Monday, 15 July 2019

Emphasising curriculum in the early years - a step too far?

I was delighted to have a chance to join headteachers from infant, primary and secondary schools in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham on Friday 12th July 2019 to talk about the curriculum in the early years. I've shared my presentation below.








Sunday, 2 December 2018

Who's missing out on early years provision - and why it matters

Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, argues today that schools can't solve all the social problems we face.

It's a good argument, and it's worth making it as strongly as she does.

Amanda Spielman
For the most part, the best thing that schools can do to help children - including disadvantaged children - is be great schools.

When our mission creeps to far, the results are often rather disappointing. For example, I think Ofsted have shown pretty clearly that the schools with the best pastoral and curriculum support around healthy living seem to have no discernible impact on reducing obesity.

Similarly, research from the UCL Institute of Education is suggesting that one of the most powerful ways to support young children's social and emotional development is to concentrate on the core role of helping them to become better communicators, with a richer vocabulary. Focusing on the core job we have to educate children may have more impact than "mission creep" into other areas.

Causing more harm than good?
In my experience, specialist mental health interventions are needed for children in crisis. But some schools run nurturing and mentoring programmes which are staffed by well-meaning but poorly-qualified staff who don't have the supervision or support they need.

Whether these interventions cause more harm than good is a point worth considering.

Is it always a good idea to encourage children to talk about troubling and distressing things to a member of staff who hasn't been adequately trained? What is like for a child to return to the corridor, playground or classroom afterwards? Schools are not containing, therapeutic environments. Their therapeutic value rests, surely, in their capacity to help children achieve the pleasures of growth and development, and to socialise with other children, in an orderly environment with sensible and clear boundaries.

The early years are important - and different
This discussion about whether teachers should be involved in activities like toilet training does not apply in full to the early years. For example, in the nursery school where I'm headteacher we have many two-year olds on roll and of course many of them are not yet toilet trained. It's a task we share with parents.

It's also perfectly ordinary for a child just turned 3 and in a school nursery class to need help with toileting. The child may not yet have developed enough to have complete continence. Or they might be fine at home, but find things much harder in a large group setting, where the distance to the toilets is greater.

Finally, let's not forget that there was once a national programme to support parents in the early years: the Sure Start Children's Centre programme. The destruction of this programme in recent years ought to be a national disgrace.

Children who are being excluded from early years provision
This leads me onto a development which I find very concerning.

Some schools and settings are excluding children who most need nursery provision. The result of their actions is that the children miss out on their nursery education. When they arrive to start compulsory education in reception, they have needs which it's very difficult for a reception teacher to meet - as Amanda Spielman is arguing.

How does this happen?

Some schools put parents off, without actually saying their children aren't welcome.

For example, a parent recently told me of her visit to an early years open day at a local school. The executive headteacher spoke to all the parents and said that the school has "high standards". There is an expectation that children will achieve highly from day one in the early years and they are unashamed about "pushing" the children. All reception children are "expected" to enrol in an after-school club, so one day a week their school day will end at 5pm. Finally, the executive headteacher advised any parent who had misgivings to conclude that "this school might not be the right one for you."

I don't know how widespread these practices are.

The outcome of the open day was that the parents who knew their children would not be able to conform to those expectations went elsewhere. Many of those children will be younger, or less developed. Or they may have parents who have found setting behavioural boundaries or implementing routines difficult.

They are children who need nursery.

In our comprehensive system of primary education, their families should be able to access it.

In the case of the parent who spoke to me, her reason for turning away was simpler: she didn't want that type of early education for her son.

Pierre Bourdieu
But she noticed that more of the middle class and avowedly aspirational parents were prepared to go along with the executive headteacher. It's an informal, but powerful, version of selection. As Pierre Bourdieu noted, schools are always most successful with those whom they do not have to teach how to learn. Therefore, some schools are disposed to finding ways of keeping out children who they don't think are "ready to learn".

Here's another way it happens.

A nursery class in a primary school has a settling in policy which says what children must be able to do, before they can stay for all their sessions.

They must be able to stay awake and energetic throughout the nursery session. They must behave appropriately and non-aggressively for the majority of the time. They must attempt to manage their own personal hygiene needs.

On this basis, pretty much all of the most vulnerable children in the nursery schools I know would be prevented from accessing their full place.

No children from families with poor bedtime routines.

No children who need the extra help we can give them, in collaboration with their parents, to manage socialising with others.

No children needing extra help with toilet training.

They'd all be at home for the nursery year.

Then they would arrive in reception, and their needs would not have been addressed. They would have a horrible and distressing time.

Off-rolling
Ofsted have been expressing their considerable concerns about "off-rolling", where schools find ways of getting children off their rolls before they can have a negative effect on exam results.

Shouldn't we be just as concerned about this "pre-off-rolling"? Are we excluding children before they have even started their education?


Saturday, 17 November 2018

What have we lost and what have we gained in early childhood education and care?

It was an honour to be asked by Helen Penn to speak at the launch of her wonderfully titled memoir, Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible. It was an afternoon that prompted many thoughts and reflections, which I've set down below. Many of these thoughts arise from the debate and discussion, so I'm not claiming them as mine alone.

We've had quite a journey in the early years over the last few decades: from fierce campaigns for childcare, to winning European-levels of funding under New Labour, to the feelings of disillusion and despair which are widespread now.

The Early Learning Goals controversy in 1999

I didn't know Helen at all when, many years ago, I was interviewed by BBC news about the original "Early Learning Goals" proposal in 1999. A group of us in the newly-minted Early Excellence Centres felt that just publishing a list of goals might not best-serve the interests of education and care in the early years.

There was a bit of a row.

So, I remember saying my thing. Then the interviewer turned to Helen Penn in the studio to ask her opinion. My heart raced. Helen simply said: "Well, I think they're right" before developing a lucid argument about early learning, taking an international perspective.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

It's not just a funding crisis that's affecting children's services: it's a crisis of policy, too.

There is a serious lack of money for children's services. As a member of a local authority Schools Forum, I regularly see how it has become impossible to manage the available budget well. There are just too many urgent and essential calls on the funds, some of them impossible to anticipate.

There is a crisis in funding. But there's a crisis of policy going on, too. The result is that we are creating a brutal environment for children, families, and all of us work in the field. We're also constantly depressed by a sense of a system close to collapse. Take spending on children with high levels of special educational need and disability as an example.

Councils on the verge of bankruptcy

Parents (rightly) expect their children's needs to be met by local services. There are more children with disabilities and special needs in schools, partly as a result of much better survival rates of premature and unwell babies. As a result, the number of parents making formal appeals, because they judge that their children's needs are not being adequately met, is growing fast. Increasing numbers of parents win these cases. More financial pressure is put on local authorities. This means that, as the Guardian recently reported, some councils are now on the verge of bankruptcy.


Despite the significant increases in spending, parents feel let down and, in some cases, that the whole system simply builds wall after wall to shut them out.

The schools funding crisis

In schools, there also a funding crisis. Newspapers report that parents are being asked to fundraise for basic supplies like pens, pencils and toilet paper. Several thousand school headteachers even marched on Downing Street, their anger cloaked by their impeccable manners. 




Monday, 29 October 2018

Manor Park Talks - effective ways to help children's early language development

It's always exciting and rewarding being a nursery school headteacher (well, pretty much always). But here's a project I am particularly excited about.

Manor Park Talks

With funding from the Education Endowment Foundation, Sheringham Nursery School is working on a collaborative project with a group of private nurseries and primary schools in our local area. The project's aim is to help children with their early communication. We are approaching this in four main ways:

  1. We are working with the UCL Institute of Education to summarise which specific practices are evidenced to support children with their speaking and listening in the early years
  2. We are offering free professional development to all participants, drawing on this evidence base
  3. As the project develops, we expect to customise those broader messages about "what works" into "what works for the children in our early years setting?"
  4. We are supporting participants with a free monthly group coaching session, focussed on implementation. 
Joint practice development

This is all part of a process which we call "joint practice development". We are not disseminating best practice from Sheringham Nursery School. Instead, we are learning alongside our local early years practitioners.

Free download: effective ways to help children's early language development

One of the first products from this work is an A2 poster which summarises the first round of research and reflection we've undertaken.

We're making this poster freely available. You can use it however you want, as long as you don't charge anyone for it.


Wider feedback

We're really interested in getting wider feedback about this, so please comment below if you've found the poster helpful, or if you have any suggestions to develop or change it. 






Friday, 19 October 2018

Inequality - we aren't doing nearly enough in the early years

There isn't enough action around inequality in early childhood. Here are a few recent and worrying examples.

Good Level of Development

Firstly, let's look at how things are going for children at the end of their Reception Year in English primary schools. In recent years, there has been a strong trend towards more children achieving the measure called "A Good Level of Development".

I'm not going to discuss the ins and outs of this measure, or the accuracy and robustness of the EYFSP now - this post just focuses on the government's statistical report.




So that's a pretty strong upwards trend. The Department for Education states formally that the EYFSP is not intended to "hold schools to account". But, as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman has recently argued, measures such as this have increasingly dominated education - and Ofsted inspections. As she recently said, “for a long time, our inspections have looked hardest at outcomes, placing too much weight on test and exam results when we consider the overall effectiveness of schools ... [Concentrating on results] has increased the pressure on school leaders, teachers and indirectly on pupils to deliver perfect data above all else."

It seems like schools have put  a lot of effort into making sure that the children with the strongest early learning achieve the "Good Level of Development".

Outcomes for more vulnerable children

But rather less effort has been put into improving outcomes for more vulnerable children - the group called the "lowest 20%" in the official statistical analysis.

Outcomes have risen far more modestly for them.

There was a period when the gap between that group, and the rest of children, narrowed slightly. But now it is widening - albeit by only a small amount.