If asked to summarise the main features of current early years and primary education policy, a teacher might be forgiven for homing in on the following: over-reliance on synthetic phonics; continual performance monitoring of narrowly measured learning, in a limited number of areas; challenges to play-based learning; and reductions in professional agency.
But is this the best kind of education for our young children? Does it bring out the best in them – and in teachers? In our new book, Exploring Education and Childhood: From current certainties to new visions, we critically examine contemporary early years and primary policies and the assumptions that sometimes seem to underpin them: that children’s rights are irrelevant to teaching; that scope for decision making in the classroom is not important; that teaching only needs technicians rather than professionals.
In the book we invite education professionals, policy makers and all those with an interest in education to envision a new future. Each chapter begins with an example of practice that encapsulates a current ‘certainty’. We then analyse these examples in the context of the research evidence. Finally, we propose new visions for the future. So, the book not only casts a critical eye over education policy – it also rises to the challenge of offering alternatives. In the closing chapter we crystallise that vision in a manifesto for change. The following calls are, we believe, central to a new vision for early years and primary education:
- Increase emphasis on evidence, rather than ideology, in the education system
- Achieve an equal balance between national curriculum aims and teacher-determined and child-determined curricula
- Change the emphasis from high-stakes national testing and target setting to child-centred formative teacher assessment
- Put more emphasis on children thinking about their thinking and their learning (metacognitive strategies)
- Children’s voices should be repeatedly and actively listened to and constructively acted upon
- Give priority to the most disadvantaged families in accessing the best schools and the best teachers.
Our vision is powerfully set out, based in a wide ranging review of the research evidence and ‘what works’. It proposes alternatives to the current supposed certainties surrounding the perennial issues of ‘what kind of education?’, ‘how shall it be organised?’, ‘who decides?’, and ‘how is progress best monitored?’. We argue that, above all else, education should have as its central concern the best interests of children as human beings with rights, and as participants in decision making about the world they inhabit now and in the coming century.