Letter to West Cheshire Council re: Early Years Foundation Stage parental Exemption

Letter to West Cheshire Council,

Re: EYFS Parental Exemption 

Thank you for sending a representative to attend the meeting with our family and representatives of our child’s school last Friday. As became clear at the meeting – this was a first time for all of us – no-one present at the meeting had dealt with a parental exemption before. As we said – this was apparently a learning process for us all.

Similarly we understand (as I said in the meeting) this is inevitably a learning process for our local authority and our child’s future school too. As I said to our child in the meeting: “Everyone is learning all the time…” – (adults, children, parents, teachers and members of our local authority education department).

We have not found the process of applying for an exemption (as parents) transparent or easy to understand. Since we brought our child with us to the meeting – there was also a certain amount of multi-tasking required on our part – (school and nursery reps. said it was truly amazing that our child played quietly by herself for the duration of the meeting – which lasted nearly one and a half hours). We also have a disability in the family and for these reasons it was not possible for me to take notes at the meeting. I hope therefore you will allow me to stress several points in this letter which may not have come over clearly enough in last Friday’s meeting and allow me to add a short letter to our case. The signed letter we enclose was formulated by Open Eye and reflects our own views as tax-payers (this is the sample parental exemption letter by Open Eye which we signed and sent to the authority).

I believe we are the first and only parents in the U.K. to have applied for an exemption to the Learning and Development Goals elements of the EYFS for a state-funded school. What we have to say is significant and important for these and other reasons.

For some time now, the impression has arisen that concern and criticisms of the Learning and Development Goals elements of the EYFS is confined to the Independent and Montessori/Waldorf schools sectors. We appear to be concrete and living proof that concern about the Learning and Development Goals as a statutory requirement is much broader and spans the entire early years sector. We believe our concerns are shared on a broad level and that we are supported in our views by many other parents. 

 Due to the late arrival of the local authority representative at the meeting our local authority missed the opportunity to view Open Eye’s excellent video ‘Too Much Too Soon’ which we showed to school representatives via an internet connection during the first half an hour of the meeting before they arrived.  (The video is currently on YouTube – copyright remains with the film makers of course).

 It is important to mention the video here as it provides additional background information (already in the public domain) which we feel supports our exemption request. I am therefore enclosing the internet link where you can see it , in case you haven’t yet had the opportunity and so that both the local authority and the school has a reference point in case they need it.  The video contains evidence by prominent early years practitioners (experts such as Dr. Penelope Leach and the National Union of Teachers). See this link:

I think all parties in the meeting were clear that parents do indeed have a right to request an exemption for their child. Grappling with a difficult process no doubt – what we all neglected to mention or discuss was that this right has in fact been enshrined in the Human Rights Act on a European level. So as parents we would like to add this dimension to our arguments. We trust you already have access to the appropriate sources of information on this point.

Our original letter (which we had forwarded to the school previous to the meeting – but which the local authority representative had not read beforehand, as they said)  was carefully worded. The first paragraph of the initial exemption request letter which we sent to the school on August 13th. (in time for the meeting on the 21st.) reads:

“I have kept the following statement/application brief and succinct, but there is of course a wealth of literature to back up our principled position, which I can and will furnish you with if necessary/helpful/appropriate.”

This paragraph from our point of you and yours – serves to avoid ‘muddying the waters’. Our understanding is, parents have the right to request an exemption. We feel we state our reasons clearly.

As the government states so often: parents should take an active and constructive role in their child’s education. This is our active contribution  – I believe that Human Rights need and should be facilitated and protected by appropriate educational, democratic and decision-making structures. 

The Learning and Development Goals have been statutory instruments for a relatively short time, historically speaking. I believe that as a result of people’s engagement with these issues, and the democratic process itself –  these policies will change. The urgent questions (which affect our own child and our own family too) are: “How long is this going to take?” And “How many children will be damaged as a result of government bureaucracy and procrastination in the process?”

In addition (and with due concern for issues of privacy) – as a mother, a parent and a journalist I believe a discussion of these important issues lies quite firmly in the public interest. They affect all children, all early years settings and all educational practitioners. There is an urgent need to give voice to and support critical and forward-looking early years practitioners in this regard and so – for all these reasons and more – I have published this letter on my blog today. See: www.parentsguidetoeyfs.wordpress.com

We understand that parents have a right to request an exemption for their child, as we have done.

However – it’s become clear to us that if they do so, they are faced with sanctions. May I offer a  definition of this word? To apply ‘sanctions’ –according to my copy of the Oxford English dictionary means:

‘to enforce a law, legal obligation, etc) by attaching a penalty to transgression (as in…’imposing sanctions on a person’)

Parents who apply for an exemption to EYFS provision on whatever grounds – presently face a multitude of  psychological and financial ‘sanctions’ and penalties. We believe the threat (or practical application) of these ‘sanctions’ means that many parents are silenced. For this reason whilst parents and children’s rights exist on paper –  for all practical purposes we are witnessing how their human rights and the rights of their children are being taken away from them.

The psychologial and financial sanctions we are talking about include the following:

1. The process of requesting a parental exemption is difficult and stressful. There is no advice and no support for parents wishing to request an exemption and there is a lack of information in clear and plain English (not legalese) which might guide parents through this process. Our experiences have shown that neither local authorities or schools are adequately prepared to deal with this process. I suggested in the meeting that one step forward might be to produce a short guidance booklet in plain English.

2. At the present time – according to the guidance I have seen and according to what was said in the meeting  – parents are apparently expected to present a detailed objection to all seventy of the Learning Goals. As we stated in our letter, we are objecting on ethical, moral, religious and philosophical grounds to the existence of these learning goals as a statutory requirement as a fundamental point. Are we expected to waste more paper repeating this point seventy times? This seems to me to be an unreasonable demand. Another bureaucratic  and psychological ‘sanction’.

3. No timescales are mentioned. This means that parents can apply for an exemption for their child and have no idea when a decision will be made. As the local authority representative stated in the meeting, they could not name even an approximate date. Effectively this means that the local authority and the government might draw out the process for many months or years- increasing the stress a family has to endure – and this of course means that the final decision may no longer be relevant to a child anyway as they would be past the age of five. We do not feel this mechanism is in the spirit of the Human Rights Act. As I mentioned in the meeting – I felt that more than six weeks is an unreasonable length of time. Although I feel six weeks is far too long in the life of a child.

 4. Parents who request an exemption are also faced with the threat of financial sanctions, including the possible withdrawal of their free nursery place and/or any benefits (Working Family Tax Credit/Child Tax Credit) which they may receive. This may occur if settings or local government decide that they are unable to comply with the practical implications of an exemption request. The authority waits to see what the setting is going to do, and if they refuse to comply with the government’s ‘guidance’ – not just the parents, but the setting itself is faced with sanctions if they ‘allow’ an exemption through.

5. As if these issues weren’t enough to prevent parents from applying for an exemption at all – finally, (and most horrifically) – possibly the worst sanction facing parents and children is that if an exemption is granted they will find the practical implications of this may mean their child is in danger of being excluded from certain group activities. 

So even if parents succeed in jumping all of  these tortuous bureaucratic hurdles they (parents and children) face the ultimate behavioural ‘sanctions’ in what amounts to institutional bullying

This is plainly wrong. And if we ‘grown ups’ are to set a good example and pay more than lip service to ‘education’ and ‘learning’ – we need to turn over a new leaf, we need to learn fast – and we need to change this. 

The value of good timekeeping is continually stressed in schools. We had prepared carefully for our recent meeting – had even brought toys and healthy snacks. In contrast the local authority representative (whose wages are paid by us, the tax payers) arrived half an hour late and had not bothered to read the very short letter we sent before the meeting took place.

As far as these important issues are concerned – we need better timekeeping. We need to prioritise change. We need to do this now. Promptly enough to protect our children.

Signed: Frances Laing. Sent by post today.

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