Thursday, 16 May 2013

Truss's ambitions are admirable, but her understanding is lamentable

The row over ratios took a surprising turn last week, with Nick Clegg's decision to make public his view that he "remains to be persuaded that this is the right thing to do for very young children ". The public bickering that followed, including the leaking of Clegg's original comments which supported the proposal, and Michael Gove's suggestion that Clegg was "showing a bit of leg" to strengthen his position as leader of the Liberal Democrats, has hardly been edifying. Is Clegg using the needs of young children as a proxy in a party-political battle? No matter, so long as this misguided policy proposal is stopped.

Gove: Clegg "showing a bit of leg"
over adult:child ratios
I've already blogged about the research evidence about ratios, and concluded that there is no robust, peer-reviewed research published anywhere in the world to support of the proposal that you can maintain quality whilst you cut ratios. The government's own adviser, Cathy Nutbrown, summarised the evidence very neatly in her final report - there is strong evidence in support of improving the level of qualifications, and also improving the content and delivery of those qualifications. 


"Quality falls as ratios rise"

But, as Nutbrown states in her response to the government document More Great Childcare, the proposal on ratios will simply mean "too few adults with too many little children." Or, as the Association for the Professional Development of Early Years Educators (TACTYC) put it, "quality falls as ratios rise" [PDF]. 


However, whilst the argument on ratios has merited a great deal of attention, other aspects of Truss's proposals are still largely below the radar.  I've been meaning for a while to write about Liz Truss's speech at the Nursery World conference which I chaired on April 19th. I think it's fair to say that the response in the hall was pretty hostile. There was a lot of anger after she left. Lots of people felt that she wasn't listening to the sector, was ill-informed, and was being deliberately provocative. And, indeed, it wasn't long after that her comments that toddlers in English nurseries were running around without any sense of purpose were picked up by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Early years practitioners felt that we were being subjected to a nasty roughing-up by what  Stephen Ball calls the discourse of derision. 

Yet this was also a serious speech, citing a lot of research, and taking a socially progressive line that more help should be directed towards disadvantaged children. So, in that spirit, I have been looking closely at what she said. How well do her claims and arguments stand up?

A shortfall of 55,000 places

Truss began with a thank-you to the audience for the collective work to create new places for two-year olds, saying that "there are promising signs that we are on track to deliver 130,000 places this September." However, research undertaken by Dr Jill Rutter from the Family and Childcare Trust suggests a very different picture, concluding that there is currently a shortfall of 55,000 places. Those conclusions are backed by the Pre-School Learning Alliance and the Local Government Association.

Truss then underscored the importance of early education by quoting research from the Sutton Trust which states that there is a "19 month vocabulary gap at age 5 between children from the poorest and most affluent families." This is an interesting claim which has, indeed, been made by the Sutton Trust [PDF]. But it's not quite as simple as that. The research by Washbrook et al [PDF] uses some sophisticated mathematical modelling in order to come up with the "19 month figure" - there is no actual finding of a 19-month gap, but the research method they use is a perfectly sound basis for the claim. However, it is significant to note that a large proportion of the poorest children are in families where English is not their first language - proportionately many more than those in the richer families who are "19 months ahead". We know that children learning English as an additional language will do worse on a test where they are shown a picture card and asked to name what they see in English. As Vivian Hill notes in her 2005 review of standarised testing of children's vocabulary:
"The Pakistani/Bangladeshi group had consistently lower scores on all verbal scales when compared with Black or White peers. Elliott et al. (1997) note that, whilst observational data from their test performance on the verbal scales are useful in informing understanding of their current level of com- petence in language based skills, caution should be exercised in the use of these scales and that: 'Inferences must not be drawn from the verbal scales about such children’s cognitive or learning potential' (BAS II, Technical Manual, p. 266)."
I would argue that it is important to help children to become bilingual in their early years, and this can, indeed, be taken as an argument for offering nursery to children at two. But the implication that the children are somehow "19 months behind" in their development is unhelpful. One only has to look at the school data from Tower Hamlets, for example, where the large majority of children speak English as an additional language. Early Years (EYFSP) data shows children lagging well behind the rest of the country, but by the GCSE stage (aged 16) they are ahead of the national average in England.

She followed this with a claim that the "gap in maths attainment between our country’s teenagers and those in Hong Kong and Singapore is already evident by the age of 5." This seems to have come from research carried out by John Jerrim from the Institute of Education [PDF]. Jerrim makes a powerful case for early education, but nowhere in his work - or anyone else's work that I can find - is evidence cited about this gap at the age of 5. Careful research is being needlessly simplified to make a crude point.

A setting graded as good or outstanding by Ofsted would not necessarily provide good quality for babies and toddlers 

Truss went onto to make the argument that, for nurseries to benefit children aged 2, they must be "good" quality - using Ofsted's measurements. As with the claim about the vocabulary gap, it is actually a bit more complicated than that. Truss has been arguing that Ofsted should have the only role in measuring quality in the early years, that support and quality improvement should be taken away from local authorities. However, the research about the impact of nursery places at two (Smith et al, 2009 [PDF]) uses the internationally trialled ITERS and ECERS scales to judge whether quality is good, not Ofsted grading. The developmental outcomes for children who attended a nursery scoring 5 or more on the scales were better than those of children in the comparison group. Mathers et al (2012) argue in their Oxford University/Daycare Trust paper, Improving Quality in the Early Years [PDF], that "a setting graded as good or outstanding by Ofsted would not necessarily be rated as providing good quality for babies and toddlers by the ITERS-R scale." It is, however, important to note that this is with reference to the previous Ofsted inspection schedule. It may be that the new schedule is more reliable, but there is currently no evidence for that. 

In their response to the proposal to change the role of local authorities in early education and childcare, the UK ECERS network - representing more than 50 local authorities - argue strongly, on the basis of the Oxford University/Daycare Trust paper that LAs must have a continuing role in supporting quality, evidencing the higher reliability of ECERS and ITERS (used by many LAs), backed up by two powerful case studies.

So, Truss gave us a definitive claim about nurseries needing to have a "good" from Ofsted, whilst arguing against LAs having any role in supporting and evaluating quality. That is not an evidence-based argument: the research is more complex. It suggests that there is evidence that LAs can have a positive effect on quality, and it suggests that Ofsted data may not be as reliable as other measures of quality. Furthermore, as TACTYC argue, "the plan to establish Ofsted as the ‘sole arbiter of quality’ is of significant concern. Handing sole power to Ofsted returns control to a central position and out of local hands."

Maintained Nursery Schools face 50% cuts in budgets, and threats of closures

Continuing her emphasis on quality, Truss cited last year's National Audit Office report on early education for three and four year olds, stating that "some 96% of maintained nursery schools were judged good or outstanding by Ofsted." This finding is consistent with the finding in the EPPE Project that maintained nursery schools, and combined centres based around nursery schools, offer the best quality and the best outcomes for children. However, as the National Campaign for Nursery Education reports, following its 2013 parliamentary meeting, "the picture across the country is of Maintained Nursery Schools being faced with 50% cuts in budgets, and threats of closures." At least 94 maintained nursery schools have closed in England in the last 15 years [PDF], a problem which spans different governments, but which the current government is doing nothing to address. 

Truss then argued that the government's proposals would address the problem of low pay for early years practitioners, stating that pay for teachers in England compares well with other European countries, but pay for those in the early years ranks well below. Truss commented:
"As you will be well aware, early years professionals are paid significantly less than primary school teachers, who earn £33,250 on average - a figure which compares favourably with France, where they earn £25,400, and Sweden, where they earn £23,250."

Yet the OECD figures on teachers' pay [PDF] state that a Swedish primary teacher earns a minimum starting salary of £28,937 rising to a maximum of £38,696. The same figures for French teachers are £24,334 and £48,296, and for an English primary school teacher £30,204 and £44, 145. Truss was undoubtedly right to say that pay for teachers in England compares favourably with other European countries, whilst pay for early years practitioners compares very badly. But the gap between her figures, and those of the OECD, is puzzling. The figures she used to state her case seem exaggerated.   

"We have a lot to gain from seeing early education and primary school as a continuum" 

After citing some practice examples from a nursery class in a primary school and a maintained nursery school, Truss went onto make the argument that "we have a lot to gain from seeing early education and primary school as a continuum rather than as 2 completely separate things". 

(Hear hear!) 

But that's followed by a proposal to create a new professional role - the "Early Years Teacher" (EYT) - which is not actually the same as Qualified Teacher Status. EYTs will notbe employable in maintained primary or nursery schools (except as "unqualified teachers", which hardly gives them much status). That doesn't feel like a "continuum" to me, especially when one contrasts this with the Nutbrown proposal that there should be a single Early Years Qualified Teacher Status for those working with children up to the age of eight years old in nurseries, playgroups, nursery classes and maintained nursery schools. As TACTYC argue, "without clear identification of EYTs within the ranks of qualified teachers, the goal of attracting high calibre individuals into this demanding and skilled profession will not be realised."

The Lord of the Flies in the garden
Soon after, Truss delivered the passage which caused a stir. She chose to praise the French in order to bury the English early years system, even though, as Nancy Stewart reminds us, the OECD ranks France below the UK for quality in the early years. She then berated the poor manners and purposeless rushing about of English toddlers.  Of course manners matter, and so does having an orderly and calm environment in early years settings of all kinds. In my time as an early years adviser I have visited a fair number of chaotic nurseries: they aren't happy places and you wouldn't want your own children there. But from a policy point of view, this is just a red-herring. Early years practice has, for many decades, placed a premium on settings being safe, secure places that prioritise the social development and emotional wellbeing of the children. There isn't anyone about in early years who wants, as Nick Sawbrick put it, the Lord of the Flies in the garden. 

Truss then did a bit of myth-busting ... which, unfortunately, needs myth-busting itself.

She reminded everyone that Development Matters is not a statutory part of the EYFS. As the words "non statutory" are in bold on the front cover, I'm not sure that caused much of a surprise.

She then said there was "no requirement" for freeflow play in the EYFS. By this she seems to mean freeflowing access to the outdoors throughout the session.  However, Tina Bruce - who coined the term - defines it differently. It is primarily about children's orchestration and integration of their learning through play, and not about where they go and how the doors are arranged:

"We can say that free-flow play seems to be concerned with the ability and opportunity to wallow in ideas, experiences, feelings and relationships. It is also about the way children come to use the competencies they have developed. It is the way children integrate all their learning."
(Bruce, 1991, p.42)

Truss then told the conference that there was no "requirement" for any specific proportion of the day to consist of child-initiated activity. Again, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have missed this in the revised EYFS. Here's a reminder of what Clare Tickell said in her independent report: "my evidence report ... supports the use of play-based approaches combined with instructional yet playful teaching. The key element here is the adoption by professionals of a flexible approach to teaching, based on the level of development of the individual child."

Many of Truss's ambitions should be supported

What is most unfortunate about all this, is that many of Truss's ambitions have been well thought-through, and they should be supported. There have, for a long time, been good arguments for greater professional autonomy in the early years. Qualifications need to be improved - some Level Three qualifications in childcare and education are taught and assessed unbelievably badly. It is absolutely appalling that children in the poorest neighbourhoods are, statistically, most likely to suffer a double-disadvantage by attending the poorest quality early years settings. We need a strong, bold, campaigning minister for early years to take on these issues. 

Instead, we have Truss over-stating and sometimes misinterpreting the research, pointlessly antagonising early years practitioners, alienating expert government advisers like Professor Nutbrown, and drawing major conclusions from a few visits to some French Ecoles Maternelles and the sight of some rumbustious toddlers in an English nursery, location as yet unspecified.

In one of the more thoughtful passages in her speech, Truss approvingly quotes Ben Goldacre on the promise of evidence-based practice in education:
"I think there is a huge prize waiting to be claimed by teachers. By collecting better evidence about what works best, and establishing a culture where this new evidence is used as a matter of routine, we can improve outcomes for children, and increase professional independence."

Yet she herself took a cavalier attitude to peer-reviewed research and international evidence. She picked out bits here and there that she liked, smudging out the riders and the uncertainties, relying on her own opinions rather than the evidence. Truss needs to work with researchers and early years practitioners, because her ambitions are admirable, but her understanding of research evidence and good early years practice is lamentable. Forget Goldacre and his nirvana of calm, rational, empirical research, and think instead of the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne: "he who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak."