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Policy and play don't mix

David Henderson reports from the European Early Childhood Education Research conference in Glasgow

Teachers and nursery nurses have one view about what goes on in playrooms and policy-makers and managers have quite another, Professor Sally Brown of Stirling University told a major international conference at Strathclyde University.

Professor Brown argued that the cultures of the "insiders" and "outsiders" often failed to overlap in the pre-school world and ran in parallel, an uncomfortable finding for those who believed they could set practice standards, targets and common outcomes and hold people accountable. Such hopes ignored reality on the ground.

"There is an assumption that policy prescription will lead and valuable developments in practice will follow because either playroom insiders share the perspectives of outsiders or they can easily be persuaded to," Professor Brown said. "Research indicates that this assumption is misguided and this has implications for innovations in provision, the education of staff and the practice in the playroom."

A Stirling study had shown wide variations in playroom practice and children's experiences, countering the notion of common standards. Children were grouped differently, had differing amounts of free play and the amount of planning varied.

Teachers and nursery nurses did not talk about learning outcomes and curricular areas. "Longer-term curricular goals or terms like targets or achievement of learning outcomes were never used. They noted with pleasure (and sometimes surprise) the emergence in individual children of new skills and areas of confidence, but adopted a nurturing and developmental way of thinking about this, rather than a target-orientation," she said.

When managers and inspectors called, staff were able to engage with them on the outsiders' priorities but "they had quite different and distinctive ways of thinking about their work as they were doing it".

Outsiders were concerned about stability, regularity, certainty, application of standards, predictability of learning outcomes and a well-ordered playroom. "In contrast, the insiders' perspective took account of uncertainties, insecurities, complexity, flexibility and dynamism in the playroom."

She believed the "parallel cultures" challenged managers and inspectors to question their commitment to progress by prescription and regulation. It was common to argue that education should start where the children are but the same principle did not apply to staff.

Professor Brown warned that there was little scope for teachers and nursery nurses to share practice and reflect on it when the policy-makers, "those at the centre of wisdom", continued to expound ways ahead.

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