Early Years Education – how to give every child the strongest start

Early Years Education – how to give every
child the strongest start
The early years is a unique stage in its own right. Early childhood is recognised around
the world as a valuable phase in its own right, but in England the Government persists in
increasingly viewing the early years primarily as a preparation for school.
There are inherent dangers in adopting a narrow view of “school readiness”. In 2013
research by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) found
that “For a child to be considered school ready, respondents stated that cognitive and
academic skills such as reading and writing are not as important as children being
confident, independent and curious. Teachers were the least likely, at 4%, to rate
understanding of reading, arithmetic and writing (RAW skills) as key importance to being
school ready. Only a third of childcare professionals and a quarter of parents believe
that a definition of school ready should include a child having a basic understanding of
RAW skills.” i
A group of 127 leading experts and academics wrote, in an open letter to Michael Gove,
that proposed changes to Early Years education would cause “profound damage” to
Despite the evidence Ministers continue to advocate earlier formal teaching of literacy
and numeracy and earlier formal assessment of children. From 2016 the Government
plans to introduce national compulsory tests for children (many aged 4) starting in
Reception class. The government believes that it is necessary to have a baseline against
which to measure progress.
Baseline testing for four year olds is a flawed policyiii:
 Results are unreliable due in great part to the relative age difference of children in
Reception. A potential 11 months age difference is very significant at this age;
 Testing children of this age, to assess their ability, is notoriously difficult – even
well trialled tests have been found to have problems with reliability and
 Testing children at the start of their school life is likely to cause distress to some.
Early years education should provide children with a positive introduction to
 A baseline test will increase a teacher’s workload and distract them from their
primary purpose – to teach and support children using formative assessment
which helps them to move each child on.
Evidence showing that best practice includes both teacher-led and child-initiated
activities is being ignored. DfE and Ofsted are increasingly valuing the former to the
neglect of the latter.
Too much emphasis on formal learning and assessment will squeeze out play-based
learning from the curriculum. This is despite the fact that children are still in their early
years of development and the evidence shows that learning through play must be at the
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heart of early years education. Through all kinds of physical, constructional and social
play, children become more aware of, and more in control of, their physical and mental
activity. This allows them to gradually rely less on adult support and become more
intellectually and emotionally independentiv.
In 2004, a study of 3000 children, funded by the then Department for Education and
Skills, showed that an extended period of play-based preschool education made a
significant difference to learning and well-being through the primary school yearsv.
Research in New Zealand in 2013 compared children who started formal literacy lessons
at age 5 with those who started age 7. They showed that early formal learning doesn't
improve reading development, and may even be damaging. By the age of 11, there was
no difference in reading ability level between the two groups. However, those who
started aged 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading and showed poorer text
comprehension than those who had started latervi.
Starting formal education later is the practice in many European countries, particularly
Scandinavian countries. These countries have better academic achievement and child
well-being. Children start school at age 7 following a play-based Kindergarten between 0
- 6.
The well-being of children should be higher on the agenda of policy-makers. In both
2007 and 2011, a UNICEF study of the well-being of children in England shows that
England compares poorly to other OECD countries for child well-beingvii.
The NUT shares the desire to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged
children. However, this will only be achieved through:
 Understanding the importance of developmentally and age-appropriate practice;
 Getting the right balance between teacher-led and child initiated activities.
 Recognition that the evidence shows that the most disadvantaged children
benefit the most from spending longer in developmentally appropriate, creative
and play-based environments;
 Addressing the cultural lack of understanding about the value and meaning of
 A renewed focus on supporting parents and families as children's first and most
important carers through initiatives such as Children’s Centres.
Qualified teachers are vital to the quality of early years education. The recent Ofsted
report on early years educationviii restated that nursery schools get the best outcome for
children “Children from low income families make the strongest progress when
supported by highly qualified staff, particularly with graduate level qualifications. Nursery
schools have high levels of graduate level staff and perform as strongly in deprived
areas as in more affluent ones”. Only nursery schools employ teachers with Qualified
Teacher Status (QTS).
Low pay and low status is one of the key drivers of recruitment and retention problems
within the early years sector. The greatest resource and key determent of quality in early
years setting is its staff. These staff should have good levels of training and be rewarded
appropriately for their work.
The NUT believes that qualified teachers are essential to high quality early years
education and that teachers in this phase should be qualified teachers. This is not to
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make nursery education more formal, but to ensure sound pedagogy based on the
developmental needs of the children. The new DfE “Early Years teachers” do not have
QTS. This is indefensible. Evidence shows that qualified teachers make the differenceix.
PACEY, (2013). What does “School Ready” Really Mean. A research report form Professional Association for Childcare and
Early Years. Available at: http://www.pacey.org.uk/pdf/School%20Ready%20Report%20FINAL2.pdf [accessed 14 April 2014].
ii Start schooling later than age five, say experts. The Telegraph online Available at:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10302249/Start-schooling-later-than-age-five-say-experts.html [accessed
14 April 2014].
Save Childhood Movement (2014). Manifesto for the Early Years. Available at: http://www.savechildhood.net/putting-childrenfirst.html [accessed 14 April 2014].
iv Whitebread, D., Anderson, H., Coltman, P., Page, C., Pino-Pasternak, D. and Mehta, S. (2005) Developing independent
learning in the early years. Education 3-13, 33 (1). pp. 40-50.
v Sylva, K. Melhuish, E. Sammons, P. Siraj-Blatchford, I and Taggart, B. (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School
Education (EPPE) Project: Findings from Pre-school to end of Key Stage1. Available at: http://www.ioe.ac.uk/RB_preschool_to_end_of_KS1(1).pdf [accessed: 16 April 2014].
vi Suggate, S. Schaughency, E and Reese, E. (2013) Early Learning Research Quarterly 28 [1] pp.33 – 48. Children learning to
read later catch up to children reading earlier. Available at:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0885200612000397 [accessed: 16 April 2014].
UNICEF Office of Research Child Well-being in Rich Countries: A Comparative Overview. Florence: UNICEF Office of
Research, 2013. (Innocenti Report Card; 11). http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc11_eng.pdf [accessed: 14 April
viii Ofsted (2014) Early Years Annual Report 2012-13. Available at: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/earlyyearsannualreport1213
[accessed 14 April 2014].
ix Sylva, K. Melhuish, E. Sammons, P. Siraj-Blatchford, I and Taggart, B. (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School
Education (EPPE) Project: Findings from Pre-school to end of Key Stage1.
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