and guests (Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and Gillan Low, President of the Girls’ Schools Association and head of a top-performing independent girls’ school in south west London) looked at education – tackling the question “Is testing really necessary?”

The programme asked what an incoming government “should do about measuring progress in schools”.

 Woman’s Hour introduced the programme like this: “Labour came to power in 1997 with the slogan ‘education, education, education’. It went on to introduce compulsory literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools, staking its reputation on raising educational standards. Ten years later the General Teaching Council said: “England’s pupils are among the most frequently tested in the world, but tests in themselves do not raise standards. Today some of those tests have gone, though others remain. School league tables based on test results have not escaped controversy”.

I listened to the programme, (drawing parallels between the proposed Sats boycott and the Early Years Learning and Development Requirements) and sent the following comment by email along with information about this blog. The comment hasn’t been broadcast (yet). This is what I said:

“High time that this fundamental question is asked. Blairite policies (“Education, education, education”) were Orwellian. They had little to do with education in it’s true sense – and (like the war on Iraq)  had much more to do with Blair’s (party political) ambitions and political expediency.

No mention was made in today’s programme of the effects of the Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements and EYFS Profiling on children as young as four and younger. Despite government assertions that there is no ‘testing’ in the EYFS system – the realities on the ground in schools are very different. Early Years Practitioners are describing this compulsory system as: Testing-in-all-but-name.

See also this quote sourced from an early years practitioner:

 “In order to complete the 69 ELGs the child must first achieve the 39 DM targets or they can’t be awarded the ELGs (Early Learning Goals) and some authorities are putting pressure on reception teachers to do all 9 points (117) which include NC levels. It is actually a post code lottery what expectations and criteria are placed on teachers and children “

Listen to the Woman’s Hour programme here (Listen Again facility).

See also my news blog – Tony Blair, the war in Iraq and the history books

EYFS exempt school wins ‘outstanding’ category at inspection.

See this Nursery World article for full report.

Homework at the age of four?

Our school is ‘reviewing’ their current Homework policy – ‘looking to identify set days on which homework will be set and collected in by teachers’. We’ve received a note in our daughter’s school bag. There’s a table to fill in and a comments box:

The table looks like this. (There are boxes for parents/carers to tick ‘please tick appropriate box with regard to time spent on homework activities’ – and a comments box at the end of the sheet of paper for additional comments).

—————————————————————————————

Homework Focus     Not enough     Correct Amount        Too Much

Spellings

Reading

Maths

Topic

———————————————————————————————

‘Homework’ is a subject very relevant to criticisms of the Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements and the EYFS profiling which I believe is completed at the end of a child’s first year at school and so I’m sharing our responses to this ‘homework’ questionnnaire with readers of this blog. Here they are:

Firstly, we’re really glad that a school such as ours should be reviewing their homework policy. This may be a positive development. It must be a difficult and time-consuming task coordinating the facilitation of learning for a large number of children. We can see the need for practical ways of doing things.

However, as parents we can’t help thinking that a tick box system like this is not the answer. Whether you are conducting a simple survey like this, or compiling research evidence for a  Phd – answers and results received from questionnaires depend on which questions are asked in the first place.

So let’s look at the assumptions behind the form. The tick box we are faced with appears to assume that all parents agree it is a good idea to give a child of four or five  ‘homework’ in spelling, reading, maths and/or a topic.

As parents our approach is as follows: our child is four, and at the moment we feel that the six hours of formal learning she receives at school is quite enough. When she gets home – we would like our daughter to play. And to learn through free play. At four years and four months that is her job. (And at five, her needs may be different).

At the moment though, we try to provide activities and resources for her to do this. Reading stories, visiting the city library, constructing buildings with blocks e.t.c. visiting our allotment, growing vegetables, spending time with grandma and grandad. Talking to people/friends/neighbours. Walking. Listening to music. Dancing. Making the tea together. Stroking and talking to the cats. Sitting by the fire drawing pictures. Doing nothing in particular. Watching a film. Just having the time to “be”. And so it goes on. Everyday life.

Our situation provides evidence of the essential weaknesses of the system of Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements (and the accompanying EYFS Profile with the profile points which nursery teachers are required to gather evidence for at the end of the first foundation year at school). Namely the following:

In our daughter’s class (of thirty or so children – not sure of the exact numbers) – the children vary in age. There will be summer born children like our daughter – currently aged four. But there will also be older children in the class too. Sometimes children that are nearly a year older than our own child. Children who are five years old, for example (or older?)

It is quite clear to us that these children will inevitably find themselves at a different developmental stage than our own child. And that is absolutely fine. Each child develops differently and we would like to think they can do this at their own pace.

However, at present, as far as  ‘homework’ is concerned – the statutory Early Years Foundation Stage targets and the EYFS profiling appear to mean that teachers are expected to bring each child up to the same standard. The profiles are statutory. They are an obligation for the school.  

And as far as we know, the same homework ‘tasks’ are being put into the school bag of each child in the school (Update: Apologies for this very obvious mistake readers – of course I meant to write  ‘in the class’ here and not ‘in the school’. The ethics of blogging demands that I leave the original sentence as it stands and introduce an update here. F.L.) . We’re assuming that each child in our child’s class is given the same ‘homework’  to do in their school bag each week.

As far as the ‘Super Spelling’ session is concerned (detailed in a previous post) parents are asked to ‘practice’ spellings at home, which will be ‘tested’ in school). Once again, this appears to show that the same criteria are being applied to all children in the class across the board, regardless of age and developmental stages. 

As parents – what we are being asked to do by the school is to judge our child according to the same criteria which are also being used for much older  children. We are not willing to do this, it is educationally and developmentally misguided.

Our child is a full year younger than some other children in the class. She is also of non-compulsory school age. She is not required to complete homework as far as we can see.

There is more than enough evidence amongst early years practitioners and researchers internationally to show that pushing young children too hard too soon does not benefit them in the longer term and may put them off learning altogether.

All of these issues leave us all with practical problems to solve. Issues like these will be shared by many parents across the country.

How many parents in state schools open their child’s school bag to find ‘homework’ and a ‘reading book’ ?

 How many of these parents suspect that their child is just not ready for the work which is being set for them?

 How many of the parents who feel this way are assertive enough to do or say anything about this?

 How many (or how few?) of these parents are able to write the realities of this situation down and publicise it?

 We are both working parents. In a recession we suggest that there may be many parents out there who cannot afford to wait until their child is five to send them to school.

So given all these issues – including the educational ones – we, as parents are faced with several dilemmas.

 Do we ignore the ‘homework’ which is placed in our child’s bag each week (as we feel much of it is age inappropriate)? If we do this, what happens to our child when she is AT school?

We are not obliged to practice spellings with our child at home which will then be ‘tested’ and ‘marked’ each Monday at school. (Although the ‘testing’ and the ‘marking’ goes under a different name). Our child is of non-compulsory school age.

In writing down feedback for our school and all others interested in the future of education it has often been inferred that we are somehow overly-anxious parents who are concerned that our child will not meet the Early Years Profile ‘targets’. (And we know they are ‘targets ‘in all but name).

To set the record straight  (again) – the opposite is the case. Our child is confident and happy. She learns well partly because we have given her the space and time to learn – to learn in her own time – when she is ready. We have complete confidence in her abilities.  Our vote of ‘no confidence’ is firmly placed in the boxes marked ‘system’ and ‘government’

During the course of the past two weeks I have received some feedback from early years practioners across the country. Two separate sources. The first said:

In order to complete the 69 ELGs the child must first achieve the 39 DM targets or they can’t be awarded the ELGs (Early Learning Goals) and some authorities are putting pressure on reception teachers to achieve all 9 points (117) which include NC levels. It is actually a post code lottery what expectations and criteria are placed on teachers and children…

And the second source: “There is considerable pressure on reception teachers to raise achievement in the EYFS.  The ‘Local Authority Outcomes Duty’ sets targets for local authorities to meet. In other words they have to increase the scores on the EYFS Profile, which is completed at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, when children are aged between 4 years 10 months and 5 years 10 months  (and have to ‘narrow the gap’ between the 20% of children who perform least well and the rest) – this year difference in age is obviously very significant.  It is true that different Local Authorities are interpreting this pressure in diverse ways and are applying different rules/expectations to practitioners. These could be described as the ‘unintended consequences’ of EYFS, but I’m not sure how unintended it all is.  The reality is – it is a postcode lottery. Some local authorities (LAs) have more experienced early years advisers, who are able to resist and mediate the pressure, and other LAs do not. There is also pressure from OFSTED inspectors who have been given some guidance, I only discovered today, which says things about ‘age expected levels’! This is not actually in the EYFS… 

My own parting thoughts on this. I had occasion to go into the school reception office the other day – I glanced at the behavioural standards for children and the school which are framed and displayed on the wall. They included the phrase:

“We do not cover up the truth”.

As parents we have experienced the shortcomings of the Early Years Foundation Stage learning and development requirements system first hand. 

We are now experiencing the shortcomings of the Early Years profiling system and the difficulties this presents for children, teachers, parents and schools.

I believe the truth has already been been covered up for far too long.

Welcome Russian speakers! International discussion of Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements.

Glanced at blog referrer logs yesterday and noticed there was quite an audience of Russian speakers. I’ve heard from early years specialists there is an increasing amount of interest in criticisms of the EYFS learning and development requirements in the Russian-speaking world.  Welcome!

Opposition to Early Years Foundation Stage learning and development requirements in state schools

Alongside all the supportive comments received on this blog, in the ‘real’ world and in the internet community at large – comes the inference on Twitter that I’m nothing but a nervous (and neurotic?) mother, a secret Steiner supporter and that my “guru” is Dr. Richard House (only if you’re very, very bored should you seek out ‘Thetis Mecurio’s caustic and patronising comments on Twitter or search for EYFS on Twitter at this link). 

Were circumstances in the English education system different – I might find such responses  amusing. The word “guru” just doesn’t figure in a mindset like mine. Namely because I know how dangerous it is to regard anything or anybody uncritically. Nervous I am. Quite rightly so – given the current state of early years education.

It’s possible I’ve had a sense of humour bypass and not noticed – but there is something decidedly unfunny about attempts to mask or marginalise the  extent of opposition to, and criticisms of  – the Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements – regardless of who the perpetrators of this particular brand of misinformation are. Here’s why.

I’ve always believed that people have a right to good quality education. And that this right belongs to everybody – not just those parents who have access to a sufficient income to send their children to a private school. It’s a human right that people have fought for for hundreds of years and it’s also the reason why our child attends a mainstream state-funded school.

Steiner schools (and Steiner parents?) it seems have access to the resources/man-and-woman power to question and challenge the Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements – to secure exemptions and to craft an alternative. Good luck to them. They have vested interests. As we all do.

But where does that leave the millions of children in state-funded schools who will still have to suffer the consequences of the potentially damaging Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements? What about us

I’d like to put the following prediction on record. At the next election – with a change in government, and as a response to public pressure – the EYFS system will be reformed as a priority. I’d like to predict that at the latest in the early autumn as a first step the 69 learning and development requirements will be “downgraded” to recommendations only. Further changes will follow.

The huge (and as yet uncharted – millions?) that have been invested in setting up the Early Years Foundation Stage learning and development requirements system, it’s accompanying bureaucratic machine and the EYFS-charting-and-research-educational-gravy-train-industrial-monster it has spawned will then start to be dismantled. Public funds which must amount to millions will have been wasted. Millions which could have been spent securing real improvements in the lives of children living in poverty – wasted.

Let’s get this straight. Early years experts across the board (including many teachers) have been calling for reform of the EYFS learning and development requirements system for several years now. They are doing so because they are concerned about securing the best possible education system that we can achieve. Something that will encourage children to learn. Something that avoids setting children up to fail. Do state schooled children deserve less than the best?

On an international level, the English insistence on pushing children to read before many of them are ready is increasingly, nothing but a bad joke.

Much has been made of the notion that the EYFS system and the EYFS Learning and Development Requirements benefit financially and socially excluded families in particular. This brand of ‘spin’ is particularly offensive to those who of necessity rely on the state system.

I’ve yet to come across concrete evidence (not spin) to support the view that the EYFS learning and development requirements system is of real benefit to socially and financially excluded families. Disagree? Send in your views – I’d like to see them.

Our government does not want to back down from a policy that does not work so close to the next election (for reasons of political expediency not because the policy is right or educationally sound).

On the subject of Steiner schools – I’m enclosing a link to a recently published report on the implentation of EYFS by Steiner representatives. See report and links in this Nursery World article.  I haven’t read the report  yet – it’s over forty pages long – but my initial reaction when I heard about it was disappointment. It seems Steiner schools have produced the report in consultation with the Department of Children, Schools and Families. In the first instance I felt that working together with the DCSF like this might create the impression that the system is still workable. And I’m not sure it  is.

However as I said, I haven’t read it yet. When and if I do  and choose to write about it , critically as a journalist – I trust those who have accused me of being a secret-Steiner-supporter – will finally get their facts right. I respect the right to freedom in education – Steiner philosophies are one part of the opposition to the EYFS learning and development requirements but our own lives presently remain firmly rooted in a state education system.

“No grounds for learning to read at five” says researcher. Nursery World

See link to recent Nursery World article here.

A Parent’s Guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage. “Notes for Parents in Reception”.

Yesterday’s Guardian contained several articles which highlighted how ‘family life’ issues will be central to decisions made in the next election. Some commentators are calling this a ‘Mumsnet’ election – meaning that decisive issues will include those most relevant to parents – and women.

Early years education should be somewhere near the top of this list. Not least because women in particular are over-represented at the school-and-nursery-gate as well as in the pre-school sector workforce. 

But yesterday’s paper offered no analysis of the impact on parents, women, families and early years practioners of  the Early Years Foundation Stage and EYFS Learning and Development Requirements. Why? 

Firstly, I suggest – although the issues are straightforward – (there is a broad consensus for reform of the sixty-nine compulsory learning and development requirements – which includes the work around the petition I launched – see this link – and if you haven’t done so already, please consider signing…) – the matter is hedged about with government bureaucracy and “spin”. So much so, that I believe many parents (and journalists too) simply can’t see the wood for the trees. 

There is also a lack of information and witness from the coal face of parenting . No-one appears to be documenting how parents and children themselves are experiencing the sixty-nine compulsory Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements.

 Whilst I do NOT claim to speak for all parents (and would never presume to do so) – I believe this blog steps in to fill a void. For example: 

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people represent the view (both online, at the school, in the classroom and in person) that they know the EYFS learning and development requirements have their shortcomings (or are fundamentally flawed). People who express this view maintain the EYFS learning and development programme (including the learning and development requirements) is  still “workable” because “we don’t do things like that here”. Meaning that dedicated practitioners are able to mitigate the potentially harmful and/or damaging effects of the EYFS compulsory learning and development requirements. 

I doubt very much that this is possible. The government and local authorities sometimes give the impression each setting can interpret the framework and ‘facilitate’ learning in it’s own way. The government and local authorities maintain the framework allows for flexibility and protects the interests of the ‘unique child’ .  

In practice however, the realities of life in the classroom or nursery tell a different story. How do I know this? Let me count the ways… 

This week I  opened my child’s school bag to find a three page document entitled: 

“Notes for parents of children in Reception – Communication, Language and Literacy”. 

In the public interest (and with names removed) – I have decided to publish this document here. I believe it clearly shows that children, teachers, child care practitioners are simply not in a position to escape the EYFS learning and development requirements straitjacket, however well-intentioned teachers and practioners might be, and however hard they try. 

This document shows how a typical, committed and enthusiastic teacher might tackle the 69 EYFS learning and development requirements. It is not important that this document originates from a particular school. Since the EYFS is enforced everywhere (apart from those Steiner schools which have gained a partial exemption) – every nursery teacher will be forced to do this work, and produce a similar plan although of course they will each approach it in a different way. 

The first page of this document looks like this: (readers can enlarge any of these documents by clicking on them. The text is clear enough to be legible): 

Document photograph: Notes for Parents of Children in Reception. Communication, Language and Literacy. 13th. January, 2009

  Here’s the second page: 

 

Document Photograph. Communication, Language and Literacy: Notes for Parents of children in Reception. 13th. January, 2009

And the third.

Spellings, phonics and numeracy appear prominently in this document, taking up the first two pages. We are told “some children will be bringing home 3 or 4 words to learn each week…”

Parents are urged to ‘help their children learn the letter sounds’ using a three step method.

At this point I need to remind readers of our child’s age. Daughter is at present four years and four months old.

We are dedicated parents (with flaws, of course). Each night since she was about two without fail, we have enjoyed reading stories to our child. At least an hour every day and usually more. Other Half and Daughter do this together. They are currently giggling their way through extensive tracts of “The Hobbit”, “Pippi Longstocking”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the like. Most Saturdays we go to the public library. Babes loves her books.

She is progressing at her own pace. She is not of compulsory school age. On the very first day of school last September (as I think I mentioned before) we found  a ‘reading record book’ in her school bag. We felt it was age-inappropriate and have now stopped stressing out about filling it in.

There is a lot to say about speech and language acquisition. Speaking two languages as I do I feel our daughter is getting along really well with this, but it is way too early to start on the programme that is being suggested in the  document shown here.

The document tells us: “Some children will be bringing home 3 or  4 words to learn each week”. (Perhaps this measure will not include our child?).

But if she is not included, how is she going to feel? On page two we are told that “All of the children will be continuing to read independently each day and in their small independent reading groups on a weekly basis“.

What about those children who are nowhere near ready to “read independently”?

Page Two also tells us about “target words”. The government in their ‘spin’ has consistently avoided using the word “targets”. But on page two here is that word again, quite clearly expressed.

And then there is the “Super Spelling Time” mentioned on Page One of this document. At our parental exemption application meeting our local authority maintained that the EYFS learning and development requirements did not include the “testing” of children.

In the meeting my response to the local authority was that one could write whole Phd. dissertations about our understanding of testing. What’s important here I feel (as one blog reader commented) is that children know when they are being tested. Whether or not you present it to them as a test.

“Super Spelling Time” sounds like a well-intentioned attempt to get to grips with the sixty nine compulsory learning and development requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage.

May I suggest though, that in reality it is nothing other than a spelling TEST.

Parents are told: “Children will have a go at writing the words/letter sounds that they have been practising with you at home“.

Our position is currently that our child is not ready to “practise words/letter sounds at home”. We will not be forcing her to do so. And I know from my communications with other parents across the country that we are not the only parents with this stance.

Yesterday I showed the documents to a retired early years practioner friend of mine. Her comments included the observation that a vast number of parents would not have the time or inclination to read it.  She felt many parents would get the document, glance at it, feel overwhelmed and/or pressured – put it in a drawer and then hope the whole thing would go away…

“What is robot-talk?” my friend said “There’s no explanation here”. “What about those parents who themselves struggle with literacy, or for whom English is a second language?”.

As far as the term “phonics” is concerned – my own thoughts are of course I know some of the background to these systems myself, having taught adult literacy and gained a degree in German. But I also know there are different systems of phonics. More importantly there are criticisms of these systems too.

But it seems desirable ‘parental contributions’ in schools are now limited to fund-raising and baking cakes. We are not required to comment on how our children are being educated. The EYFS learning and development requirements are set in bureaucratic ‘educational’ stone. Until and unless government policy is changed. Here’s that petition link again.

  http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/parentsguideeyfs/

A final observation about the document I’ve shown here. It shows a tiny portion of the huge swathe of paperwork necessary to uphold the EYFS learning and development requirements system.

Readers may recall that every single one of the governors at our school refused our parental exemption request.

Although I maintain that decision was morally unsound (they could have made a stand – come out of the closet for the sake of justice – they could have  stood up to government pressure) – a part of me understands very well why some of them might have thought that granting a parental exemption was impossible. If it takes this much organisation and paperwork to uphold the sixty nine compulsory learning and development requirements – how much more paperwork would a parental exemption entail? But the thought of this just makes a further mockery of the so-called parental ‘right’ to exemption. It is no right at all. As yet no local authority or state school taken the risk  of supporting a parental exemption.  The system is a farce. The right exists on paper only.

I’m finishing this blog post now. It’s my birthday and I’m getting the ingredients ready to make a birthday cake with my daughter when she gets home.

I feel there are many more questions and issues to discuss around the documents that I’ve published today. So I’m throwing this open to you now, my readers.

 I hope this blog post is useful and/or challenging for parents and early years practitioners alike. I’d be particularly interested to find out more about what other parents, (including parents  of summer-born children) are experiencing. Do send me a message via the contact section. Please specify if you would like me to publish  anonymously.

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