Helping children succeed in life and in learning is sole purpose of education, so it was somewhat surprising to hear Elizabeth Truss, Under Secretary at the Department for Education announce proposals to allow adult to child ratios to be flexible to encourage providers to take on bigger groups. She steered away from talking about education and talked about child care in the context of helping parents into work. In a recent blog Truss quotes Warren Buffett as saying working women will rescue the US economy. here Yes, getting women into work is a preoccupation of governments, even in hard times, when more people want work than can find it. So speaking to the anxieties of many families about the economy is a way to sidestep whether this is in children’s best interests.
Various papers from think tanks have been appearing in recent months identifying early year’s provision as inefficient. I gather that this means higher costs with lower outcomes. Remember the Office for National Statistics report in 2012 saying early year’s provision wasn’t driving up standards at the end of Key Stage 1? So the sharks are circling around early year’s provision but taking things away from children is unpopular with voters, so best to talk about the need for change in another way. Maybe nobody will notice. Am I cynical, yes indeed.
There may be a master plan which will both cut budgets and radically change the nature of Early Years Provision. So look out. Suddenly you notice that what is right for children is no longer being talked about and we are hearing a new political spin designed to appeal to parents. Step forward a spokesperson to tell parents how unfair it is that they are being over charged and that the government is on their side with a solution. Yes Early Years provision is wasteful. No we can’t offer more subsidies, these are hard times. What we can do though is look abroad for solutions. We are told the French take 3 year olds and above in large groups (her words no figures given) This is the evidence presented to lever change. The media seems suspiciously quiet, are they concerned or was this line of rhetoric convincing?
Let’s look at what would have to happen here if children were put into larger groups. I’m no expert on the French Ecole Maternelle which takes children from age 3 until they start school at 6. Attendance is not statutory but there is a mandated curriculum and from what I can gather there is greater reliance on adult directed, group teaching. After all if you have to work with large groups you will need to keep them in one place. Getting them to sit still might be a strong temptation. May be there would be more table top activities and less Free Flow Play? Alarm bells may begin to ring here, especially from those of us who suspect that learning through play is not much valued by this government where “Child Centred Learning” is said with a sneer. No rigour. Lacks structure and pre planned lesson outcomes. Conservative politicians are traditionalists by nature you only have to look at what Michael Gove is proposing for GCSE reform.
So early year’s provision has been gradually cornered by deliberate, political media management in the hope that any defense from the early year’s profession will be seen as self-interest. They are complaining about ratios just because it will make the job harder. We have to let people know that it is children who will lose out.
We need to speak up for the Best of British early year’s education. It is not child care, nor is it a waiting room for school. The education of young children has its own unique character which comes from understanding that young children are not mini adults. The brains of young children are different from adults and all growth and development depends on a finely tuned mix of social experience and exploration through play. Young children do not respond well to a knowledge based curriculum, they need to experience things for themselves at their own pace and level of understanding.
The first priority for early year’s education is for young children to discover their own skills and to become confident with their bodies, communication skills and ability to think and ask questions. Play has an important role to play in a child’s development and adults are need to support and nurture play through providing resources and supervision but more importantly through the quality of care, contact and communication that develops young minds. The very best way to do this is to create an enabling environment which has the ideal conditions for play. Through play children test their skills and learn how to learn. Play is a child’s work, nature makes play exciting and engaging so that children do what they need to do to develop. Play may appear natural and spontaneous but during the course of play some miraculous things are happening that you just can’t teach
- Discovering and developing strengths: When children play they choose what interests them and so they practice and refine important developmental skills naturally. The years between birth and age six sees the emergence of core skills in language, thinking, physical development and social skills. Each child develops at a different pace and with different priorities. Play is the best support for this developmental imperative. Children do what they need to do and we follow and support that lead.
- Physical development: children learn to use their bodies as they grow and develop. This needs to be a natural child-led process so each child discovers what they can do. Many children have limited space at home and/or parents who are risk averse so the opportunities provided at nursery are vital.
- Positive Communication: increasing numbers of children are identified with SLCN. A child’s vocabulary is known to be a strong predictor of later educational achievement. Being listened to and talked with is an intimate experience and one which flourishes when adults have the time. Language isn’t learnt formally in groups but through playful and purposeful interaction with both adults and peers. Bigger groups will make it harder for staff to be responsive to children.
- Positive Emotions: Play is a fabulous and free way for a child to feel a sense of joy and delight in what they are doing. Did you know there are more “negative” emotions which alert us to threat than positive ones? Children who learn through play are likely to be less stressed and frustrated than children with fewer opportunities to play. Happy children are more receptive to learning so emotional wellbeing is a primary condition for effective learning.
- Positive Behaviour: a happy child who is learning through play feels competent and confident. Their behaviour will reflect whether they feel fulfilled or frustrated. There is a link between children receiving limited attention and challenging behaviour. Fewer adults in the nursery will impact on children’s experience and risk the calm and orderly management of the session. Children’s behaviour is a mirror to their inner world
- Self-regulation and motivation: children who have a wide experience of play have also learnt valuable lessons about planning and organising what they do. Children are more likely to keep going when faced with challenges and have the desire to solve any problems and not give up. Learning to pay attention to something organised by an adult is difficult for young children. Switching attention between your own actions and adult instruction begins to emerge only between the age of 5 and 6. One of the reason many other developed countries delay school until 6 or 7.
- Mastery and Competence: children need a solid experience of success on a regular basis to build their personal sense of self efficacy “I am someone who can do things” Sustained play will lead to a child practicing and learning new skills. This creates a regular experience of success and of being able to make things happen independently. Play ensures that children feel competent because they can alter and adapt what they do to develop a skill. .
- Growth Mindset: there are two views of ability which describe how children approach learning. A Fixed ability Mindset assumes ability is finite and has limits. When children who think this way meet a challenge, they are likely to assume the problem lies within them; they assume they have reached their limits and may give up. A Growth Mindset assumes ability is developed through practice and persistence. Play encourages a growth mindset as a child is free to be open and creative about how they shape their play. This encourages both persistence and problem solving and allows the play to keep on track so that a successful outcome is achieved.
- Creativity: Play is a naturally creative activity where a child can take their ideas and experiment with whatever comes up. The human brain is hugely creative and needs these free opportunities of exploration and experimentation to flourish.
- Coherence: child development books often compartmentalise children’s development for convenience sake. In the real world a child needs to take different areas of their experience and process them into a coherent whole. What better way to do this than through play?
So let’s all do what we can to let parents, politicians and the public know that increasing ratios in early education is putting children at risk and while we are at it let’s make it clear that it is early education not child care we are talking about and the EYFS is there for a reason.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0