Saturday, 4 July 2015

Let me be

The first thoughts which come to mind when reflecting on the personal, social and emotional development for children up to the age of three will almost certainly be about ensuring that every child feels secure and content. As I have argued earlier, it is essential that we work hard towards getting this basic aspect of our provision right. We also need to resist cosy assumptions that we have all the necessary procedures securely in place. We need to check that we are doing our best to help children feel secure and content through regular and careful observations of children, through dialogue with parents, and by having a robust staff supervision system in place.

But, going beyond these foundations, it can be argued that early years practitioners sometimes take too narrow a view of this area of child development. I think this potential narrowness can show itself in four main areas.

Firstly, there is the tendency to wish for a very up-beat atmosphere in settings, which is intended to help the children to feel that they are in a happy environment. The constant focus on positive feedback, with high fives, praise for every little thing, and requests to “show me a smile” may be well-intentioned, but they can have unwelcome repercussions. Where babies and toddlers are regularly encouraged to give us a smile, or gently teased for being grumpy or unresponsive, they can lose touch of their own emotions. They begin to prioritise what people want them to feel over what they actually feel. In the long run, this does not help them to manage their feelings or become aware of what they find upsetting or difficult. In the same vein, it is easy to make the mistake of attracting the attention of a toddler or a baby in ways which are playful and jolly, but interrupt their concentration. For example, I recently observed a baby who was working hard to crawl, focussing all her efforts on co-ordinating her movements. Her key person across the room called out her name, causing the baby to stop, look up and smile, but also to stop what she was doing.

Read on [requires subscription to Nursery World]

First of all - underlying essentials of high-quality provision

The question of a curriculum for children up to the age of three has been controversial for a long time. Back in the 1960s, the seminal Plowden Report concluded that “the day nursery is the proper place for those children who have to be away from their homes before the age of three. An institution with a more directly educational aim is right for children of three and over.”  But the same argument flared up from the opposite direction just over a year ago, when Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, sharply criticised “those who dislike the words ‘education’ and ‘teaching’ when it comes to very small children.”

To get away from this conflict, it has often been argued that it makes more sense to think of care and teaching as inseparable in the early years: children will always be learning whilst they are being cared for, and vice versa. For example, in the original CurriculumGuidance for the Foundation Stage it was stated that the curriculum should be thought of as “everything children do, see, hear or feel in their setting, both planned and unplanned”.

But I think that taking this point of view neglects the fact that there is a real controversy about the respective importance of having basic care and routines in place, and having an effective curriculum. As the New Zealand researcher Carmen Dalli has noted [PDF], to see the baby and toddler as a learner requires a fundamental shift in thinking on the part of early years practitioners. If we think of every interaction as being teaching, or every experience being the curriculum, then it can be difficult to reflect on that, or to focus on the absolutely fundamental care routines and approaches which must be securely in place for every child.

Read on [requires subscription to Nursery World]

Friday, 3 July 2015

Early Years Pupil Premium: Optimus Conference, 23rd June 2015

Thanks to everyone who engaged in the lively debate at the conference about tracking progress and the question of focusing on quality assessment, not high-volumes data. I enjoyed the session and learnt a lot through those exchanges.

You can download my PowerPoint, or flick through the small version below - all without the lovely pictures of Sheringham's children (sorry).

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Early Years Leadership matters

The last few months have been both the most demanding, and the most rewarding in my career as I've worked with colleagues to make a success of our new Teaching School. We are striving hard to put together programmes which will make a real difference to the quality of provision in Newham and across East London - rather than just organising hundreds of courses.

One of the first results of all this work, is a strong focus on early years leadership. Please share this post with anyone who is teaching in nursery or reception is (or close to) East London and who may be interested. The flyer with more detailed information is here [PDF].

We have lots more to come, and will be widening our focus to include other EYFS providers in due course.

If there’s one message that came across clearly when we were sharing ideas about East London Early Years and Schools Partnership, it’s this: we need to do more to support and develop leaders in the early years.

We heard from primary school EYFS co-ordinators who felt in urgent need to develop their leadership confidence and skills, to make sure that they could continue to develop appropriate and effective early years practice in their schools.

So, I am very pleased to announce that we are now taking applications for the National Professional Qualifications for Middle Leadership (NPQML) and Senior Leadership (NPQSL). In addition, we are planning to develop an additional Early Years Cluster for East London, both face to face and online. This will provide colleagues with the EYFS support and challenge that we all need in today’s uncertain and difficult educational climate. It will also help to ensure that candidates feel there is expert EYFS understanding running through their leadership development.
East London Early Years and Schools Partnership is offering these two qualifications in collaboration with UCL Institute of Education, rated as the world’s top university for education.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Forest school - challenges to children's spaces for play

I'm incredibly proud to have supported the development of a Forest School as a headteacher. I always enjoy watching the group of children getting ready for their trip to the "forest", which is actually an area of Little Ilford Park in Newham.  You can get a bit of the flavour of what we do from the clip below (ignore the voice-over) - it comes from a short promotional film about Teacher Training in Newham.


To get the project going, we had huge support from Newham's Park Rangers, who were very keen to see young children enjoying the outdoors regularly. One of the big barriers to people - children, parents and staff - feeling confident in the park was sharing the space with dogs off their leads.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

On the doorstep of number 10: a little-noticed commitment to nursery education

David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, 8th May 2015
Throughout an election campaign which already feels a lifetime away, the main parties all pledged their support for more "childcare". As Professor Tony Bertram, President of Early Education, argued at the time, there were many "promises to increase the number of hours of childcare for working families, and much less discussion about the quality of early education, especially for the most disadvantaged children."

So it's interesting to note that what Cameron actually said outside 10 Downing Street after he visited Buckingham Palace following the Conservatives' election victory: "we must ensure that we bring our country together. As I said in the small hours of this morning, we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means ... [amongst a long list of measures] that for children who don't get the best start in life, there must be the nursery education and good schooling that can transform their life chances."

Childcare is sometimes, and I think wrongly, understood as a service for families with working parents. That neglects the honourable tradition of care being organised as a public good. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The EasyPeasy app

I was interested to come across the new EasyPeasy app the other day and, ever since, I have been mulling over my conflicting feelings. The app exists to encourage parents to interact with children aged from two to five, using games on their phone or tablet. Parents are supported in a number of ways, including short videos which model how they might help and play with their children.

My initial feelings were pretty negative. There are already quite a lot of concerns about the amount of screen-time young children experience, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to limit this exposure [PDF].  So, perhaps it is questionable for an app to be produced which encourages parents to allow their children to spend time on their phones and tablets? Especially as the assumption of the app developers is that parents will be encouraged to use EasyPeasy by Children's Centre outreach staff and other early years practitioners.

Moreover, some of the claims made by the app developers are a little dubious. They claim, for example, that "only half of children achieve the minimum acceptable levels of development by the time they start at school". This is a pretty strange interpretation of the data from the Department for Education which show that 60% of children achieved a good level of development by the end of the EYFS, as measured by the EYFS Profile, in 2014 [PDF]. 

If you look closely at what is required to achieve this "good level of development", it is quickly apparent that this goes well beyond "minimum acceptable levels of development". For example, in reading: "children read and understand simple sentences. They use phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately. They also read some common irregular words. They demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read." You can see more examples of what is expected here.

I am fairly dubious that an app can help children from two to five build their character, as claimed.

Finally, I am interested that both Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, designers of the most desirable bits of this desirable tech, were apparently not at all keen to let their own young children have much screen time.

But perhaps it is better to look at this the other way round? Children - very young children - are already spending considerable amounts of time playing on phones and tablets. Interaction with screens cannot help children to develop their play or their key early communication skills; but interaction with screens mediated by an adult can. As the National Literacy Trust noted in an important review paper way back in 2005, whilst increased use of computers and watching of television could damage children's development, it could also be argued that: "if well managed by adults, television is not bad for children. A research review on television and language in the early years, conducted by Robin Close on behalf of the National Literacy Trust, found that for children aged two to five, good-quality educational television can have a positive impact on attention and comprehension, receptive vocabulary, some expressive language, letter-sound knowledge, and knowledge of narrative and storytelling (Close, 2004). Other studies have shown that children’s interest in television can lead to imaginative play based on favourite characters, and can motivate them to read programme-related books (Marsh, 2005)."

Those conclusions about the potential benefits of educational television might also hold true of educational apps which have been carefully designed and tested.
In conclusion - it is probably too early to know either way, until better research is carried out. It would be better if EasyPeasy toned down some of their claims - and it would probably also be better if people like me controlled our automatic hostility to young children using phones and tablets.