Saturday, 30 June 2018

Noticing and celebrating children's learning

I spent an enjoyable, friendly and stimulating morning with the members of Sheffield's Early Education branch on Saturday, June 30th. As well as lovely South Yorkshire warmth and cheer, there was plenty of sun and the chance to walk back by the fountains where young children were paddling, immersing themselves and generally having a great, playful time in a grand public space.

I'm sharing the PowerPoint below. Thank you to everyone at the Sheffield branch - and please do drop me a line with any thoughts, questions, disagreements or reflections.


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Getting the right balance between assessment and curriculum in the EYFS is tricky - but who said it was going to be easy?

It's difficult to make accurate assessments of young children’s development and learning.

Why? Here are some thoughts.

First of all, young children can be very different day to day. That’s why it’s so fascinating to work in the early years.

So, even as adults we know we have good days and bad days. We can remember the exam that went wrong because everything seemed to go wrong that day. Young children live life with much more emotional intensity than adults. If they didn’t feel like breakfast, or they had a big row about which socks to wear just as it was time to go out the door, or if they have just fallen out with their best friend, that will hugely affect how they learn and play in an EYFS setting that day.

That means assessment information from one day will be very different to the information from another day’s. Do we decide that the child’s level is their highest one? Or their lowest?

Photo (c) Tales Toolkit
Secondly, the non-statutory assessment framework (Development Matters) and the Statutory Early Years Foundation Stage Profile have not been “standardised”. That means that no-one knows for sure if the 30-50 band, for example, really is typical of children aged between 30-50 months. It may be that some Early Learning Goals are set at a higher level of development than others. Many reception teachers would judge that it is much more difficult to achieve the Early Learning Goals in Literacy than in Physical Development.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Celebrating children's learning: assessment beyond levels in the early years

I have always wanted to work with a group of people who pull together to create a book.

So I am genuinely really chuffed to be involved, as co-editor and contributor, with Celebrating Children's Learning: assessment beyond levels in the early years.

The book comes out of a year-long project by the East London Partnership which is all about improving the quality of early years assessment, and reducing the focus on quantity, bureaucracy and data. You can access the whole project freely online.

Dame Alison Peacock has written a tremendous endorsement of our collective work. "Within these pages you will find rich stories of children’s development, play and learning that offer profound glimpses and insights. Practitioners in these nursery schools offer expertise in assessment that truly starts with the child and puts learning first. The rest of our education system would do well to remember this premise and to act upon it."

You can buy Celebrating Children's Learning at a special introductory price of just £13.59, with free shipping, from Routledge's website.

The final paragraphs of my chapter pretty much sum up my feelings about assessment, and teaching, in the early years:

Now is the right moment for all of us - practitioners, leaders and managers - to be much bolder. We need to resist the “datafication” of the early years, and focus instead on improving the quality and depth of our assessment practices. We need to ensure that our assessment practices support us in making our very best pedagogical efforts, rather than getting in the way and overwhelming us.

Every day, children in the early years show huge courage in their learning: they put something unfamiliar in their mouths and taste it, they wobble and fall off two-wheeled bikes, they try and try again to write their name or to build a tower that is higher than they are. Surely it is time for us to show the same courage in our practice, and to do the right thing for children?

For a sneak preview, here is the opener of my chapter Beyond Data in the Early Years.

20 years ago, I moved from my role as a primary school Early Years co-ordinator to a new position as the Deputy Headteacher of a London nursery school. It was a pioneering integrated centre with babies and toddlers on roll as well as three and four-year olds, and there were programmes of family support and close, positive links with social workers. My daughter was about a year old and the whole place just felt like it was the “right place” for children and their families. But I had also unwittingly become a participant in the large-scale Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project (Sylva et al, 2010) and soon found myself being interviewed by one of the researchers. As the questions flowed about children’s early learning, assessment, and leading the team, I could hear that much of what I was saying was quite simply nonsense. I have never forgotten that feeling: it dawned on me that I had been busy teaching young children, caring for them, leading a team of practitioners and so on, yet I had never really examined my own theories and ideas. 

That is why I now believe strongly that practitioners working in the early years need encouragement and opportunities for reflection and thinking.  Early education is not just a programme that anyone can simply be trained to deliver. If we want children to be thinkers, problem-solvers and creators, then we need to prioritise the same attributes in ourselves as practitioners: as Robin Alexander has argued, with reference to primary education, “pupils will not learn to think for themselves if their teachers are expected to do as they are told” (Alexander, 2010, p. 308). 

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Susan Isaacs: the remarkable woman educator who changed parenting

An important but relatively unknown part of Susan Isaacs’s work is the parenting advice column she wrote for The Nursery World in the late 1920s and 1930s, under the pseudonym of Ursula. But in case you think this is a sort of dusty by-way from the past, I would seriously urge you to read an important new collection of some of those columns, Wise Words: How Susan Isaacs Changed Parenting and think again – because they speak to contemporary concerns about childhood, learning, health and parenting in a remarkably vivid way.

At this stage, I must declare an interest: Wise Words is edited by my partner, Caroline Vollans. Throughout the development of the book, from first idea, to the months she spent digging around in the Isaacs archive at the UCL Institute of Education, I have been privileged to be the first to hear her excited accounts of discoveries amongst many hundreds of letters and Isaacs’s answers.

Astoundingly, Isaacs answered every single letter – published or not – and she quite clearly saw her work as Ursula Wise as being as important as anything else she did. She spent much of her final months, suffering the agonies of cancer and the dreadful side-effects of powerful radiotherapy treatment, putting together a collection of the columns which is now long out of print.

In a recent journal article, the researcher Michal Shapira argues that the Ursula Wise columns were instrumental in popularising ideas from psycho-analysis and offered a “powerful rebuttals to behaviourist, disciplinarian parenting methods helped shift the focus of caregivers to the child’s perspective, encouraging them to acknowledge children as independent subjects and future democratic citizens.”

Childhood and parenting in England were changed forever by the columns of Ursula Wise: and Wise Words offers a fascinating insight into how Isaacs persuaded, argued with and encouraged middle-class parents and nannies to think differently about the children they loved and cared for. 

To give you a flavour of the book, here are a couple of my favourite letters and the replies. There are more details about how to order Wise Words and how to claim a 20% discount here.

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’.