The future lies in the past

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Peter Hannon urges a return to the innovative research of twenty years ago to stimulate current teaching

Too much innovation in British early childhood education is now imported. Examples over the last decade include Reading Recovery from New Zealand, High Scope from the US, one specific American version of family literacy ("Success for All"), "First Steps" from Australia. Most are valuable imports and it is good to learn from other countries. But I am beginning to wonder what we are offering them in return. I see a growing trade deficit and a reliance on overseas sources of innovation.

Innovation is closely linked to research. You can have one without the other, but practitioners are excited by research which stimulates innovation, and innovation is strengthened through evaluative research.

Yet researchers alone are not to blame for the lack of home grown innovation. We need to recognise the ecological nature of the problem. The environment for research-based innovation has become more sterile as teachers have been denied professional opportunities to engage with research (through doing it, reading about it, discussing it, and dialogue with researchers). It is not enough to produce research for government, for other research-ers or for posterity. There has to be a critical readership among practitioners with sufficient autonomy to develop their pract-ice through engage-ment with research. Research is a fragile plant which cannot thrive without the right soil, nutrients and climate.

Before it is all forgotten, let us reclaim the recent history of early childhood education. Twenty years ago the field was energised by research and innovation. That was the era of post-Plowden "Educational Priority" compensatory education research, including, for example, pre-school intervention and home visiting. There were nation-wide curriculum development projects in language, play, and early mathematics which involved thousands of teachers. The Social Science Research Council initiated a research programme. There were influential studies of parental involvement, playgroups, observational methods, pre-school curricula, childminding, and new forms of provision by the Oxford Preschool Research Group, the Thomas Coram Research Unit, the National Children's Bureau and others. LEAs were busily extending nursery provision and running courses and projects. There were also innovations in childcare, community education and adult literacy.

Of course it was not a golden age but what matters is whether the problems of an age are being tackled and whether - as has happened for most of this century - there is some kind of progress, however fitful, on at least some fronts.

The historical momentum has not been maintained since the 1970s. Consider changes in five key aspects of early childhood education: teacher autonomy; local initiatives; professional development; top-down innovations; and the role of research. Taken together they explain how British early childhood education has entered its own cycle of disadvantage.

Twenty years ago overseas educators marvelled at the autonomy of early years teachers - the keystone of a distinctive British nursery-infant tradition. Right wing critics and ministers of education, however, took every means to reduce it. Distrust of teachers became a driving principle of government policy. Autonomy was replaced by control - most notably through the national curriculum, now reaching pre-school education. Control has been pervasive - extending to countless bureaucratic demands, involving a specially recruited and trained curriculum police force, and affecting teachers' time outside the classroom (and even at home).

If we want to improve early childhood education, by-passing teachers' thinking brings only superficial change. Nevertheless, when control has not brought desired results, government's solution is more of the same. The search for "teacher-proof" solutions is intensified. When standards are considered low despite the national curriculum, the response is unprecedently prescriptive programmes now being trialled through the literacy and numeracy centres.

It is not just teachers who are considered untrustworthy, but also local, democratically controlled, education authorities. It is now extreme-ly difficult for local initiatives to get off the ground - partly because of low funding for education generally but also because the amount LEAs control is so small (and set to disappear entirely according to the latest White Paper). Competition between schools discourages collaboration. The growth of innovation from the ground up is therefore stunted.

Professional development has changed too. Twenty years ago there was a culture of local courses, teachers' centres, active professional organ-isations, support for Masters' level study, and the emergence of teacher researchers. Now we have skeletal local course programmes, centrally dictated GEST requirements, school Inset days devoted to organisation, and teachers unable to afford higher degree courses.

The Teacher Training Agency - another control agency - stands poised to tell teachers and higher education institutions what teachers' professional needs are. Its recent championing of teacher research is unconvincing. Out of 230 applications nationally for support, only 27 were accepted (about five in early childhood) and, in the spirit of the times, "publication, in all cases, will need to be approved by the TTA". Meanwhile, across the country, thousands of teachers are denied funding for MEd courses which often generate high quality teacher research.

In this context we have top-down innovations, often termed "reforms", from central government and its agencies. Some are optional but bidding for them is actually the only way to maintain services. Examples are Reading Recovery, the Basic Skills Agency version of Family Literacy, or the Literacy and Numeracy Centres. Central government decides what is needed and says "take it or leave it". Early childhood educators are rarely involved in defining problems, shaping solutions, or choosing options.

The role of research has been marginalised. Practitioners still have an appetite for research but few opportunities to satisfy it. There are still good studies but they are not not really part of the innovation-research cycle. For example, national evaluations of Reading Recovery and Family Literacy, despite their excellent quality, have addressed research questions - and investigated options - largely set by government. Researchers risk becoming prisoners, rather than critics, of government and its agents.

What can we do? I propose we deliberately adopt these principles of action to counter the changes we have witnessed.

Most readers, whatever their work, are in a position to take some action based on them. It may not be much but long journeys begin with single steps.

There are some promising signs of change. Interest is growing in several parts of the country in practitioner research in early childhood education and care. The moratorium on national curriculum change gives a small opportunity for professional development courses to grow. The Nuffield Foundation has made a substantial grant to a Sheffield University-LEA-schools project in pre-school literacy. Some local initiatives may yet overcome their funding constraints and make a national contribution.

Sooner or later there will be a renaissance in early childhood education and research because the vitality of young children, the rewards of educating them, and the fascination of working out the best ways of doing it, are forces too powerful to suppress for long. May it come sooner rather than later.


* Increase teacher autonomy

* Improve professional development opportunities

* Support local initiatives

* Critically appraise all top-down innovation

* Make research central to practice and innovation

Peter Hannon is a reader in education at the University of Sheffield.

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