Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Should Early Years Teachers stay in their silos?

I'm sharing the PowerPoint which I used for my discussion at the Primary Umbrella Group about system leadership in the early years. The presentation is based on my Occasional Paper for TACTYC.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

‘Collaborative quality improvement’ – a way forward for England’s maintained nursery schools?

I wrote this occasional paper for TACTYC (the Association for Professional Development in Early Years) which considers ways forward for England's maintained nursery schools.

Lately there has been much discussion about possible futures for England’s maintained nursery schools (for example, Merrick, 2015; Ward, 2016; Weale, 2017; Dixon, 2017). This paper explores one possible future for nursery schools: as the leaders of quality improvement for the whole of the early years sector in England. The paper will argue that a cultural and historically-based understanding of the fragmented early years sector is needed, and that peer learning and professional development require funding at every level if the ‘collaborative quality improvement’ model (DfE, 2017: 35) is to be successful. Maintained nursery schools will also need continued protection if they are to adapt to this new role.

The decline of England’s Maintained Nursery Schools
At the time of writing, there are just 401 nursery schools left in England according to EduBase, the Department for Education’s online database. EbuBase lists 205 nursery school closures, supporting the claim made by Merrick (2015:2) that ‘a third of maintained nursery schools in England have closed since 1980’.  During roughly the same period (1980 to 2015), the population of the United Kingdom rose by 7.8 million (Office for National Statistics, 2015a). The number of three- and four-year-old children accessing early years education and care in England has also been rising steadily in recent years. In other words, it can reasonably be argued that the decline of maintained nursery schools in England is not the result of a fall in demand. Nor is it part of an overall decline in early years provision. The British Association of Early Childhood Education (Merrick, 2015: 5) argues that nursery schools are closing because of changes in national and local policy around funding: ‘as local authority budgets come under pressure, nursery schools’ funding is being eroded’.

The founding of an All Party Parliamentary Group (AAPG) on Nursery Schools and Nursery Classes in 2015 represented an intensification of the efforts of nursery schools and their supporters to lobby politicians and government. The APPG arguably achieved a significant success when the previous government stated that ‘we remain committed to consulting in regard to the future role of maintained nursery schools and how best to secure their high quality provision for the longer term’ (DfE, 2016: 8). It is, however, noteworthy that the substance of this undertaking is no more than a further round of consultation: there is no assurance of future funding. In addition, the DfE (2017: 35) has proposed a possible future role for nursery schools, as ‘early years teaching schools whose role is to actively spread good practice and support continuous improvement amongst early years providers’.

It could, therefore, be argued that nursery schools find themselves at the boundaries of conflicting policy discourses. Are nursery schools simply participants in a marketplace of competing early years providers, or should all maintained schools (including nursery schools) be funded as part of civic society by local and national government where demand exists? Should the role of supporting and improving quality in the early years be the duty of the local authority, or should maintained nursery schools be funded to develop a more diverse and localised system of quality improvement as local authority resources shrivel away?

In the next sections of this paper, I will be discussing the concept of the ‘Teaching School’ and critically analysing some of the original documents which promote the idea of the school-led ‘self-improving system’ (Hargreaves, 2010; Gilbert, 2012). Such a system raises important questions about professionalism and expertise in education (Ball, 2003; Sachs, 2003; Ball, 2017). I will also be considering Ball’s more recent critical analysis of ‘the state in crisis’ (2017: 38), and whether this is relevant to the recent trend of declining local authority involvement in supporting quality in the early years in England. Is the concept of the Teaching School and the self-improving system an example of the neo-liberal argument which Ball (2017) finds problematic, that in a more diverse and marketised system, ‘bureaucracy is displaced, innovation and creativity are ‘released’’ (Ball, 2017: 38)?

The paper concludes by considering these questions and complexities with reference to a recent evaluation of the work of a Teaching School with a range of early years practitioners (Ang and Ince, 2017). It will be suggested that collaborative quality improvement in the early years, with leadership from maintained nursery schools, is a model that has the potential to be effective. But this will not only be a new and complex way of working; it will raise significant policy questions, and might also create difficulties in terms of relationships between practitioners and settings, and across the different sectors in the early years.

Releasing creativity?
Ball (2017) argues that there is an informal network of private companies, third-sector groups and elite individual educational movers and shakers. In this paper, I will be surveying a narrower field – England’s National Teaching Schools (NCTL, 2017), which are beginning to play a more prominent role in early years quality improvement. Teaching Schools are, in effect, ‘third-sector groups’ that have been developed out of the belief that they will be more effective in training teachers and improving schools than the traditional organisations with those responsibilities.

Read the full paper on TACTYC's website

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Signing off for the summer break

Hello and welcome to my blog.

You may be wondering why it has been so quiet, with nothing posted since March?

I'm currently working on the Celebrating Children's Learning project for East London Early Years and Schools Partnership.

Members of the project team are hard at work putting together a book about our work, which will be published by Routledge towards the end of the year.

You can see some of the latest thinking which is coming out of this project from the PowerPoint accompanying my keynote to Oxfordshire's Early Years Conference.

You can also hear my recent discussion with Laura Henry online.

Meantime, I'm very pleased to say that my best-selling book Successful Early Years Ofsted Inspections has been shortlisted for a Nursery World award.

I'll be workshopping and exploring more ideas around the Celebrating Children's Learning project at #LearningFirst Canterbury in early 2018.

Want to find out more about #LearningFirst? Sign up here to join the #LearningFirst team and find out more.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Are you prone to hero/martyr syndrome? I know I am...

I was recently working with a group of educational leaders, looking at the "Hero's Journey". This seems to be a rough import from Joseph Campbell's work on mythologies into leadership theory.

We talked about arriving as newbie leaders in difficult situations.

The school is not as good as the previous headteacher and governors thought it was. We start delving into stuff and find out that one thing after another isn't fit for purpose. Pretty soon, we are feeling despair about ever getting to the bottom of all the problems, let alone fixing them.

Or we knowingly take on a school in difficult circumstances - but find that the complexity and misery involved isn't adequately described by blunt, official terms like failing or inadequate.

The "hero's journey" trope suggests that now we fall into a kind of abyss. And it's only by accepting that we are in this abyss, and getting others to accept it, that a kind of rebirth can happen.

Back in 2009, I blogged about my own version of this - a horribly difficult 100 days during my first headship.

I've been thinking some more about this, and about the belief that it's only through suffering that transformation can happen.

Sometimes, when groups of heads and other leaders in education get together, it can almost seem like there is a Dutch auction going on - who's lowest, who's having the worst experience, who's suffering the most?

We measure ourselves against benchmarks like: who's working the longest hours? Who has the worst results, the most unreasonable governing body, the trickiest parents, or the bunch of children with the most difficult behaviour?

I'm not writing this as if I have any kind of perspective on it - I'm part of this faux-martyr culture.

I would feel too guilty to tell one of my peers if I had a day when I left work early, or a weekend when I completely switched off rather than working hard to catch up.

That's despite being in a context where parents, governors, children and the community are supportive.

Things are only going to get tougher in schools in the years ahead, and I suspect that my default response to difficult times is the same as Boxer's in Animal Farm: "I must work harder".

But isn't it worth thinking up a different story? Whilst I see how we are gripped by the "hero's journey", it is putting headteachers and school leaders far too much in the centre. It personalises things too much. Medieval heroes may have brought about atonement through personal suffering, but surely that's not a good analogy for school leadership in 2017?

Heroic feats and personal suffering are not required for effective leadership.

The obvious danger is that in trying to do our best, we are paying a personal cost that's too high.

Equally dangerous is the self-aggrandisement which is involved. We puff ourselves up and make ourselves the centre of everything - and we stop being much use to the people we work with. The work gets de-centred by the person: hero/martyr complexes are ultimately narcissistic.

Let's not forget what happened to the heroic Boxer who thought that every problem could be solved by working harder. His heroic death: to be carted off to the knacker's yard and boiled down for glue.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The London Mayor's Education Conference 2017: why we should support plans to develop early years hubs in London

Here's something which is cause for optimism: Sadiq Khan has appointed a deputy mayor, Joanne McCartney, to lead on education - including early education and childcare. At the 2017 Mayor's Education Conference last week, in a gloriously sunny City Hall, Khan also clearly stated his commitment to high quality early education, and better availability of childcare.

The view from London's City Hall
I was fortunate to have a slot to talk to a group of about 120 of London's leaders in education about the "hub" project in Newham which I've been involved with, called Learning without limits.

In the Manor Park hub, which is where I am based, schools, settings from the private and voluntary sector, and childminders have been working hard, together, to improve quality and to make the whole system easier to access for parents.

We have a way to go yet, but the impact of the last few years of work has been impressive and a tribute to the joint efforts we have made and our determination to keep doing better.

In Manor Park all the early years group provision - whether in schools, or in private or independent settings - is graded Good or Outstanding by Ofsted.

Childminder quality has improved significantly and is close to the average for England.

Over 75% of children eligible for a free place at the age of two are now accessing that place.

Outcomes by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage in Manor Park are ahead of the national average, too. In summer 2016:
  • 69.3% of children nationally achieved a Good Level of Development (PDF);
  • 72% of children in Manor Park achieved a Good Level Of Development
That doesn't mean things are as good as we want them to be.

But it does mean we have made some progress towards our big goal: working with parents to give children in a disadvantaged part of East London the best possible chance to develop as happy, curious and eager learners, pupils, students and citizens in a great world city.

So, what could the GLA hope to achieve by developing a new early years hubs programme across London?

At the Mayor's Education Conference, I argued that the current Early Years system suffers from disconnection, especially if your family is not well off. Whilst it seems unarguable to me that more must be done to reduce the shocking number of children living in poverty across London, improvements in public services can also make an important difference to children's life chances.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Monday, 30 January 2017

Celebrating children's learning

The large majority of early years practitioners use the non-statutory Development Matters as a guide to planning for children's progress in the EYFS. But there has bee a longstanding problem: whereas a range of exemplification materials have been produced for the Early Learning Goals, there is nothing equivalent to support Development Matters. That means that there haven't been the materials to support training and development in this area, or to support moderation of assessments.

This is particularly important when it comes to transition. If children are going to build their learning over time as they transfer from, say, a preschool into a primary school, or from a childminder into a nursery class, then it is important that the assessment information about them is accurate and robust. Otherwise, the receiving school or setting may well simply ignore all the information that transfers with the child. That's why the East London Partnership worked with a group of nursery schools across London on the Celebrating Children's Learning project.

These observations were contributed by the group to help practitioners to assess children’s learning and exemplify the progress they make, using the Development Matters guidance. They were particularly selected to show the Characteristics of Effective Learning in action. Every aspect of the seven prime and specific areas of learning is illustrated by real observations of young children’s learning in action, using a wide range of different styles and formats.

We hope that these materials will be useful for training and development purposes, both to develop the quality of assessment, and to improve the accuracy and robustness of assessment across the early years. If early years settings, childminders and schools come together for training and for moderation, that will improve transition arrangements and will help to ensure that children can build on their learning and deepen their interests. Higher-quality assessment information will also engage parents more, and prompt more discussion: fostering early learning is a partnership between parents and practitioners.

As we worked on the project, we identified four features in the most effective practice in early years assessment:

  • you can ‘hear’ the child’s voice or ‘get a feel’ for their play
  • there is keen observation of the child’s exploration, play and thinking
  • the practitioner has noticed that the child is learning a new skill, or is making new links between aspects of knowledge
  • there are examples of Sustained Shared Thinking, or a response from the child showing their feeling of awe and wonder.