Category Archives: Daily Diary

From Care to Teaching

It’s been an eventful few months with seemingly a sea change in policy direction with respect to Early Years. We thought we were delivering an holistic curriculum based in experiential play-based learning, supported by sound research and founded on deep relationships, love and security.

It turns out we are raising a generation of dysfunctional illiterate delinquents, at an exorbitant cost.

Politicians have pronounced; the focus and outcome of inspections has changed; the ground is shifting beneath our feet and we are no longer sure if we are supposed to be educating or caring for children.

If it is educating, what does that look like at age 3 or 4? How far can GCSE and SATs literacy and numeracy targets be pushed back down the line? Should we be bench marking our 1 year olds?

Who knows?

In the midst of all this, children are still children with their ambitions, disappointments, needs, passions, fears, potential, resilience, hopes and joys.

Children from affluent areas, children from deprived backgrounds and children with chaotic lives, displaced children, fearful children.

Education is maths, reading, writing, knowledge and information but it is so much more than that. It is passion, curiosity, imagination, wonder, courage, spontaneity and compassion, kindness, empathy and humility. It recognises the unique character of every individual.

I love spending time with children at Paint Pots. It always reminds me of the value of each child. Down on the floor, playing, laughing – politics and outcomes are held in check. This is where character is being formed – through relationship, interactions and sharing. And it’s a joyful place to be.

I do worry that the thought police are monitoring these personal ramblings.  Still, the good news is that as of September I will be able to call myself an Early Years Teacher.

So, time to stop playing and get on with some serious teaching then!!

Reflecting on ratios etc.

In these times of reduce, reuse, recycle, I wonder what scope there is for harnessing all the keyboard strokes, discussion and polemic currently issuing from an affronted Early Years sector in response to the many and varied government proposals for change?

The patronising, dictatorial and paternalistic tone of the government pronouncements; the ill judged comparisons with continental Europe; the apparent proposed shift towards structured “teaching”; the disregard of expert opinion and research, coupled with a perceived lack of dialogue, have lead to angst amongst the disgruntled workforce, parents and interested parties, with battle lines being drawn, entrenchment and  passionate rhetoric.

The arguments on both sides have been tabled and publicised with extensive commentary in the media. It has generated significant sustained activity on social media, including  e-petitions, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and numerous blogs (including this one). I don’t propose to go over them again here.

What I am advocating, as has been recently proposed by June O’Sullivan, Jennie Johnson and others, is that rather than defend ourselves against the attacks on the quality of and outcomes from child care and development services in this country,  we already have the evidence of all the excellent practice in the UK and the many thousands of committed colleagues who  provide effective care to successive generations of our children.

Our destiny is in our own hands. It is time to ‘accentuate the positives’ as the song goes and play the politicians and journalists at their own game. We in Early Years, are by nature I believe,  an optimistic, upbeat and confident bunch, as so we should be. We understand the responsibility, importance and privilege of our roles and the potentially tragic consequences of failing our children – where would the country be if we all went on strike?

It is important to have a balanced discussion that acknowledges the issues and challenges and is honest enough to identify the shortcomings of the current system. After all, I am sure that what everyone wants is the best for all our children. The debate is – just what is the best for them and how to achieve it?

There is validity to the principles that underlie the current proposals – no one would argue against cheaper childcare; higher wages and improved status for staff; high quality care, interactions and child development and practitioners who have a deep understanding of child development theory and practice, and appropriately resourced environments. We need to challenge and address poor practice in our country not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What appears to be being presented are the extremes of total anarchy versus a completely structured and adult directed regime.There is clearly a place for adult directed activities and there are times when children can be cared for in larger groups and when structured activities are appropriate. Children do benefit from boundaries and a degree of “school readiness” eg socialisation, independence skills and the ability to follow instructions (could we call this life readiness?). But the model choices should not be everyone sat at desks in large structured groups or alternatively all charging round the place aimlessly. To my mind, neither are good practice.

Our challenge is to clearly show what good practice is and to present the evidence for it in the current system

This is not a time to be faint hearted or defeatist.

Let’s come out fighting!

My last appraisal

I came across my last appraisal from IBM, from 10 years ago, which I formatted as a poem. Having received the highest performance rating for 4 years on the trot, I came up against the quota system and an idiot for a manager (in my humble opinion!). I left and went into childcare, the rest is history! (IBM’s loss was Paint Pot’s gain – again, in my humble opinion!)

 

A lack of hard-edged leadership

and assertiveness,

out of the box thinking

and active driving forward,

coupled with a failure to identify

and articulate a clear high level

vision for how this could work –

all of which means, I’m afraid,

that I have rated you

one of the lowest performers.

 

I understand that you are clearly

disappointed by this rating.

There are no concerns whatsoever

over your trustworthiness

nor your technical ability.

I do hope given time that you will feel able to reflect

constructively on this feedback

as it does provide you with an opportunity

to learn and grow.

So they’re going to change the ratios anyway!

What I find so dispiriting about our country’s form of democracy is the realisation that policy is being formulated and implemented on the whim of individual politicians. Thus, we are currently living through the enactment of Michael Gove’s vision for education in the UK.

Similarly, we were headed down the LibDem branch of the coalition’s concept of early years care and education under Sarah Teather, a goal that seemed to be going in a direction based on consultation and the views of practitioners.

Governments have commissioned worthwhile reviews into practice. These have been led by respected individuals. They have involved research, consultation and evaluation. In the main, their  recommendations have been well received –

The EYFS review under Claire Tickell resulted in what is generally accepted as a more focused curriculum, with its emphasis on the key development areas; Cathy Nutbrown’s report emphasised the importance of qualified and knowledgeable staff in the Early Years sector; both the Allen report on early intervention and the Field report on poverty have highlighted the need for high quality care in the early years.

And now we have Liz Truss’s policy making on the hoof, where under the guise of the Childcare Commission, all of this expertise, consultation and analysis is being ignored, seemingly based on her own personal feelings about the high cost of childcare.

I have yet to hear a childcare practitioner who supports increasing the ratios. No provider, commentator or indeed parent has welcomed the proposals. No one that I have heard or read has stated that care quality will not be reduced following the proposed increased number of children per adult.

Common sense suggests that with only 1 brain, 2 hands, 2 eyes and 2 ears, there is a finite number of interactions 1 adult can have with children, regardless of the individual’s qualification level. He/she can only change 1 nappy at a time; engage in conversation with 1 toddler at a time and sustain shared thinking with 1, possibly 2-3 individuals at any one time.

The qualitative nature of these interactions may vary dependent on the knowledge and skill level of the practitioner but the quantity of interactions is dependent on the physical limitations of the ability of 1 human being to communicate with others.

So when did we give Elizabeth Truss a mandate to change the ratios unilaterally?

When did we, as a nation, take this decision for the good of our children?

When were we offered a debate on the options available to us and a chance to vote for our preference?

Did I miss something?

If I could change the system

I would make love and laughter statutory. I would stop “preparing” children, getting them ready for compliance and an inexorable future in an inflexible one-size fits-all curriculum, instead I would see them supported and encouraged to live in the moment and focus on the excitement,  awe and wonder of being 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 years old. I would believe adults when they say they have built a sound, trusting and respectful relationship with the children they share their lives with and that they know their personality, interests and capabilities. I would advocate for fun, silliness and exploration over attainment.  I would support discovery over teaching, being over doing, whilst recognising that children don’t know what they don’t know.  I would value compassion, kindness, empathy, resilience, courage, humility and spontaneity – all immeasurable qualities. I would elevate imagination as the highest form of creativity. I would celebrate all of these for every child.

There would be no norms, levels, goals or tests, written or otherwise. I would define children by who they are not what they do or do not yet do.

I would educate our society about the vital importance of getting it right in our “formative” years rather than trying to fix things further down the line. I would ensure this translates into policy (not rhetoric), real funding, proper wages and status for early years practitioners. I would invert the education pyramid with focus, funding and training moved from tertiary to early years education.

I would build and sustain a culture of safeguarding, not just reliant on point-in-time checks, a culture where there is common agreement on acceptable behaviours and empowerment to challenge variance from them.  I would create open-door environments, where children are safe to play, parents are welcome at any time and staff are protected from false allegations and where men in particular are not viewed with suspicion.

I would ensure inclusion is not containment, compromise or second best. All children have the right to have their individual needs met but there is a cost to the provision of one to one care and a limit to the availability of appropriately skilled and experienced staff to deliver it.

I would bin any form of checklists relating to diversity and equal opportunities. These are about understanding, acceptance and respect, recognizing and celebrating difference, seeing each individual – child and adult, as unique and valued, not a few posters on the wall and a couple of dolls with different skin tones.

I would look for understanding that two year olds are not three year olds and cannot just be added into existing provision as an expedient with no extra funding, to satisfy a promise to the electorate with minimal supply side strategy or support.

I would seek acknowledgement that involvement with children and building partnership with their carers can sometimes bring huge challenges, unmatched expectations, parenting and social issues,  which can be stressful and require additional energy and emotional engagement from those on the front line. I would ensure that support is available to them.

I would make sure that all agencies work together for the benefit of individual children, sharing information in a mutually respectful and professionally supportive team regardless of the organisational structures.

I would make learning and play environments as safe as necessary not as safe as possible.  Every day should be an adventure in a place that allows some excitement, risk and danger – why isn’t it ok to walk up the slide, if no one is coming down it?

I would challenge the applicability of interactive white boards to the under 5s – when there are perfectly good sticks available as an alternative.

I would make routines subservient to relationships, maybe not stopping what we are engrossed in because the clock tells us to.

I would stop writing things down as evidence for others.

Maybe in all these suggestions there are possibilities for change within the system?

Maybe we just need to stand up for what stirs us, for what is right for children, challenging injustice and wrong thinking?

My response to government proposals

Elizabeth Truss, Under-Secretary at the Department of Education, is the latest contributor to the conservativehome website, http://conservativehome.blogs.com/platform/2013/01/elizabeth-truss-mp-.html

Her blog, ‘coalition thinking on childcare’ contains the worrying phrase – ‘The French use Écoles Maternelles that offer traditional nursery style teaching by teachers in large groups of 3 and 4 year olds’, to justify the recommendation that we should move from the current staffing ratios of 1 adult to every 4 2-year olds and 1 to 8 for 3-year olds, to possibly 1:18.

She then goes on to suggest that by effectively reducing staffing costs generally (whilst somehow still maintaining quality and levels of care), this will translate into higher salaries for childcare workers enabling providers to attract and retain a higher qualified workforce.

I don’t understand this, I’m afraid. What does she mean by ‘traditional nursery style teaching’? – sitting at desks, with didactic impartation of the 3 Rs maybe?

What happened to learning through play and experience?

and ‘large groups’ – how large?

What happened to meeting individual children’s needs?

I have been to Belgium, Spain, Austria, Italy and Slovenia and witnessed first hand the challenges of 1:28 ratios where 50% of the class do not speak the national language, the emotional and behavioural issues and attempts to integrate children with additional needs. The staff are exhausted.

Maybe we will have ‘larger groups’ but how will we manage to deliver the current curriculum with less staff?

The government faces the difficult challenge of both providing affordable high quality childcare and giving each child effective early years development and education with no investment.  They need to get more people into work, they need to generate growth in the economy, revenue from taxation etc but they also need to provide the best of starts for our nation’s children.

There is consensus on what young children need in terms of love, attention, support, boundaries, metacognition, dispositions and holistic development with an emphasis on language, physical and personal, social and emotional areas. Highly skilled and trained practitioners are needed.

Raising the ratios won’t do it – in my humble opinion.

A Christmas Wish

On December 28th, it will be 27 years since my first son, Samuel, died aged 7 months. Joseph, Francesca and William were all born together 3 years later. William had a congenital disorder requiring surgery at birth which sadly, he did not survive.

In the wake of the terrible news from Newtown, Connecticut this last weekend, that aching feeling of loss, ever present but generally manageable, comes flooding back so readily. I know what losing a child feels like, I am living it again with these families. As commentators have said in the last few days, there is nothing worse a parent can experience. It changes your life for ever. Theirs are different circumstances but their loss, I know, is the same.

We have had the extraordinary privilege, this weekend, of caring for our nephew aged 4 years and his sisters, one aged 2 years, the other just 3 weeks.

How precious they are. How closely we monitored them as the appalling details emerged from America. I wept as I cuddled them, numb at the tragedy unfolding.

But in the run up to Christmas, we are still planning to celebrate together as family, realising that each day is a gift. We are not defined by events. We are shaped by them. Nearly 30 years on since our own personal tragedy, we choose life over grief, engagement rather than introspection.

And that is what makes Paint Pots so important – the celebration of lives; the love expressed for each child; daily laughter; and continuous learning about ourselves and each other.

We cannot bring back the children we have lost but we can and do commit ourselves to helping those who are still here become the best people they can be.

Our resolve to make a difference in children’s lives is strengthened. As we approach the start of another year through our difficult anniversary, we dedicate our endeavours to the memory of those children who lost their lives this weekend in a senseless, violent act.

My prayer is for a World where all children are safe, loved and nurtured.

May you know peace this Christmas.

Men in Childcare – Does it Matter to Children?

Earlier this week I attended the launch of the London Early years Foundation, Men in Childcare group, hosted by charismatic CEO June O’Sullivan and the irrepressible David Stephens, manager of the LEFY Angel Community Nursery.

It was so encouraging to see the strong attendance and support for this event and for so many attendees to register their commitment to ongoing involvement.

Hats off to both David for proposing this and for June in encouraging, supporting and enabling him to make it happen. There was no doubting the passion and enthusiasm.

Those of us involved over the years, in campaigning for a more equal balance in the workforce, and there were several of us represented in the upstairs room of the Barley Mow in Horseferry Row, were heartened to finally see something (anything) get off the ground in the UK.

May it go from strength to strength with a clear mandate and determination to celebrate and support those men already undertaking this vital work alongside their female colleagues; to attract more men, young and old, to join them; to mentor trainees and to change the culture within and outside our sector to remove any barriers or stigma from being a male in our profession. It is vital for the sake of our children.

To coincide with this event, LEYF published the results of their research into the benefits (or not) of men working in childcare. This piece of action research, albeit on a small scale is notable for the approach taken by the author Sue Chambers, in using children’s own expressed choices / decisions about the practitioners working with them.

In essence, the children were provided with pictures of various familiar activities and photographs of the individual in their usual team of carers. Boys and girls were asked to choose preferred activities and then to select a preferred member of staff with whom they would like to undertake this activity.

Results are presented in tabular format by activity, analysed statistically by gender, eg who many (%ge) children chose football as an activity and of these how many boys elected to do this with a male or female practitioner and how many girls likewise. These were compared to adults’ predictions of what and with whom (male or female) they thought the children would choose.

It was a small sample and therefore probably illustrative rather than a definitive study, however there were some interesting results which did not bear out the stereotypical prejudgements – eg boys wanting to play football with men. In many cases, results were gender neutral or the opposite of what might have been expected.

Based on my own experience, I would say that children are typically not bothered about the characteristics of their partners in play – gender, race, age etc. They just want to know if you are interested in them. I see children walk round the adult who they do not relate to, to engage with the person, male or female, who is down on the floor at their level ready and keen to share their life, fun and enthusiasm with them.

So do we need men in Early Years? – most definitely yes. Are they all going to play football and rough and tumble? – no, not necessarily but then neither are all the women going to only stay indoors and sit daintily doing cooking. Thank goodness!!

Living Wage

Following Jennie Johnson’s musings on this subject : http://kidsallowed.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/living-wage-can-we-square-the-circle/ I thought I would undertake a similar analysis of Paint Pots wages –

Compared to Kids Unlimited, we have less team members on minimum wage but also significantly less above the living wage. As Jennie has so clearly identified in her own blog entry, we can only pay out what we get in from parents.

I don’t know what Kids Unlimited charges for their sessions but I believe it is just not possible for us to ask our families to pay more. Wages represent our greatest outgoing by far but other costs continue to rise.  The grant we receive from government for funded sessions does not cover costs and has not risen for several years.

How do we square this circle and give our staff the wage and status they deserve?  Put it another way, how do we as a nation, value the work undertaken to care for and develop our youngest children during the most important years of their life?

Aren’t my staff worthy of a living wage (and more)? If so, who is going to pay for it?

To quote Baroness Walmsley speaking in the House of Lords yesterday, “we must not undervalue those dedicated people who work with our children. They need to be highly qualified and properly paid, so more money needs to be found.”

Two Year Old Assessment

According to the revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Statutory Framework, –

‘When a child is aged between two and three, practitioners must review their progress, and provide parents and/or carers with a short written summary of their child’s development in the prime areas. This progress check must identify the child’s strengths, and any areas where the child’s progress is less than expected. If there are significant emerging concerns, or an identified special educational need or disability, practitioners should develop a targeted plan to support the child’s future learning and development involving other professionals (for example, the provider’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) as appropriate.’

Like all well intentioned initiatives, the reasoning behind the early identification and intervention to support “developmental delay”, “special needs” or “disability” is laudable and makes sense however, in practice, I believe this is fraught with difficulty.

What is enshrined in legislation here is a “review of progress” and an implied assessment and potential diagnosis by early years practitioners of significant concerns, special needs or disability, which is to be shared with parents/carers. Children are to be assessed between the ages of two and three.

A measure of progress necessitates the comparison of at least 2 separate values, at the start and end of a period of time. In order to review progress then , a child must be assessed on 2 occasions sometime between his/her second and third birthday against  the guidelines for the 3 prime areas of development – communication and language, physical and personal, social and emotional.

It is not specified when these 2 occasions should be. Given that there is no compulsion for a child to be in any early years programme, consistently, for any given amount of time, it cannot be guaranteed that any individual will be in attendance sufficient to provide valid progress data. For example, a child could start preschool sessions after his third birthday in which case  no 2 year old assessment can be performed, or at 2 years 11 months, attending 1 session per week which would provide statistically insignificant evidence to assess any developmental progress. Or a child could be assessed at age 2 years 0 months and again at age 2 years 11 months, when “expected progress” would look very different to an assessment across a shorter time frame.

There are issues with the definition and interpretation of terms here – what is the developmental norm, progress and delay for a child aged between 2 and 3 years?  What constitutes a valid assessment?

The  non-statutory Development Matters Guidelines describes its purpose  as “to help adults to understand and support each individual child’s development pathway.” and the first of the four main themes within the EYFS refers to the “Unique” child.

So if every child is unique and exhibits an individual development pathway, how are we to assess progress? Clearly this is not an exact science. Doesn’t the term “development guidelines” tell us that?

Another area of real concern is the practitioner’s qualification to make judgements. I and my staff are not trained in the diagnosis of disability or indeed special needs. We have an understanding of what to look for, how different characteristics associated with certain conditions might present themselves but we do not feel confident nor that  it is right to label a child as having special needs, being developmentally delayed or disabled and certainly not at two years old. We would not commit such judgements to paper to be shared with parents.

Parents do not want to receive the news that their child’s progress is “less than expected” or that an assessment has identified “significant emerging concerns” regarding her development.

This is an area of extreme sensitivity, requiring professional expertise and guidance. Sharing the results of such an assessment  is not a task, I would suggest, to be entrusted to a junior practitioner.

We are instructed that the assessment “should be provided in time to inform the Healthy Child Programme health and development review at age two whenever possible (when health visitors gather information on a child’s health and development, allowing them to identify any developmental delay and any particular support from which they think the child/family might benefit).

Taking account of information from the progress check (which reflects ongoing, regular observation of children’s development) should help ensure that health visitors can identify children’s needs accurately and fully at the health review.”

This  presupposes that there is a seamless system in place between health and early years settings with a coordinated assessment regime and communication between both agencies. It also assumes that the child has been in attendance at an early years setting for sufficient time to accumulate “ongoing, regular observations” prior to health visitors making their assessment of a child’s development and that the Early  Years assessment will be available and feed into this.

Our experience locally suggests that potentially, the health visitor assessment and the Early Years assessment will be completely separate, with the health visitor’s check coming first and no system in place for one to inform the other.

I understand why it is a great idea to pick up children who might need additional help early on but I fear that this new requirement on health and Early Years will be an additional bureaucracy that does not provide any  additional benefit.

In practice, there are already systems and networks in place that highlight the need for additional support. I also know many parents who struggle for many years to access funding to provide this support.

I can’t help being slightly sceptical.