Archive for May, 2010

Half term – politics, academies, PTA, eyfs parliamentary petition, coalition government and a child’s first year at school

As the coalition government sets about it’s business – coalition agreements on education and schools are analysed in the mainstream press but official statements on the future of the Early Years Foundation Stage compulsory Learning and Development Requirements remain noticeably absent.

The e-parliamentary petition system was de-activated by the U.K. administration around six weeks ago (due to the election, they said). But the election is over and the system hasn’t been restored. This has meant all the people who’ve approached me during that time wanting to sign the e-petition on the right of this page have simply been unable to register their protest. Democracy in action?

Yet another reason why people should meet together in person with academics to discuss the best strategies to adopt for early years education. The Open Eye conference I shall be attending in London next month seems to be gaining in importance all the time.

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Parents and children are in the thick of all this, as usual – mopping up a political mess. Many schools face an uncertain future due to budget cuts. Will the proposed plan to create more academies draw money away from state schools? Meanwhile there is a noticeable absence of discussion about education itself and the naked emperor of the compulsory Early Years Foundation Stage learning and development requirements.

Namely this: in any other field of research or government – you would expect government policies to be based on the best available international research consensus. Here we have an international research consensus telling us there are no advantages to pushing young children to read and write at a very early age (as the EYFS compulsory learning and development requirements are doing). And this consensus is being ignored by our government.

On the ground here, there are some rays of sunshine. For the first time ever – we have a Parent Teacher Association. The first meetings were well attended – full of enthusiastic, discerning (and critical) parents. I can’t say much about this here obviously, but it’s a positive development and I feel I can say we’re working on joining the National Parent Teacher Association. This site must be useful for any parents to look at, there’s so much useful information on it, including a nifty “Ten Pointers to Success” for your PTA – so I’m including the link here.

On the internet there’s been some discussion about the ways in which academies might benefit children under five. Some are under the impression that if parents create their own schools they can avoid the pressures of the compulsory Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. As the law stands all settings are required to meet the demands of this compulsory system – unless they undergo the tedious, labour-intensive and as things stand – tortuous process of applying for a settings exemption. So we need to change the law. Easier said than done, isn’t it? I’ll let readers know as soon as the petition is up and running again…


Coalition government, Michael Gove and the Early Years Foundation Stage

There are advantages to being an older parent. You watch political developments with a certain, patient stoicism. Without panic. You’ve seen  (most of it in different guises) before, after all.

In our household we’ve lived through a whole lot of political history. I was in Germany for ten years and lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall. Proportional representation became second nature. As did the realisation that coalition governments make  agreements on policy  – agreements which they often choose to break. My other half was a young man in Britain when Thatcher was around. So no false hopes  about the Lib-Dem coalition there either.

As far as this blog is concerned – we want to know about the future of Early Years education. We’ve looked at the Lib Dem Manifesto and what the Lib Dems were saying about the Early Years Foundation Stage. They were talking about a ‘slimmed down’ version of the Early Years Foundation Stage – as far as proposals for reform are concerned, this could mean anything and nothing – let’s face it.

So let’s look at what Michael Gove had to say about Early Years Education in the Guardian on Tuesday. Michael answered a reader’s question:

Q. In the light of the Rose and Cambridge reviews of primary education, what do you see as the priorities for the early years?

Wendy Scott, Keswick, Cumbria

 Here is Michael’s answer: “It’s critical that children spend time before they arrive in school in a warm, attractive and inclusive environment, where they can learn through play, master social skills and prepare for formal schooling.

The central priority for the first years of primary schooling must be learning to read. Unless children have learned to read, they can’t read to learn. Which is why we will improve teacher training to provide authoritative instruction in the implementation of systematic synthetic phonics. The most detailed academic studies – in Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire – show that in these two relatively disadvantaged Scottish local authorities, systematic synthetic phonics teaching effectively eliminated illiteracy. So we will do everything we can to support teachers in getting reading right so that children can then go on to enjoy a broad, balanced and wide-ranging curriculum.

Readerare you thinking what I am thinking on this one? Michael wrote: “Unless children have learned to read, they can’t read to learn”.

Where is the awareness of current international research standards (as mentioned in the previous post)? I’d like to see those “detailed academic studies – from Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire”. How do these relate to Dr. Sebastian Suggate’s research, I wonder…

Is this the study Michael Gove is referring to?

And what about the hundreds of childminders who have left the profession due to the overly bureaucratic nature of the compulsory EYFS learning and development requirements?

The Early Years Foundation Stage, Sats testing and the Sats boycott

Mobile phones, walkie-talkies and a witch. Drawing by Laing Jr. Aged four years and eight months.

Why should those who oppose SATS testing consider signing the EYFS parliamentary petition I initiated? I’ve been asked to put together some background on this, so  here are some FAQs and hopefully useful links: (regular blog readers – I risk repeating myself here, I know). 

Q. Why sign? 

A. The wording of the petition has been carefully formulated. It represents a consensus of many early years practitioners who have accompanied and guided this blog from the early days.  This blog is now read by academics in the field on an international level – and I hope they would be quick to point out any factual inaccuracies or misconceptions in my writing and/or in the formulation of the petition. The ethics of blogging demands that I leave in place anything that I write here, save for minor changes and typo amendments – but updates and comments can be added should new information emerge. 

 Being the editor of a blog is particularly challenging – you don’t have a sub-editor on hand to correct your mistakes – in that sense it’s more difficult than working on a national newspaper. It does have one big advantage though. Skilled bloggers can write (and act) fast. We can dismantle what Nick Davies calls Flat Earth News. We can even sidestep vested interests and mainstream news agendas. We can break new ground and write material the dailies wouldn’t dare to print. 

So I’m getting this blog post out as soon as I can – incomplete as no doubt it is – the coalition government has just been formed at Westminster. We have a huge window of opportunity to influence future policy and the lives of our little ones for the better. 

The petition demand is this: 

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to change the sixty-nine compulsory Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements (targets applied to children from birth to five in nurseries, schools and other early years settings) to recommendations and guidelines only.” 

Perhaps the most important word in this sentence is the word compulsory. The learning and development requirements are statutory – unless settings gain an exemption ( a complicated and difficult process) – all settings be they nurseries, childminders or Sure Start centres – are obliged to conform to this legislation.  To my knowledge, no parents at all have succeeded in gaining what is called a “parental exemption” in a state-funded or private school. We believe we are the only parents in the U.K. to have applied and been refused a parental exemption in a state-funded school (the process was the impetus to start this blog and if you look back at the postings you will see I have documented this process in detail). 

Not particularly radical. We (a grassroots movement of parents, practitioners and academics originating in the internet community) hoped it was something that most people could agree with. We’re not asking for the learning and development requirements to be abolished, we’re not even asking for them to be reformed (although many of us hope that they will be) . The petition simply asks for them to become ‘guidance only’. Many of us felt that this simple, immediate first step would go a long way to protecting small children from such extensive performance pressure – and perhaps pave the way to more constructive change. 

Q. What is the connection between SATS testing and the Early Years Foundation Stage learning and development requirements? 

A. This is startlingly simple – and at the same time, very complicated

I’m going to talk in plain English first – and then throw in a few fairly high-brow academic references. I trained as a teacher in Adult Education (P.G.C.E) and became interested in Early Years Ed when I had my first child nearly five years ago. 

I had been trained in what they call “reflective practice”. In short this means you become aware of what you know – and what you don’t know – and then add to this knowledge using the best available information and research. You are constantly reflecting, learning and updating what you do. 

This was also my approach to being a parent, and still is. I wanted the best information and the best research for my practice and to help me do the toughest job on the planet. Being a parent

At the beginning, and rather naively – I suppose – I trusted the then (Labour) government that it would do the same thing in our education system. That it would follow best, reflective practice in early years education. 

To my horror, I realised the then government was ignoring an important international research consensus which is now ‘fronted’ by Dr. Sebastian Suggate and others (if that is, consensus can be ‘fronted’ by anyone…). Dr. Suggate will be speaking at a conference in London in June – if you’re an early years practitioner and/or a parent or other interested party – there’s still time to get there and hear him. I’ll be there too. You can read a short description of Dr. Suggate’s research at this link scroll down to find: Early Reading Instruction: does it really improve reading in the long term?

In my own words now: what Dr. Suggate is saying (and judging by the comments which come from his office – he seems to keep a close eye on this blog, so I’m hoping he’ll set me straight soon enough if I’m in danger of misrepresenting him – what he is saying (again in my own words) is: 

  • Children do not benefit from being forced* to learn to read or write as early as four (or five).

Not only do they not benefit from being forced* to learn to read or write as early as four (or five) but there is a now real danger (backed up by other research sources) that their enthusiasm and appetite for learning, literacy and books may be harmed if they are confronted with “too much – too soon”. Their confidence is in danger of disappearing if they are pushed too hard, too early.

 So, if you’re a children’s writer, for example – you may have spent your whole life encouraging children to read books. You may be campaigning hard to encourage older children to read – and secure more resources for them to do so. But – what you are trying to do is simply being undermined by what is happening to children in schools and nurseries in the Early Years. It really is as starkly simple as that. And once again the Emperor has no clothes. Joined up thinking is needed. 

Dr. Suggate’s research backs up what many parents and carers already instinctively knew

Tabloid newspapers have propped up the mistaken conception for too long that there is something wrong with children who can’t read and write by the age of five. Many parents have been brainwashed and betrayed by Blair (and later Brown’s) notion of ‘education, education, education’ and many parents have had their confidence undermined for too long. 

 One reason why this blog is called: “A Parent’s Guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage”. It’s an attempt to strengthen and communicate with parents, in particular those parents who really care about education, learning and yes – BOOKS. 

That’s what prompted me to emblazon my tricycle with Michael Rosen’s comment yesterday. He said: 

“…We have neglected cognition to a point that we have politicians talking about schools as if we all know how children learn. Do we? Do they? Central to learning is the LEARNER. The learner is the one who makes the meanings, so the question is what environment can we create in which they can best make meaning? It’s through discovery, investigation and invention. What we see are diktats, instructions from Central Government directed at practitioners. That’s counter-productive.” 

This comment applies to SATS, but it could equally be applied the Early Years Learning and Development Requirements too. The compulsory EYFS learning and development requirements are SATS FOR THE UNDER FIVES. They are Dikats too, from central government – directed at practitioners – and – as many critics have said so often – they are counter-productive. 

*My use of the word ‘forced’ will no doubt be hotly contested. I might substitute the word ‘co-erced’. The point is, the system and the requirements are compulsory. Children cannot opt out. Practitioners cannot opt out. Schools cannot opt out. Each child, whether they meet the EYFS ‘targets’ or not – will be psychologically affected by the  fact that they exist. There are some excellent quotes from Dr. Richard House which accompany previous blog posts on this point.  

Here are the links to the statutory information about the learning and development requirements and the goals. This is followed by the Open Eye analysis of them in a video by Fergus Andersen. 



Coalition government, Sats and the Early Years Foundation Stage

I broke the news that we had a new Prime Minister (called David Cameron) to my daughter over breakfast today. She was disappointed.

She wanted her acting headmaster to be Prime Minister because she “liked him”.  

“There’s an argument for that”, I said, simply. (He laughs a lot and is very good at listening to small children).

I emailed No. 10  with congratulations today (and a request that the e-petition system be restored now that a new government has been formed).

Wanting to signal our opposition to the Sats tests and our solidarity with teachers who are boycotting the tests I found a quote by Michael Rosen and tied it to the back of my Pashley tricycle so that everyone would see it on their way to school:

Michael has joined Authors against Sats. The quote reads: 

“…We have neglected cognition to a point that we have politicians talking about schools as if we all know how children learn. Do we? Do they? Central to learning is the LEARNER. The learner is the one who makes the meanings, so the question is what environment can we create in which they can best make meaning? It’s through discovery, investigation and invention. What we see are diktats, instructions from Central Government directed at practitioners. That’s counter-productive.”

I believe Michael hasn’t voiced an opinion about the compulsory Early Years Learning and Development Requirements yet, I’ve emailed him too to ask if he’ll sign the e-petition when it is up and running again.

In the meantime I’ve received an important and interesting comment from Dr. Sebastian Suggate’s office about reading aloud. (He’s the one who has conducted important new research which shows that children do not benefit from being forced to learn to read early – (my words not his) – read the comment from Dr. Sebastian Suggate here

Find out more about Authors Against Sats here – and read Michael Rosen‘s Mumsnet web chat on Sats in full here.

Are Early Years Foundation Stage Profile scores being used to predict Sats results in YOUR CHILD’S school?

Time for Change. Picture by Frances Laing

Measuring things can be very useful, can’t it? Especially for small children. A tape measure is fun to use. Clocks tell us when it’s time for tea…(or in this case – hot chocolate in M and S). 

But (and it’s a big but) – targets can also distort the way we perceive our fellow human beings. I’ve come across considerable evidence to suggest that Early Years Foundation Stage Profile scores are currently being used to predict Sats results in some schools across the country.  

Why should I care about that?, you’re asking, when I’ve  got enough on my plate as a parent already in this fast-paced culture of ours? Here’s why:

Imagine you’ve logged on to one of those online bank accounts where you can input your pay, and all your direct debit amounts and then when you press a button you can predict how much (or how little) money you’ll have left at the end of the month after you’ve paid your bills. Using one set of profile  scores to predict another is a bit like doing this. Except your child is not a bank account – they’re a human being.

Think about your child’s education. Your little one is in the reception year at school. They may be only four or five years old. School report day is tabled in to the calendar for the end of term. You’ve read up a little bit on Early Years Foundation Stage Profiling and you’re expecting to hear something about this on the last parent’s evening of the year at school. 

If you’ve been following this blog so far, you’ll have your criticisms of the compulsory Early Years Foundation Stage Learning and Development Requirements which culminate in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile to be completed in the year in which your child turns five.   

Now imagine the senior leadership team at your child’s school. It is consistently striving to improve standards (in fact, Ofsted polices it’s efforts in this direction on a regular basis). Your SLT team looks at profile scores very carefully – monitoring them to see whether they’re going up by satisfactory degrees during the course of an academic year. 

 Your school team is conscientious. In fact they’re so conscientious they decide to employ what they believe to be the most accurate statistical methods available to find out more about what is going to happen to their school (their staff and their funding) in future years. 

So they use the Early Years Profile Scores of a particular group of children to predict what the groups Sats results will be at the end of their children’s time at Primary School. 

A reasonable way of going about things you might be thinking. But there are several problems with this approach aren’t there? Firstly, I believe schools are not supposed to do this and secondly – in using Early Years Foundation Stage Profile scores to predict Sats results – your child’s first school years are reduced to a statistical probability – using a system that is flawed in the first place. Are you with me so far?

Surely, if Early Years Foundation Stage Profile Scores are being used  to predict Sats results, a range of fairly disastrous developments in your child’s educational career are likely, aren’t they?

 Let’s take two different scenarios…(leaving aside the issue of whether or not your child’s abilities and talents are being accurately measured, which if you ask me, given the nature of the EYFS learning and development requirements and the profiling is simply not the case) –  in the first scenario – imagine your child’s Early Years Foundation Stage Profile Scores are low compared with the other children in their class. If these scores are used to predict later achievement – aren’t the staff who read the results inevitably going to impose low expectations on your child?

Conversely, if your child’s Early Years Foundation Stage Profiles are high compared with other children in the class, then higher Sats scores may be predicted. Doesn’t this create unnecessary performance pressure from the start?

 Two days until the General Election. Shortly after that the next round of Sats tests will be talking place. Major teaching unions have launched a boycott against the Sats tests and they’re backed by many parents.

Sats reform must be linked to reform of the Early Years Foundation Stage.

P.S. This old-fashioned clock looks good doesn’t it? Like some attempts to measure children inappropriately in schools though, it broke down very soon after ‘purchase’ and we needed to exchange it…