Are the Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements child (and parent) abuse?

The Miserable Snowman. Picture by Frances Laing. Model by Laing Jnr. Home made Bright Orange Play Pastry (with help from) Granny.

I spent half an hour on the phone this week being interviewed by a fellow journalist from a national newspaper.    

We talked about parental exemptions to the Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements.  Once again I was asked if we were the only parents in the U.K. to apply for and be refused an exemption to the Early Years Learning and Development requirements (in a state-funded school). I believe we are and I said so.    

No doubt some people would conclude that because no-one else has applied – that no-one else wants to – or indeed even that no other parents share our views about this system. I think that’s the reason why I keep getting asked that question. 

It’s a false assumption, I believe and I’m only just coming close to all the reasons why some parents might feel unable to apply in the first place, or indeed unable to even speak about how  they feel – and indeed how the opposition to this system is growing all the time as like-minded individuals continue to find each other and come together.   

After the newspaper interview, after hanging up the phone – I realised I must have sounded quite dispassionate about it all. I suppose I wanted to be clear about what I was saying, stick to the facts, avoid being stereotyped as an “over-sensitive” mother and all that stuff, you know. 

I was aware that the journalist I was talking to was young, and not a mother yet. Not that you have to be a mother to understand young children and their situation – but you do need a certain kind of empathy, I believe.  And becoming a mother (as a famous photographer said recently – I can’t remember her name) can give you a different and important perspective on humanity itself.  

In addition to facts, feelings also constitute a truth. And for small children they are a very basic truth. Love, good food, play, support and the sheer power of the imagination being amongst the things they seem to need most.    

Back in December – Sue Palmer talked to the Morning Star newspaper and described the pressure put on young children with the EYFS learning and development requirements as “state-sponsored child abuse”.  (scroll down to see the piece the Star site works like that)   

Sue used to work in support of the National Literacy Strategies and now acknowledges the NLS was going in the wrong direction and that the compulsory learning and development requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage and the ways in which the government are putting pressure on children are detrimental to their well-being. I write this with a sense of admiration – although I’ve never even met Sue – to be part of something like that and then to admit that you were going in the wrong direction – and to come out in public and say so – takes some guts.  An image of my namesake (St. Francis) springs to mind at this point – a merchant seaman a militarist and a capitalist – who experienced the “Turning” and became the patron saint of ecology.    

At the time I read the Morning Star piece – I still felt Sue’s words were extreme (with all my criticisms of the Early Years Foundation Stage, the Learning and Development Requirements and the Profiling). Not now.    

In fact I’ve recently heard what is going on – being described as ‘parent abuse’. In the sense that parents are being encouraged and put under pressure to make children do and learn things – that are not only developmentally inappropriate for their children  – but where it not proven that they will be of any benefit in the long run. And where it is NOT proven that they will not cause harm.  “parent abuse” because parents should never be put in this position in the first place.  

The Precautionary Principle springs to mind. Caring thinking parents are surely on safe ground if we ‘don’t do anything that might conceivably be harmful to our children’. That’s a tough one too as we all make mistakes, get tired, irritable, overwhelmed…But even the harmful effects of ‘tired, irritable and overwhelmed’ surely do not equal the harmful effects of an insistence on a consistent, ubiquitous government policy which is not backed up by sound, educational research – something which in essence is based on a lie.  

And if elements of this untruthful and damaging system which has been imposed on us – really do constitute ‘parent abuse’ – then as with other types of abuse – of course it will take each one of us a long time to even figure out what is happening – and an even longer time before we feel able to act on what we know and have learned – before we reach that safer, happier and healthier place of change. “The echoes come slowly”  as T.S. Elliott wrote. Too slowly for us it seems, but they do come.  

My day-to-day observations about this tell me some parents (and some teachers) are quite simply in denial. Margaret Morrisey, of the organisation “Parents Outloud” has commented on this blog to the effect that parents are being “brainwashed”.  

In denial, perhaps for reasons I can understand. And others, don’t feel able to speak about it, for fear they might lose their jobs, for fear they might be bullied, ostracised, succumb to the parental peer pressure of the performance culture we are all exposed to – for fear their children might be the ones who don’t get invited to their classmates birthday parties…?  

But the number of testimonies emerging from distressed parents, teachers and early years practitioners is increasing. Consider this one, which has been anonymised:  

“One student from a nursery on the campus of ************* University said she had spent the previous month giving one-to-one ‘coaching’ to a just turned five-year old boy who had done ‘poorly’ in his profile assessment. The Local Authority had visited the setting and requested that he receive extra tuition. She said he had a ‘miserable month’ and she felt so guilty. She mentioned another young mother who was a student at the university and was visiting her every week in an absolute state because her four-year old son wasn’t making progress with his reading and writing”.  

Parents.  You know enough about taking responsibilities into your own hands. In the absence of effective action it is up to us to set our politicians, our headmistresses and masters, teachers and early years practitioners straight here and in doing so, contribute to changing this culture. Some of them really need to wake up to this quickly:  if a four or five year old can’t read or write yet – it really DOES NOT MATTER. They will catch up. They just need to be given a chance – without the constant pressure.  

And with a general election looming – it’s the perfect time to set our candidates straight with a vote for reform.  

But more than that. We need to question the whole notion of the “under-performing school”. The term is frequently used as a short-hand in the absence of any analysis of why a school is said to be “under-performing” (see Jessica Shepherd’s recent piece in the Guardian “What does the election hold for education policy”. ) and indeed in the absence of an analysis of the values and scales of measurement of the organisations and government departments  who are seeking to maintain they are “underperforming”.  

Historically we know governments have always sought to exercise control over education systems and many have gone to extreme lengths to issue propaganda to achieve these goals. I studied German history as a first degree – which included the study of Fascism and Education.  I speak fluent German, lived in Germany for ten years – experienced the fall of the Berlin wall and the aftermath. From these two very different perspectives – I lived and learned exactly what it means for a government and a political system to gain control over children in schools – why educational propaganda exists in the first place. As far as the Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements and the Profiling is concerned – it is highly significant to me that unless they choose to home educate – parents and children cannot escape from this system. 

Why not home-educate?, I was asked recently. That’s fine if that’s your choice and something you are in a position to do. But why should parents be forced into that situation when quality state education is not just an obligation but a human right? It’s something we pay for with our taxes, isn’t it? 

And so we fight for hope. For the truth. The picture, may I suggest, goes like this:  

The human and educational connections between the early years in childhood and young people’s later educational, vocational and academic achievements are not yet being drawn and emphasised strongly enough. On a basic level – we are using a system of measurement for our youngest children (the Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements and the Profiling) which has been criticised and discredited by international research. It is widely acknowledged that pushing children like this too early in life is likely to put them off education altogether. And it often does.  

It sounds incredibly simple  – but it seems this simple idea needs saying:  

One of the reasons why children don’t appear to be fulfilling their potential as people, and as individuals who learn well, with enthusiasm and throughout their lives – is not because they can’t read and write at five, or four, or that they are not being trained hard enough – it’s because they are being pushed too hard.    

This notion applies just as much to Sats as it does to the Early Years Learning and Development Requirements and the Profiling.  

And one of the reasons why so many give up on education or don’t do well later – is what happens to them in the early years.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Frances I wish you all the best with the battle you are fighting. I had no idea about all this until I read your amazing blog. It is so sad to read and I feel so desparately for the lives of the children, and parents, affected by this regime. In New Zealand we are fortunate that school doesn’t start till 5 and isn’t compulsory till 6. In the early years the non compulsory kindergartens are all about learning through play. Wishing you all the very best, Sarah


    • Posted by Frances Laing on May 6, 2010 at 8:49 pm

      Dear Sarah,
      Haven’t yet thanked you for this comment. Really appreciate the time you’ve taken. Of course there are international issues here and personally hope that international communities may find the a little space to help us out here with advice and feedback and amongst academic networks, with support for change.
      Thinking of you and once again thank you


  2. I think most parents don’t question things because they think that the government must be right in what they are proposing. They just send their kids to school and don’t realise they have choices – whether that be the type of school, home education, or the EYFS/SATS.


  3. Well done, Francis for fighting this fight.

    This situation just seems beyond ridiculous. My eldest daughter is 15 now so she went through the Early Years without all this going on, and my younger 3 are home educated so luckily I have not had to go through what you are going through. If I were though, I would be taking great inspiration from you and this blog and it would be useful as I, too, would apply for the exemption.

    I don’t feel I know enough about all this to comment in depth, but know that here in Leics you have a corner of support.



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