Saturday, 5 July 2014

NUT Education Conference: workshop presentation

Here is s the PowerPoint from my workshop at the NUT's National Education Conference; it's also available to download [PDF]

Quick quiz about early years, nursery schools and nursery teachers

I'm delighted to be offering a workshop at the NUT's Education Conference later today. Part of my presentation is quick quiz about early years with a particular focus on teachers and the early years. 


A major, independent report on the early years was launched with the suggestion that “child benefit could be linked to parents' attendance at parenting classes” and claimed more than two-thirds of children are receiving a sub-standard preschool education. 
Who? When?

Will staff with the new “Early Years Teacher Status” be qualified teachers who can teach any class in a maintained primary school? Will they be able to teach a class in an academy?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Taking a break

I'm going to take a break from the blog up to May 2014 as I am focussing my energies on Early Education's #earlyyearspledge campaign. Visit our campaign website to find out more, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, support, donate and keep up to date.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Two-year olds in schools - standing together for quality

There's currently a rather shouty discussion going on through social media and the early years specialist press about whether school is the "right place" for two-year olds, like the Pre-School Learning Alliance's tweet asking "should schools take children from the age of two? - Alliance CEO Neil Leitch says NO".

In fact, in the linked article Neil Leitch makes the entirely sensible point that that using school nurseries to offer childcare for very young children “should only be done where the environment and provision is suitable and of sufficiently high quality and appropriate to their care and development". In other words, the question is not about schools vs private nurseries, but about whether the early provision being offered to two-year olds is appropriate for their needs, or not.

It is true that the discourse of the current discussion about schools admitting two-year olds is largely about finding a cheap solution to the childcare shortage in England. I would argue that "childcare" itself can be very limited in its conception, implying a utilitarian service enabling parents to go to work. Instead, I would argue for early childhood provision that is in the interests of the child, as well as making it possible for parents to balance bringing up their children with going out to work.

Margaret McMillan
I have worked in maintained nursery schools offering places for two-year olds throughout most of the last two decades, and have been privileged to work alongside practitioners who are absolutely dedicated to proving the best possible experiences to those young children. Schools have been admitting two-year olds for a hundred years now - the very first nursery school, set up in 1914 by the McMillan sisters in Deptford admitted two-year olds.

The debate about quality for two-year olds is too important to get sucked into the long-running and pointless war of attrition between the different organisations which offer early years provision. When the sector is divided, we are easily defeated: we should be standing together for quality.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Baseline assessment in reception: five reasons why it's a bad idea

The Guardian reports today that four-year olds will face compulsory tests when they start reception. There are so many reasons why this is wrong ... but here are my top five:

1. The results will be unreliable.
Testing young children to assess their ability is notoriously difficult. For a start, whilst there will be a standard test, some children (born in August) will have just turned four, and others (born in September) will be five. 11 months of development are very significant when you are five-years old.

Secondly, even well-trialled tests like the British Ability Scales have problems with reliability and robustness. For example, the BAS tests have been found to be unreliable in respect of children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and children learning English as an additional language (Hill, 2005).

2. Testing policy is erratic.
In theory, assessments could help educationalists and policy-makers intervene to identify promising practice, and could help teachers to evaluate how well their curriculum serves the different children who come into their schools. However, this would only be possible in a stable environment. Instead, in England there has been a high amount of instability: the new Early Years Foundation Stage Profile assessment (for children at the end of Reception) was first used nationally last summer; the phonics test for five and six-year olds was also made compulsory in 2013. Furthermore, the whole framework and curriculum guidance for young children (the Early Years Foundation Stage) was itself substantially revised in 2012. So teachers have been faced with constant change since 2012, and now another fundamental change looms.

3. Testing children is not the way to give them the best start to school
Starting school is a big step for children. Many children find it stressful at first to settle in and feel confident. Testing them just sets up another hurdle, and one which is likely to cause some children considerable distress. Additionally, because the children are dealing with so many new things when they start school, the tests will not show anything like their potential.

4. The tests will cost time and money which could be spent better elsewhere
94% of children have attended nursery in England from the age of three onwards. It is compulsory for early years providers to track the development of those children using the EYFS. So why test them? Not only will the tests be stressful for the children, they will create a mountain of work for teachers and they will cost lots of money, too - if children are to be tested individually, who will do that, and who will be teaching and looking after the rest of the class?

If the problem is that there are not proper arrangements for the transition of children from nursery to reception, why not address that problem rather than bring in yet another regime of testing?

5. The wellbeing of children in England should worry everyone
UNICEF has drawn attention to the poor level of wellbeing of children in the UK, including England, in both 2007 and 2011. 

In 2011, UNICEF commented that "Compared with 20 other OECD2 countries, including substantially poorer countries such as Poland and Greece, the UK came bottom on three out of six dimensions of well-being, and came bottom overall in the league table. Other indices of children's well-being have also found the UK to be doing badly."

Does subjecting every four-year old to a test when they start school seem like the best response to that?

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Sutton Trust urges government to delay roll-out of 2-year old scheme

The BBC is reporting today that the Sutton Trust urges delay in the expansion of free places for two-year olds. It's a familiar story - the plan to offer the places is a good one. But it is being implemented with too much haste.

Here's a quick rundown of what we know. In 2009, the DFE evaluated the pilot phase [PDF] and found that overall, there had been no benefit to the children involved. However, the evaluation did find small gains (in significant areas, like language development) where children attended an early years setting of good quality. The evaluation measured quality using the ITERS and ECERS scales.

Five years later, there isn't any further evaluation of the scheme in the public domain, even though the level of spending is shooting up. You might have thought that there would be a small pilot, evaluating quality using the ECERS and ITERS measures, and following the children for a couple of years into school before any more  money was committed. But there hasn't been.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Children's Centres: the best of times, the worst of times

There is no doubt about what most of the media saw as the main message of the most recent early years report from the House of Commons Education Committee [PDF]: Children's Centres need a "clearer role".

That seems to be roughly the extent of the reporting, meaning that the committee's other important messages have largely been missed. Moreover, whilst the committee holds the Department for Education responsible for this lack of clarity, it would be easy to get the impression that the centres themselves don't know what they are doing. That, of course, undermines public confidence. Who wants to support an organisation that lacks a clear role - let alone pay for it? When you add an apparently catastrophic decline in Ofsted ratings of Children's Centres during the last month (see previous post) then you are looking at a potential crisis for an important public service.

In fact, the committee has many important (and supportive) things to say about early education, childcare and Children's Centres. But before I get onto those, I think it's worth reminding ourselves about the origins of Children's Centres and the high esteem they once earned.  The previous House of Commons Select Committee for Education considered Children's Centres to be “one of the most innovative and ambitious Government initiatives of the past two decades”. What happened?

Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell and Alastair Darling
at Woodlands Park Nursery Centre (in Haringey, London)
Children's Centres were originally part of a wider project "to make early years and childcare provision a permanent mainstream part of the welfare state", as Margaret Hodge wrote in a key 2005 memo for the Department for Education and Skills [citation].  I was lucky to be around in the early days, through my involvement in the Early Excellence Programme launched by Hodge shortly after Labour's 1997 election, and then through association with Haringey's Sure Start trailblazer a few years later.  in 1999, I was looking on when Gordon Brown astonished his aides by leaping into a Tottenham sandpit, quickly followed by Tessa Jowell. I think you can see from their expressions how much they both believed in what they were doing, and enjoyed it. No longer did serious-minded politicians have to restrict their engagement with young children to the occasional baby-kissing at election-time.