Monthly Archives: January 2013

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.