Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Thinking again about two early education pioneers - Margaret Mcmillan and Robert Owen

This post is based on the notes that went with my PowerPoint at the Parents as Partners in Early Learning (PPEL) dissemination workshop on March 25th, and pays tribute to the work of Jill Jeyes and the PPEL team in Tower Hamlets.

It is very fitting that we are paying tribute to Parents as Partners in Early Learning (PPEL Tower Hamlets) here in Early Education. Early Education was once the Nursery School Association, and the nursery schools in their early days were certainly understood as places for families and for community development, not just somewhere for children.

So often we find ourselves, so to speak, standing on the shoulders of giants, as we are here in the Margaret Mcmillan Room, next door to the Robert Owen Room. No one can deny them their great contribution to nursery education and the development of humane ways to help young children in their daily lives.

But there are also, perhaps, times to reflect that we have made progress in important ways, that we have better ways of doing things and thinking about things now than we did in the past. And I think this is the case, when we look at how we think about working with parents.

Margaret Mcmillan wrote that “the real object of our work is “Nurture” – the organic and natural education which should precede all primary teaching and without which the work of the schools is largely lost. Many children from crowded homes today receive no nurture at all … They arrive in the elementary schools at the age of five suffering from the results of rickets, bronchial catarrh and other ailments, and their brain-growth is hindered by the evil of their first years.”

This was such an important and bold statement: that there should be something unique about the education of young children. Many of us today remain inspired by that ideal of striving towards an organic and natural education, synchronous with the child’s developing mind and body. As a Children’s Centre head last year, I was working with a family where two children had rickets. Rickets in 2010: her words still feel relevant as we look at the poor health of many young children in places like Tower Hamlets and Islington.

But it is also important to see that Mcmillan was imagining nursery education as a form of rescue for children, and she hardly minces her words here, from the “evil of their first years” of family life.

Likewise Robert Owen: the great philanthropist and idealist, who built schools as well as factories, also worried about the “evil” that might be done to children: “it must be evident to those who have been in the practice of observing children with attention, that much of good or evil is taught to or acquired by a child at a very early period of its life; that much of temper or disposition is correctly or incorrectly formed before he attains his second year; and that many durable impressions are made at the termination of the first 12 or even 6 months of his existence”. Owen believed that, in essence, children were entirely formed by the impressions of those around them in their first years: ““the character of man is without a single exception, always formed for him”.  

None of us can hope to approach the greatness of Owen or Mcmillan. But we do know a little better now. Maybe even a lot better. We know that children are not entirely formed by the influences of their parents and family, important though these are; children also have their own temperament, their own emotional tune which may or may not fall easily in with those around them, may be developed and enjoyed, or drowned out, distorted or spoiled.

Yet, very much in the spirit of Owen, we find Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith writing that “human infants arrive ready to be programmed by adults.” They continue: "0-3 age range is the vital period when the right social and emotional inputs must be made to build the human foundations of a healthy, functioning society. The key agents to provide those inputs for 0-3 year-old children are parents."

Smith and Allen mean to emphasise the importance of the early years, and rightly so; yet in doing so, they present an image of the child as a sort of computer, with parents providing “inputs”, a rather joyless metaphor I would say, and an approach that forgets the child’s own unique spirit. I suspect that for Allen and Smith, rather like Owen, the importance of the early years is mostly instrumental - for the cultivation of good citizens and workers. We can attend to what they are writing about: inputs, agents, and foundations. But we should also notice what they do not write about: love and affection, for example.

Mcmillan’s desire to rescue children from the evil of their upbringing has its echo today, too, with Simon Heffer in the Telegraph recently stating that “we must face up to the chronic inability of many people to bring up their children properly”. Heffer says that we should “blame bad parents, not poverty” - as if it no longer anything to do with government, or all of us, that problems arise when 57% of children in boroughs like Tower Hamlets are living in poverty. We are seeing a sort of privatisation of disadvantage. And in this respect, who could put things better than Margaret Mcmillan with her tremendous turn of phrase: “just as people looked on at the torture two hundred years ago and less, without any great indignation, so in the 1890s people saw the misery of poor children without perturbation.” Sadly, the affectations of the 1890s are, in this respect, fashionable once more.

Poverty affects children throughout their years of schooling.  Feinstein’s research in 2003 shows how children with good levels of development aged 22 months, from poorer (low SES) families, are quickly overtaken by children with much poorer levels of development at 22 months from richer (high SES) families.

But, as Stephen Ball recently pointed out, one implication of these findings has barely been discussed. The period from birth to 22 months in a child’s life is, most would agree, the period when parental influence is at its highest. So when we look at the relative decline of those children from poorer families from the age of 22 months onwards, we are seeing that something goes wrong when others start to play an ever greater role - playgroups, drop-ins, nursery classes and primary schooling. This is not the simple “blame bad parents” story that commentators like Simon Heffer tell.

In writing all this, I do not mean to deny the existence of poor or inadequate parenting. But I do mean to argue that things are not simple. Children’s development is shaped by the interplay of their organic health and temperament, with the quality of love, care and stimulation offered by their parents and other important adults, and the socio-economic state of their family, and the quality of their early and primary education. Things seem to go best for poorer children when their parents’ involvement is at its highest level; once schools and other institutions get involved, things seem to get steadily worse.

The importance of PPEL lies in its recognition that parents should be understood as partners, not problems. If we can reach out a hand to parents in a friendly way, and understand how difficult it can be to bring children up in often poor, overcrowded circumstances, then we can achieve a great deal. We can see beyond Mcmillan’s desire to rescue children from the evil of their families, and Owen’s desire to “form” children like factory products; we know better, and we should be able to do better.