Raising hell over the rising fives
Why is being four something to hide in this country? Too often the metaphoric cock crows thrice and our four-year-olds are denied their rights to just enjoy being four; too often being four is seen as being pre-something - pre-national curriculum, pre-"formal" school, pre-key stage 1 and so on. Why "pre" anything"?
Worse still, four-year-olds can be lost under descriptions such as Rising 5 or, even worse, Rising, Rising 5 - what nonsense! Nine-year-olds are not referred to as Rising 10s, 39-year-olds cling desperately to 39 and would take a dim view of being described as Rising 40.
Dedicated early-years professionals fight for these young children to be freed from such labels and to be allowed to enjoy the discoveries of now. All of us who write about children's learning seek to catch the "dust in sunlight" moments which place us in awe of young children's capacity to learn and to make connections.
And more and more is being written about the early years, about the educational needs, curriculum and assessment of three to five-year-olds. Why is this? Several reasons spring to mind, but one of the most potent is the feeling that there is a need to justify to "men in grey suits" why energy and time should be invested in the education of young children.
The current resurgence of interest on the part of politicians should probably be viewed with caution - the nursery bandwagon is in danger of tipping over as all the parties try to clamber aboard.
Remember that the voices of early-years professionals have consistently been ignored or regarded as misguided ramblings. Much of the wrangling, inactivity and marginalisation has its roots in gender issues since early-years education has been predominately the province of women. Certainly, more men are training now and there are some eminent male supporters of nursery education, but the fact remains that this phase of education has been hindered by the absence of a united political campaign.
The task of being with children is demanding, continuous and immediate, and early-years practitioners usually focus their energy on meeting the needs of children above all else. This has meant that no campaign has ever gathered sufficient momentum to make a dent in the national financial blockade.
Now the politicians' interest has unleashed a debate which we must hope will result in less tokenism and more genuine understanding of the needs of young children and families. Some, who in the past, have dismissed early-years education as "unimportant or trivial" now wish to be seen as supporters of "quality" provision for three to five-year-olds.
A further reason why so much is written about the under-fives lies in the chaotic diversity of types of service - from nursery classes to playgroups - and the ensuing indefensible diversity in quality. Young children's learning is so complex, so alive and so rapid that it demands research, study, skill and analysis at the highest intellectual levels.
Almost all education authorities have some published documentation concerned with the education of children aged three to five, some from zero to five.
These documents come in all shapes, forms and presentation packages - from glossy, "coffee-table" versions, to ring-binders, to substantial texts worthy of the description of book, rather than curriculum guidance. Vast amounts of money are being spent as we all attempt to define the Unique Selling Points, to use the jargon of the market economy, of early-years education and to try to translate the intangible into print. Why do we do it?
Aside from convincing the "men in grey suits," the principal reason must be to try to improve practice. Nevertheless, prolific writing of guidance, however good, will not automatically raise expectations and standards. Publishing the text is really the starting point for a concerted approach towards encouraging nursery services to develop Total Quality Management characteristics. And TQM is needed. Consider just some of the things a nursery teacher has to do: o Form working partnerships with parents - for the first time; o Liaise with many other agencies, for example, social services; o Manage and train students; o Manage and take responsibility for staffteam development; o Build an effective nursery team; o Keep governors and headteachers informed; o Monitor the daily health and safety aspects of provision; o And, take overall responsibility for the learning and assessment of 52 children - 26 children part-time morning and afternoon.
These skills demand sophisticated management techniques, energy and, above all else, recognition. The latest notion that those in charge of our youngest children need not necessarily be qualified teachers shows that the perception of early-years professionals as well-paid "child-minders" still lurks under the veneer of political commitment. This is not just an approach being taken by some on the extreme Right, some professionals who should know better are beginning to express this view - testing the water for the political masters?
How could an unqualified person cope with all the managementcurriculum trainingprofessional development issues outlined above? The value placed on early-years co-ordinators by an LEA can be seen where there is a commitment to regular in-service training to develop total quality management. At the same time, advisers and consultants must continue to make headteachers, governors and politicians aware of the exceptional value which they receive from these professionals, a value which often far outstrips their salary.
The numerous publications now available in LEAs could often be used to better effect by building INSET programmes around them. Also, LEAs could follow the example of my own - Essex - which used its early-years curriculum guidance as the central text for an extended course. This course has been jointly devised by the Essex Development and Advisory Service and the University of Cambridge Institute. It involves the county's early-years team jointly tutoring with Mary Jane Drummond, early years education tutor at the Cambridge Institute We regard the publications recently produced in Essex as vitally important in the ceaseless quest for that mysterious and overused descriptor, quality.
Only if these become working documents, with commitment from schools and the INSET providers, will the words on the pages turn into better and more effective practice.
Janice Layton is the early years consultant with Essex Development and Advisory Service. For details of publications available from Essex County County telephone 01268 769646