There is a curiously Anglo-Saxon habit in education that says if we can only get reading and writing and maths crammed into a 3-year-old’s brain properly, think what geniuses (genii?) these children will be when they are 13, and how economically productive and world-beating our country will be when they are adults. It is an alluring tale, supported in some places by occasional data that is leant on heavily by those in English and American (though, curiously, not Welsh or Scottish) education administrators and those in Pacific Rim countries whose education has been strongly influenced by the economic imperative to compete with America and Britain. It is also alluring for parents, who want their children to be as successful as they can. And in these pressing economic times (no more pressing, actually, than any other recession in the 20th century), every last little scrap of advantage has to be squeezed from the hops of opportunity to brew the beer of eventual success. Productivity and conformity, not personhood and choice, is the goal here. Those who can’t see this are blind as bats. Honest.
If you have waiting lists for “top fee-paying kindergartens”, you know someone has read the runes wrongly. Love, not money, is the transformative motor.
Wiser voices, lodged principally in Europe, South America and the Antipodes do not think in these linear ways (to use Ken Robinson’s term from my previous post) and see that there has to be a strong foundation for learning that is rooted in values, in breadth of life experience, in talk for learning and socialisation (above all!) and in a deep awareness of the natural environment in which they live.
Some progress (in a 2 steps forward, 1 step back sort of way) may have been made in this regard (won’t know until we try it) in the new structure of learning in the revised (2012) Early Years Foundation Stage Framework. We now have a set of prime areas of learning and development and then specific areas which are meant to build on these. Separating the two, of course, will be a national assessment of 2-year olds. Yes, 2 year olds. Good luck. You can find all this stuff in the new Development Matters in the EYFS booklet. The overall framework has a strong learning focus, with a great deal of good emphasis placed on the way that young children learn and how that can be supported and assisted in pre-school settings. This diagram shows the different characteristics of effective learning and the areas of learning and development that underpin children’s progress. The three prime areas (all necessary) have more in the way of (non-statutory) guidance for the birth-to-30 months period, whereas the specific areas (slimmed down and made more compact) come into their own when a child starts at nursery school. It is MUCH better than the previous framework, and the language is of more use in supporting adults who are working with children. All this is to be applauded. The other area that will be a challenge for teachers, though a welcome one to me, is the replacement of the current 9 point Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, around since 2003-4, with just 17 early learning goals against which children will be evaluated as “emerging”, “expected” or “exceeding”. The challenge will be in making this assessment mean anything quantifiable, because somebody will want to do this. OFSTED, for one. There is a fantastic opportunity here for somebody to make a really awful assessment system for young children. A publisher (Pearson? CUP? LDA?) should get in quick.
Robin Alexander, in an important survey in 2003, compared the education of 6 year olds in England, Finland and Denmark, came to a number of interesting conclusions (which you can read for yourself) about the comparative ways in which children were educated, but within it was an important observation about the fact that the then KS1 SAT tests for 7-year olds were putting an important constraint on the curriculum and teaching methodology in English Year 1 classes. The removal of these tests and their subsequent replacement with statutory teacher assessment at age 7 from 2007/8 has done little to change things – teachers do not want to let their schools down or be seen to be less conscientious in the teaching of English and maths in Year 1 and 2. The fact that these are reported nationally means that the testing culture for teachers is still in place, as it has been for the EYFS profile. My own observations, comparing Norwegian settings – the Trodlahaugen Barnehage in Stord and the nearby Langeland Skule in Leirvik and the Sagvag Skule some 10 km away – showed that in areas such as writing, although the equivalent Y2 children had poorer skills than Y2 children in English schools, there was rapid improvement so that by the end of Y3, it could be argued that Norwegian students had better writing skills than English children. There is no direct link between how long a child has been taught to write and the end product, at least not in the early years. It is more to do with writing readiness. We need to be ready to help children improve writing if, at the age of 3 or 4, they show a real interest or aptitude. But many children will not get “into” writing until later. They are not worse writers, they are just doing different things – organically – at different times. This particularly applies to left handed boys in a right handed culture. Scandinavian educators find very little evidence of dyspraxia, whilst in a conformist, “must learn to write before you are 6” educational culture like ours, dyspraxia has mushroomed.
Is dyspraxia a modern condition? Portwood says that while it would always have existed, it is much more widespread now. There are social reasons for this. Dyspraxia often affects children who were born prematurely (they would not have survived in the Victorian age). Dyspraxia hardly exists in Scandinavia (the incidence is less than one per cent). Portwood believes that this is because children do not start school until they are six or seven and are more involved in physical activity than children in this country. In British culture children ‘spend hours in front of a computer instead of climbing’ and this does nothing for their motor skills.
I only mention all this today, because the Telegraph has published a little article about some research by German and New Zealand academics in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, purporting to show that if you leave the compulsory teaching of certain skills (they talk about reading) to age 7, there is evidence to show that children make faster progress later. The relevant quote to think about is this:
Academics from Regensburg University in Germany and Otago University in New Zealand tracked hundreds of children who started formal schooling at different ages. This includes those who joined conventional New Zealand state schools at five and others from progressive Steiner schools, who are allowed to delay formal tuition until seven. The second group remained in Steiner nurseries for two more years, where written language is banned to encourage the development of oral communication and children spend time on play-based activities, such as painting, drawing, cooking, singing or oral storytelling, the study said. Children were given reading tests at different stages during the first six years of their primary education to assess their ability to decode individual words and fluently read a passage of text. The study, led by Dr Sebastian Suggate, found that those learning to read later had caught up by the age of 10 and actually had “slightly better reading comprehension” before the end of primary education.
“Instead of focusing on developing decoding-related skills between the ages of five and seven, and in the first years of school, it may be that the environments in the Steiner kindergartens favoured language development, which later feeds into reading comprehension,” said the research.
The findings come amid claims from academics that children in England are being pushed too hard at a young age.
I don’t want to get into a debate about the numbers, but to underline the point I made yesterday from Sir Ken’s TED video – that organic, personalised growth has to be the paradigm in which we now work – agriculture, not manufacturing. Sow a seed, provide the right kind of soil, nurture at the pace the plant wants to grow, remember that it is God who gives the growth, not us, not the children themselves, not the parents; then, in the fullness of time (and however long that is) reap the harvest. That has to be what our school is about.