Our latest IOE debate looked at the start of the educational journey – the early years. What would we need to do in order to secure world-leading early years provision? The answer from our panel is one that arguably applies across the different phases of our education system: we already have world-leading provision, but that’s often in spite of government policy, and is yet to be enjoyed across all provision.
What, then, should be done with government early years policy, and how can we build a world-leading early years sector, not just a scattering of world-leading provision? To answer those questions we were delighted to welcome: Jan Dubiel, early childhood education consultant; June O’Sullivan MBE, Chief Executive at the London Early Years Foundation; Helen Ward, reporter on early years and primary education at The TES; and Dominic Wyse, Professor in Early Childhood and Primary Education, UCL Institute of Education.
So, where is this world-leading provision? According to our panel, it’s to be found particularly in the nursery school system, which has influenced practice around the world since its inception. The Early Years Foundation Stage and its related system of assessment were also picked out as supporting breadth in the curriculum as well as teacher-led assessment.
But these facets of our early years system face evolving challenges. One is the ‘schoolification’ of early years provision. The school starting age in England is relatively low by international standards – age five instead of six or seven. This is driven by economic considerations rather than the path and pace of child development. Jan Dubiel highlighted the need to ‘accept the biological reality’ of that process, as well as the distinctiveness of the early years – children of this age are not just smaller versions of their primary school peers.
And yet, policy seems to be moving in the opposite direction. In 2011 there was the downward creep of the school starting age (from five to the first September after a child’s fourth birthday). As Helen Ward outlined, this tension was compounded by the subsequent review of the National Curriculum, which raised the bar on what it meant to be ‘school ready’. Expectations of young children have been ramped up. Added to this has been the advent of standardised assessment in the form of baseline testing.
Somewhat paradoxically in the face of this ‘schoolification’ of the early years, some schools are taking pedagogical approaches from the early years into Year 1 (in some cases into Key Stage 2). While, on the face of it, such recognition for early years practice is to be welcomed, it speaks to an ongoing ‘PR’ issue for early years provision. All of our panellists alluded to there being a lack of understanding of the phase by those outside it (including among primary school teachers and parents), as well as a lack of respect for it and its workforce. If early years is a unique and uniquely important phase, it may not be appropriate to adopt its practices for older age groups. The early years professional community, our panellists suggested, needs to be more united and vocal about its role and practice. This needs to be accompanied, argued Dom Wyse, by more constructive dialogue across researchers, policy makers and practitioners, such that practice is based on robust evidence, rather than factionalism and pet theories. (On this there was an interesting side debate about false dichotomies between ‘child-centred’ approaches and the learning of the basics.)
Another tension for the early years has centred on workforce qualifications. The drive to improve qualification levels among early years practitioners has not been accompanied by higher pay. Not only has this meant that the issue of quality of provision (as opposed to quantity) has not gained traction, it’s also proved to be a ‘fatal combination’, in the words of June O’Sullivan, in terms of recruitment. While credentialisation has benefitted nursery schools with their higher rates of pay that can attract more qualified staff, growth of provision has been mainly in the private, voluntary and independent sectors. The effects of this are not helped by cuts to funding that work to reduce staff:child ratios and erode the adjacent services, most notably social care, that enable all families to thrive and make the most of their child’s early years offer.
Twenty years on from the start of the world-renowned EPPSE study that prompted the redirection of policy attention and funding to the early years from the early 2000s (often referred to as nothing short of a revolution), it seems there is some way to go in securing quality as well as quantity of provision. The jury’s out on whether we can establish more than – in the words of Peter Pan and one of our panellists – ‘astonishing splashes of colour here and there’ for our youngest children.
Watch/listen back to the debate in full here.