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. From fierce campaigns for childcare, to winning European-levels of funding under New Labour, to feeling disillusion and despair: it's been quite a journey.

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.

NAHT Early Years Conference 2018

The NAHT Early Years Conference was another change to think aloud about the curriculum in the early years and some of the false conflicts that seem to arise when we talk about it -
  • Curriculum Design vs Planning in the Moment
  • Involvement vs Learning
  • What you learn vs How you Learn it

The importance of maintained nursery schools

It was also another chance to talk about how precious Maintained Nursery Schools are, especially for their work towards improving the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Child poverty

I also argue here that we can’t put our sole emphasis on the curriculum as a way of helping disadvantaged children. We need to address the root causes, like child poverty.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

What might a knowledge-rich curriculum mean for the early years?

I'm preoccupied at the moment by what seems to be a fork in the road in education.

There are important developments in thinking and practice going on which relate to children of compulsory school-age, especially around the idea of a “knowledge-rich curriculum”.

But Early Years pedagogy is nowhere to be heard in these discussions.

Pressure or irrelevance

That means one of two things.

There will be pressure simply to impose educational practices developed for older children, onto younger children.

Or the Early Years will increasingly retreat from the mainstream of educational thinking as practitioners and academics fight rear-guard actions to protect current notions of good practice.

Neither of those roads will take us to a good place.

So I’m going to outline, briefly, what my emerging thoughts are. I want to stress that word emerging. I feel like there is a lot of thinking and practice development that people need to get together to do, review and refine. I feel a bit like Inspector Morse when he told Lewis, “I don’t have theories. Only questions.”

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.