Sunday, 9 December 2007

Early childhood education and care: some of this week's news

Open Eye and the Early Years Foundation Stage

Anyway this week has become pretty interesting because of the letter to the Times Educational Supplement about the Early Years Foundation Stage and the decision to set up a group called Open Eye to monitor it.

I've written a fair bit before criticising the EYFS - on the grounds of its content and organisation, the time it will use up in nursery settings of all varieties, and the amount of money it has cost to devise (and that's before you count up the costs of printing and distributing the thing).

But I think that now the EYFS has been legislated for, and is out there, the best way to serve the interests of young children is to work on the practice in implementing the EYFS. Like all changes, the EYFS could do a lot of harm, but equally it has the potential to free lots of things up - it makes it easier to think holistically about children's learning and their care, and it specifically supports play-based approaches to learning.

Whilst I am not in favour of the goals for reading and writing, these are not actually any worse than what was in place before in the previous Foundation Stage. There is a difference between being opposed to formal literacy teaching too soon (count me in) and objecting to it only when the method changes from one you like (i.e the "searchlights" model in the previous Literacy Strategy starting in Reception) to one you don't (synthetic phonics, as outlined in the Rose Review and in the new Literacy Strategy).

When a group of people get together like this after the curriculum has been finished, to protest against it - doesn't it make you wonder what is going on? Where were they 12 months ago when it was up for consultation?

So, at the risk of sounding rather conservative about this, I will stick to my current position - playing whatever part I can to shape intelligent implementation of the EYFS. The debate about whether we should have it, or not, belongs to the past.

Nursery places for two year olds

The Guardian led on Saturday with plans to announce the extension of the pilot to provide free places for 2 year olds living in poor neighbourhoods.

There is a lot to be said about this plan, in its favour. I know from my own professional experience that allowing families to access nursery education and childcare for their children from 2 years old can be hugely beneficial. Why reserve it only for those who can pay? As a children's centre head, I've found that not only do the children really benefit, but it also becomes possible to develop good relationships with the parents and get them involved in other Children's Centre services - which again can easily get taken up by those more affluent mothers and fathers who are better at scanning the menu of services on offer and picking out what they want a la carte. My view is that we want everyone to use Children's Centres - I don't have any time for people who want to exclude the middle classes. I support policies which help to balance things out and make sure that a range of families use their local centre.

But...I really hope that someone at the Department for Children Schools and Families is thinking carefully about this before there is a charge into another huge nationwide scheme without thinking first.

My reservation?

There is a lot of childcare out there which is not very good. Government money should only go towards paying for children's places in nurseries and centres which can demonstrate that they can benefit the child. The more disadvantaged the child, the better the place has to be.

Conversely, putting little children into poor nurseries won't just fail to benefit them. It will harm them. It will put them back. All sorts of research, from the Tavistock Centre's report by Alastair Bain and Lynne Barnett in 1980, through to the EPPE Project since 1997, shows that poor nursery care makes children more aggressive, and less open to learning.

The plan for places for two year olds should be a small part of much bigger plans, I think, to improve the quality of nurseries and centres in England. It could also be a step towards the eventual achievement of something close to the Swedish and Danish model of seeing early education and childcare as part of the welfare state, accessible to all, rather than a commodity which can be bought by the affluent and a sticking plaster over the wounds of the poor.