Time to say NO!
We recently saw the launch of the ‘reformed’ Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Nobody in the early years sector asked the government to reform our framework. As we hold our hands up in horror, it might be useful to reflect on what has happened in early years policy during the last ten years of austerity. As Polly Toynbee (2020) reminds us
When Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings rampaged into the department in 2010 they tore down the “Every Child Matters” signs, abolished the register that noted all children at risk and changed the department’s name from Labour’s child-friendly “Children, Schools and Families” to a stark “Department for Education”. With their Gradgrind teaching formula they ignored nurseries, letting Sure Start children’s centres go, abolishing extended schools with breakfast clubs, after-school homework and play programmes.
That was at the beginning of the coalition government when there were still some checks and balances through co-production with the sector. Between 2010 and 2012 the Tickell review improved the EYFS, we managed to prevent the reception year becoming part of key stage 1 and the current version of Development Matters (DM) was published. We thought those times were hard, but these times are immeasurably worse. We currently have a right-wing government with an unassailable majority. Its policies are firmly based on neo-liberal competitive, market-driven ideology (Monbiot 2016, Metcalfe 2017) and it has no desire to listen to anyone except the ‘wealth creators, capitalists and financiers’ (Mirror 2020).
So, in that context, is it any surprise that DfE brazenly claimed a mandate to reform the EYFS based on the 2017 Department for Education (DfE) Primary Assessment Consultation? Nobody responding to that consultation, which included questions on the EYFS Profile and Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA), asked for changes to all the Early Learning Goals(ELGs) or a re-write of all the educational programmes for children from birth to five; but the government went ahead anyway. That is an outrage. It is eight years since the Tickell review and, if a full review had been suggested to the sector, and managed democratically, we might now be reading an improved EYFS statutory framework. But that would have required respect for, and a willingness to listen to, the sector. Instead we are characterised as a problem in need of reform.
That reforming zeal comes directly from an ideology that is heavily influenced by the knowledge based curriculum ideas of E.D. Hirsch. The speeches of Nick Gibb who has been a schools minister since 2010 (and is now in charge of early years as well) are informative reading in this area. One of the problems with that ideology is that its advocates appear to feel justified in ignoring the many years of research, as well as more recent neuroscience evidence, which demonstrates the importance of play and creative exploration in child development and learning (including the acquisition of knowledge). When they turn their attention to early years we are subjected to the more and earlier ‘school readiness’ and ‘catch up’ to Year 1 agenda as seen recently in the Teaching Schools Council’s (2016) ‘Effective Primary Teaching Practice’ and Ofsted’s (2017) ‘Bold Beginnings’ and the new Education Inspection Framework (2019).
We are therefore confronted with a limited and limiting document that fulfils DfE’s objective of making Early Learning Goals align with Year 1, rather than one which builds the framework up from development pathways from birth informed by the EYFS principles and relevant research (Fisher 2020). The new educational programmes cover birth to five and have never been trialled in settings. The new ELGs were trialled in just 24 school reception classes. DfE has been selective in using feedback from an evaluation of that trial (Education Endowment Fund 2019). The evaluation found no evidence that children’s needs were better met or identified earlier, or that children were assessed more accurately. Given the DfE’s explicit aims to improve outcomes for all children and to reduce workload that looks like a failure on both counts. Introducing a new framework is bound to increase workload.
And it could have been so different! The early years sector has tried incredibly hard to work with DfE. A cross sector coalition of early years organisations has offered expertise, support and advice freely to government over the last two years. Concerned that the proposed ‘reforms’ were not going to be based on a comprehensive evidence base similar to the Tickell Review, the coalition commissioned a review of the research literature to inform the process. It also carried out a survey of practitioners to which over 3000 people responded. Both reports were shared with the sector and with government. Practitioners were clear that the EYFS did not need extensive reform. The literature review emphasised the importance of the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning and the Prime Areas. It confirmed the interrelated nature of the seven areas of learning and found no evidence that literacy and numeracy should be prioritised over other areas. It recommended an increased emphasis on the Characteristics and Communication and Language to support children at risk of delay. Sadly, there is little evidence that any of this was taken into account.
We are still awaiting the arrival of the new non-statutory guidance which is, worryingly, being developed in great secrecy. For comparison, the current guidance (Development Matters) was commissioned by the government in consultation with an advisory group of highly expert professionals, who also commented on the outline, content and layout of the document. In addition, the government insisted that a wide-ranging group of experts was actively involved in the writing process. Over the course of seven drafts, this reference group commented in detail on the content. As well as civil servants from the DfE the group included representatives from both maintained and PVI early years sector, primary education, subject organisations, awarding bodies, further education and universities, health, SEND, local authorities and Ofsted. As a final stage in developing the guidance material, the document was piloted with a full range of settings, including childminders, private day nurseries, voluntary preschools, maintained nursery classes, nursery schools, special needs nursery, primary schools and children’s centres. Comments and suggestions from these were taken into account before finalising the document. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the new guidance will be the best it could be, as DfE appears to have followed the age-old dictator’s way of thinking that there are only certain people who have the best ideas and who can be trusted to fulfil the regime’s intentions.
So, what do we do about this situation?
The least we can do is to ignore all calls to implement the ‘reforms’ immediately. They are not mandatory until September 2021. Pressure from More Than A Score and others has seen the government back down on imposing RBA in September but they are still asking settings to be ‘early adopters’ of the new EYFS framework and non-statutory guidance when it arrives (See references for advice from Early Education on resisting this). We should remember that ‘anticipatory obedience’ freely gives more power to those who are trying to grab it and gives nothing to the compliant but extra work and collusion stress (Snyder 2017).
More long-term action has to be based on the fact that we are living through a global pandemic which has changed the world. 152 organisations, including many representing our sector, recently called for government to ‘put children at the heart’ of recovery (NCB 2020). It is tragic that we have to make this sort of call, but government pronouncements tell us that children, especially those characterised as disadvantaged, need to ‘catch up’. There seems to be no government recognition that all children are different and have had a range of experiences during lockdown, but all (including those who have been attending settings) need to be compassionately and gently supported through transitions so that they, and their families, can feel positive and be actively engaged in resuming out of home learning. Nor is there any understanding that children learn outside schools and early years settings and may have learned and created much, even if not engaging in online lessons.
Rebecca Brooks (2020) sums up this situation
‘Some will return to education having made surprising progress, not only in learning of all kinds, but also in terms of their mental health and wellbeing, which are foundational to learning success. Others may have maintained their learning to a degree, but be carrying an emotional burden which will guarantee that they buckle under the pressure of ‘catch up’ programmes. Still others will arrive on shaky ground in all areas, having endured a period of their lives where survival was the only attainable goal.’
We live in the sixth richest country in the world and yet we went into the health crisis in ‘a state of disastrous social fragility’ (Harris 2020.) Thanks to ten years of austerity many young children were already vulnerable to poor health, insecure attachment, developmental delay, educational under-achievement and trauma. Many of these problems are caused or exacerbated by poverty which has increased steadily and unmercifully.
Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, responding to an Institute of Fiscal Studies report on differences in time spent on home learning in different income groups said ‘The disadvantage gap was huge before lockdown… Without doubt, education plays a key role in navigating a route out of poverty, but a lack of education does not in itself cause poverty. Other social factors do that, and to date they have consistently worked against schools’ efforts. We need to rethink how we tackle inequality in this country…It would be disappointing if the same old arguments and assumptions about disadvantage were allowed to persist once lockdown has ended.’
Alas, the same old arguments and assumptions are present not just in the government’s ‘catch up’ curriculum priorities post-Covid, but also in the ‘reformed’ EYFS. They deny children their right to learn in a way that supports their natural creativity and perpetuate a deficit model which sees children (particularly poor children, those from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, those with special educational needs and disabilities and summer born children) as somehow lacking or deficient. It is way past time to stop accepting these messages and start asking the fundamental question of every new initiative ‘Does this promote a pedagogy of equality and inclusion?’
As John Harris wrote recently ‘We cannot go on like this, with deep inequalities of race and class constantly exploding before our eyes, the need for food banks extending into the distance and voices at the top willing us back towards the very social and political dead end that ensured the virus has had such a disastrous impact. In the great surge of spontaneous collective action that has greeted Covid-19, there are the seeds of something better.’
We can grow those seeds in early years and take collective action. All young children have the right to quality early education and care based on sound principles. The principles on which the Early Years Foundation Stage and other UK and international early years frameworks are based are not new. They are the result of much practice, research and theory going back centuries.
Many famous educators and learning theorists such as Froebel, Dewey, the MacMillans, Susan Isaacs, Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky talked about the need for children to be active learners, playing, exploring and finding out for themselves as well as interacting with adults. Their theories have become mainstream and are widely taught on early years training courses. They, and others such as Freud and Bowlby, recognised the fundamental influence of our early relationships and experiences on our life long social and academic well-being and achievement.
In this history we have a rich cultural resource which deserves to be cited and called on when we are up against those who think that making young children engage in formal learning earlier and earlier will somehow make them better learners rather than disenfranchise them from the world of ideas and creativity. More recently many practitioners and settings in the UK have been influenced by the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia. Over the years Reggio has come to stand for a radical creative approach based on an image of the child as a strong independent learner and it influenced the Unique Child principle of the EYFS. One of the reasons for the approach’s success is the commitment of parents and the local community to the ‘Hundred Languages of Children’ and a recognition of a lesson from the rise of Fascism in Italy during the 1930s that conformist, unquestioningly obedient people were dangerous and that society needs people who question and think for themselves.
In order to create a more just society post pandemic we need to question and re-think our commitments to equality and inclusion. We must listen to the voices of BAME people and others who have been consistently marginalised, discriminated against and ‘othered’. We must acknowledge the influence of climate change and the importance of education for sustainability. All our education frameworks need to change, including the EYFS, but this ‘reform’ is not the change that is wanted or needed. Now, more than ever our society needs people who have developed lifelong learning skills. These are most effectively learnt in early childhood. This requires radical educators – adults who are not afraid to defend early childhood from those who would trespass upon it and steal time for children’s well-being, play, active learning and creativity and critical thinking before they are confident strong learners who have the power to learn anything and the confidence to ‘know what to do when they don’t know what to do’.
Things have not changed much since ‘John Dewey was convinced that education had failed because it was guilty of a stupendous category mistake. It confused the refined, finished end products of enquiry with the raw, crude initial subject matter of inquiry and tried to get students to learn the solutions rather than to investigate the problems and engage in inquiry for themselves’ (Lipman 2003:20).
Let us not get sucked into spurious debates by the advocates of that ongoing category mistake. We could waste our energies debating the rights and wrongs of knowledge versus play based curricula or cognitive load theory versus experiential learning and disappearing down countless other diversionary dead ends. Those debates do not shift government thinking but they do have the potential to de-stabilise resistance. The short answer to all of them is that any well-qualified practitioner uses aspects of many theories in effective pedagogy and one can see them all in action in good early years practice.
What we should be prioritising is uniting in and with the coalition of early years organisations who commissioned the Getting it Right review and the practitioner survey. One of the great strengths of our sector is its diversity and numbers. Our coalition meant that when it came to the DfE press release on the EYFS reforms they could not quote the support of a single early years representative organisation. Let’s build on that. And let’s extend the coalition to include more voices.
We will need to be careful and respectful of each other as we build. Our diversity is a potential weakness as well as a strength. However, there are four main areas that unite us all – children’s rights and social justice, funding for setting survival, funding for improving the declining levels of qualification and professional development and saving and improving the Early Years Foundation Stage as a valuable stage in its own right.
So let’s strongly urge no early adoption, park these EYFS reforms where they belong and devote our energies to coming up with alternatives, widening our support base across society and getting popular opinion behind us. We have seen how this government (which, after its incompetent and uncompassionate handling of the pandemic, is now more vulnerable than usual) has bowed to popular pressure over free school meals and baseline assessment. Recently the Observer published a manifesto for children which finished with these words
..hundreds of billions of pounds have been spent while the economy has been locked down; vaccine and treatment development have been accelerated at a pace that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Do our children not deserve the same levels of energy, creativity, focus and investment? It is time for our political leaders to put this right.
And we have to be ready and united to tell them how to do just that. Together we are strong!
DfE (2020) Statutory Framework for the EYFS, EYFS reforms early adopter version https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/896810/EYFS_Early_Adopter_Framework.pdf
DfE (2020) EYFS Reforms, Government Consultation Response https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/896872/EYFS_reforms_consultation_-_government_response.pdf
National Children’s Bureau (2020) A summary of the consultation responses https://www.ncb.org.uk/sites/default/files/uploads/EYFS%20reforms%20consultation%20response%20-%20summary.pdf?utm_source=Foundation+Years&utm_campaign=98d978feed-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_03_21_05_01_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_8f9a6de061-98d978feed-321565573&mc_cid=98d978feed&mc_eid=be18d485e7
Early Education (2020) Advice on early adoption
Education Endowment Foundation (2019) EYFS Profile Reforms Pilot reporthttps://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/early-years-foundation-stage-profile-pilot/
Barnsey, V. et al (2019) Mapping the Landscape: practitioners’ views on the EYFS https://www.early-education.org.uk/press-release/%E2%80%9C-eyfs-doesn%E2%80%99t-need-be-changed%E2%80%9D-early-years-practitioners-express-support-current
Pascal, C., Bertram, T. & Rouse, L. (2019) Getting it Right in the EYFS https://www.early-education.org.uk/sites/default/files/Getting%20it%20right%20in%20the%20EYFS%20Literature%20Review.pdf
Hundred Languages of Children https://www.reggiokids.com/the-reggio-approach/the-hundred-languages-of-childrensee also https://www.sightlines-initiative.com/
Tickell C. (2011) The Early Years: Foundations for Life, Health and Learning. An Independent Report on the Early Years Foundation Stage to Her Majesty’s Government, London: DfE. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/180919/DFE-00177-2011.pdf
Andrew, A. et al (2020) Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning Institute for Fiscal Studies Briefing Note BN288 https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/BN288-Learning-during-the-lockdown-1.pdf
Brooks, R. (2020) The myth of ‘catching up’ after Covid-19
Harris, J. (2020) We can’t hide behind the bunting – let’s face up to what’s happened to Britain, The Guardian, 11.05.20 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/11/bunting-britain-covid-19-crisis-nationalist
Lipman, M. (2003) Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Observer (20.06.20) The Observer view on a manifesto for change as a generation of Britain’s children faces crisis, download at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/20/the-observer-view-on-a-manifesto-for-change-as-a-generation-of-britains-children-faces-crisis
National Children’s Bureau (2020) Put children at the heart of the recovery
Toynbee, P. (2020) If Boris Johnson is really interested in ‘levelling up’, he should start with nurseries, Guardian 03.07.20 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/03/if-boris-johnson-is-really-interested-in-levelling-up-he-should-start-with-nurseries
Pressure on the Early Years to be more like Key Stage 1
Fisher, J. (2020) (2nd edition) Moving on to Key Stage One: Improving Transition into Primary School, OU Press, (forthcoming Sept.2020)
Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, NY, Perfection Learning Corporation
Ofsted (2017) Bold Beginnings https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reception-curriculum-in-good-and-outstanding-primary-schools-bold-beginnings
Ofsted (2019) The Education Inspection Framework https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/education-inspection-framework
TACTYC (2017) detailed evidence based response to Bold Beginnings
Teaching Schools Council (2016) Effective Primary Teaching Practice (no longer available online)
Mirror (2020) Boris Johnson says Britain should clap for bankers and won’t promise pay rise for nurses https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/boris-johnson-says-britain-should-22276672
Metcalf, S. (2017) Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world
Monbiot, G (2016) The Zombie Doctrine https://www.monbiot.com/2016/04/15/the-zombie-doctrine/
Snyder, T. (2017) On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, London: The Bodley Head
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