'Too often early years is seen through the prism of older phases'

Ahead of June's Hallam Festival of Education, one early years expert calls for debate on how children learn at different ages

Ruth Swailes

Old still of child saying something in teacher's ear

Recently, those working in early years have felt under constant scrutiny. From the Keeble review’s “aimless activities” and “confusion and lack of consistency” (2016) to Ofsted’s controversial Bold Beginnings report (2017); from the draft revised Early Learning Goals (2018) to the proposed new Reception baseline (version 3 for those old enough to remember), which will be mandatory from 2020.

Hot on the heels of these publications, Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework proposes a focus on English and maths in Early Years Foundation Stage and key stage 1. This represents a shift away from the intentions of the statutory early years framework, with its focus on the unique child. Firm foundations in the prime areas (personal, social and emotional development; communication and language; and physical development) form the bedrock for later literacy and numeracy, but the understanding of this seems to have gone missing.

Change can be challenging, but it is natural for experienced practitioners to ask questions, particularly if those proposing change have limited experience of the sector. There has been lively debate on social media about these documents, but at times this has led to polarisation and a perception that no common ground can be found. Opportunities to share and develop knowledge are lost and discussions can become unpleasant, with early years educators labelled as “hysterical naysayers”. Understandably, some practitioners have been unwilling to engage further, but it is vital to discuss the current narrative that a “third of our children in EYFS are falling behind their peers” (Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, 2017). In reality, our children are assessed at a much earlier age than their international counterparts. The distinct impression is given that learning for our youngest children is being viewed through the lens of those who only have experience working with older ones.

Research in early years

Although anyone can join in a debate about pedagogy, when we discuss an area that is not within our experience, it’s important to ask questions to find out more. We need to discuss our understanding of how children learn in different phases with people who might not share our views. In 2017, in the wake of the publication of Bold Beginnings, a movement called Firm Foundations was created by a group of early years educators. This grassroots movement was launched with a conference in London last April, at the Early Excellence centre. Speakers with a range of views and experiences spoke at the event, leading to an interesting and lively debate, especially around Bold Beginnings. There were keynotes, workshops and panel discussions. There was a feeling in the room that this was something special; that we could agree to disagree but reach compromise through respectful and meaningful conversations.

It was a humbling experience to be at a conference where there was so much knowledge and experience to draw on. We listened to PhD students sharing their research findings, authors of key documents that have shaped best practice in EYFS nationally and internationally, teachers sharing their experiences and leaders trying to manage the tension of accommodating the needs of very young children within the demands of the current education system. There is something “other” about early years in the UK – in most countries formal education starts at age 6 or 7. This can lead to misunderstandings and dismissal of best practice in early years as “just play”, or people avoiding the phase altogether for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. It was great to see so many people in the room who were not EY teachers joining in the discussion.

The current narrative around research-informed practice is to be welcomed; it is essential that teachers are well informed about how learning happens. Many of those in early years study for postgraduate qualifications and read research to inform their practice, with a view to providing the best opportunities for children. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeking the magic bullet. Thistlethwaite et al 2012 argue that “evidence has multiple meanings depending on context and use”. Maybe “what works?” is a naive question to ask in regard to education. Perhaps better questions are “how does this work, for whom, how and under what circumstances?”

Ruth Swailes is an independent educational consultant and school improvement adviser with 25 years’ experience working in EYFS and primary schools

This Saturday Firm Foundations 2: Joining the Dots will take place at Bath Spa University. In June, Firm Foundations will also join the Hallam Festival of Education for two days, which will allow for debate across many topics in early years with a diverse range of speakers: Dr Pam Jarvis, Sue Cowley, Jan Dubiel, Neil Coleman, Fufy Demise, Zoe Singh, David Cahn, David Kelly, Sally Pearse, Kath Bransby, Margot Sunderland, Di Chilvers and many others.


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Ruth Swailes

Ruth Swailes is an independent educational consultant and school improvement advisor with 25 years' experience working in EYFS and Primary schools

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