The Parallel Universe of Early Years

Just recently I’ve found myself saying ‘the Statutory Framework is your friend’ a lot. Why is this? Well, it isn’t because I am the biggest fan of the document as it has issues. But it is our Statutory Framework, therefore we have to abide by what it says. Which in turn means that we have to know, understand and apply what is in it.

Or so you would think.

It has long been the case that the world of Early Childhood Education (ECE) has been misunderstood. I would go so far as to say that this has been deliberate in some cases. A foray onto Twitter demonstrates this everyday. For as long as I can remember, and certainly since I’ve been in teaching, working with the youngest children has been seen as ‘special and different’ (not in a good way), or a ‘secret garden’ (also not in a good way, but difficult to see how that expression could be positive). Both these phrases have been used by senior professionals talking to me over the years. Both phrases indicate a particular standpoint and assumptions about ECE. And both indicate an othering, even dismissal, of what happens in the first stage of education. Neither phrase is helpful in recognising ECE as an important developmental stage.

However, though bad enough, this is not the parallel universe of my title. This is a newer, more worrying phenomena that is gaining ground. It is far more insidious than people not taking the trouble to be informed about Early Childhood Education, or being dismissive of it. This is because it is about people creating a whole new construct of what it is. With no reference to respected research, informed practice or the evidence of history. And there is a great deal of this to reflect on. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and of course we also build on what they have taught us. Understandings of child development and neuroscience are growing all the time and it should be hoped that these would inform what is happening now.

But in the parallel universe of Early Childhood Education where we now find ourselves we have, and this is just a selection

  • Rigid timetables
  • Maths programmes
  • Phonics programmes
  • Knowledge organisers
  • Planning documents that lay out what is to be ‘learnt’ across a term or year
  • Curricula statements that state ‘All children will…’
  • Children being expected to sit and listen for extended periods of time
  • Intervention groups
  • Fancy Pants’* activities that are then sold as the answer to fine motor control issues/ emotional problems/ phonics understanding etc etc
    *with thanks to Elaine Bennett for this useful expression
  • Tuff Trays’ being seen to be the answer to everything
  • All sorts of accreditation processes for methods of ‘teaching’
  • ‘Ofsted expects/requires…’
  • Sessions and conferences badged with something about finding out what Ofsted want

This list could go on forever and perhaps you can add some more. This universe has a great deal to thank social media and Pinterest for, but it is much more than that. Those online platforms have been in the background for several years and have had some impact on practice and provision. But our parallel universe is down to a combination of –

  • Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools’ (Ofsted 2017)
  • The revised Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage (DfE 2021)
  • The pandemic and subsequent lockdown

In an undated paper, Dr Louise Kay perfectly summed up the influence of ‘Bold Beginnings’ when she says 

The power OfSTED has over schools positions Bold Beginnings (OfSTED, 2017a) as an authoritative document with the potential to influence headteachers and teachers, and impact on pedagogical practices in the Early Years

She continues

Rhetoric is a powerful tool within political discourse, as its aim is to persuade the reader of a particular course of action. We must therefore consider the implications of the recommendations made in Bold Beginnings (OfSTED, 2017a) with regards to an Early Years curriculum that makes Mathematics and Literacy its key focus, and further re-enforces the ‘school readiness’ agenda.

Five years later these implications are still resonating. And being built on. In July 2021, DfE published The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy  which has added further to the unfortunate rhetoric.

It is very important to note that neither of these documents are statutory.

However, the influences of the rhetoric within them are clear to see in the revised Statutory Framework which was published in draft for and ‘Early Adopters’ year, before final publication in March 2021 for use from September that year.

This revision and its repercussions have accelerated the parallel universe. How so?

The revision of the Framework was always controversial. When it was underway support from respected and well informed groups was offered and an Early Years Coalition was formed to move this forward. We produced Getting it right in the Early Years Foundation Stage: a review of the evidence under the lead of Chris Pascal, Tony Bertram and Liz Rouse. This important document remains a vital read for everyone in the sector today and, if the Department had taken it into account during the process of revision, the parallel universe may well not exist today

The holistic nature of learning and development in the EYFS should continue to be emphasised. Care must be taken that delivery of the EYFS is not skewed towards particular Areas of Learning at the expense of others. The evidence clearly shows the inter- related processes of learning and development for all seven Areas of Learning and the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning at this stage. (p56)

However, the ‘Early Adopters’ framework arrived for trialling at a group of schools, and unfortunately coincided with the onset of pandemic and lockdown. And it is here that the parallel universe really established itself.

It began to feel as if no one had ever read a Statutory Framework before. Yes, there were some uncomfortable changes in this version, and more were made before the final document, but social media began to make much out of ‘curriculum’, ‘Educational Programmes’, the apparent addition of the word ‘teaching’ to the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning, and it seemed that we were no longer expected to create a mass of ‘evidence’. But none of these points were new, and had been in the previous Framework. My theory is that the international situation was so unusual at this point, and ways of working were quite different, so many actually read the Framework first hand, rather than waiting to hear a version through their LA.

This set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the things listed above, plus many more. I completely understand why so many myths started to circulate. It was not ideal timing for a new document to launch. So many relied on webinars and ‘vodcasts’ from Ofsted and DfE which did little to allay concerns or give answers. To coin a phrase, the elephant in the room had the rug pulled out from under its feet. A massive assumption was made centrally that everyone in the sector would just get on with the change. But, for all sorts of reasons people got lost in all the mixed messages being given, and the somewhat bizarre changes to ‘expectations’ of stages in child development. Add to this the introduction of the Reception Baseline Assessment at the same time and there was a perfect storm in Early Childhood Education.

Countless documents have been created by settings and schools to try to make sense of all this, but these have compounded the problem. ‘Fancy Pants’ environments are created as they are alleged to be ‘teaching’ the children. But they dazzle more than they illuminate with ‘working walls’ and set up activities, timetabled sessions for maths and phonics which are convoluted to fit some expensive programme or other. In the parallel universe it feels more as if we are creating robots and not unique children.

And this is where the revised Statutory Framework 2021 is our friend, however controversial some of it is. We are constantly assured that Ofsted inspect against the Framework, and we know

1.14 This framework does not prescribe a particular teaching approach. Play is essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, relate to others, set their own goals and solve problems. Children learn by leading their own play, and by taking part in play which is guided by adults. Practitioners need to decide what they want children in their setting to learn, and the most effective ways to teach it

We also know that the Overarching Principles and the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning are STATUTORY and must inform our practice and provision. It is time to ask the fundamental questions that I always ask...

  • What? Has happened to the Unique Child?
  • Why? Has this happened, and why have we let it?
  • How? Do we sort this out?
  • So what? What do we do about it?
  • What next? We become well versed in our statutory duties and reassert them over the ‘powerful tool’ of rhetoric

This can be tricky as there are some loud and powerful voices out there, but the Statutory Framework is law.

In his book Education in Spite of Policy (Routledge 2022) Robin Alexander writes

… behind anxieties about the increasing intrusion of the state into children’s lives there’s a debate about childhood itself. Protecting young children is one thing; prescribing the character of their lives is quite another
(p83)

He goes on to point out

… the unique character and potential of childhood should be protected from a system apparently bent on pressing children into a uniform mould at an ever younger age
(p84)

Time to escape the parallel universe.

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"Education must be based on research and reflection. Pedagogy must be underpinned by understanding of children and developmentally informed practice."

Dr Sue Allingham

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