Ask Sam

Yesterday, the new Childcare Minister Sam Gymiah gave a speech to Policy Exchange about how he sees the future of childcare, and why he wants more schools to offer childcare provision for two-year-olds. At the moment, the school sector makes up a tiny percentage of the overall provision for this age group. To me, Mr Gymiah’s speech seemed very short on giving answers, and very long on raising (awkward) questions. So, given that I’ve never been one to shy away from asking awkward questions, here are ten questions Mr Gymiah might want to consider answering. (I have more, when he’s done with these.)

1. Was there a reason why you talked about the impact of preschool provision on lifetime earnings, on convenience for parents, on the number of GCSEs children achieve, on getting parents into work, but you completely failed to mention the vital importance of attachment at this age, and of meeting the emotional needs of children? This is both the most vital part of working with two-year-olds, and the hardest in terms of staffing and provision. Is it possible that you might be putting the cart before the horse?

2. You mention in your speech how “sometimes space can be a barrier”. I’d like to give you a feel for how massive that “sometimes” is. I live in a rural area, and when I think of the five primary schools closest to where I live, not a single one of them has sufficient space for two-year-old provision (or even for a nursery class, come to that). Where I see purpose built provision being added to schools in our closest city, this is usually on part of what used to be a playground or a field. Do you genuinely believe that there is space in our overcrowded schools for lots of new two-year-old provision? And are you concerned at all about how this will impact on outdoor provision for children at primary schools?

3. Are you clear about how the private sector works? (Since you’re a member of the Conservative Government, I’d assume so, but having read your speech I wonder.) A key element of the private sector is competition. In your speech you ask private daycare nurseries to work with schools, and this leads me to ask a fairly fundamental question: do you understand the ‘competition’ part of a market based system? I’m not saying that private daycare nurseries would not be willing to work with schools – the providers I know are keen to do the best for children. But it seems odd that you want private providers to support what is effectively their ‘competition’. Is it possible you have misunderstood how a market works?

4. As a voluntary run setting, located in a village hall, we’d be delighted if our local school said: “Hey, why don’t you move into this lovely purpose built provision that we’ve created for you?” (Although please see No.2 as to why this is not going to happen.) However, the clue here is in the term “voluntary run”. I struggle to cope with my role as chair of the management committee at the moment, and we are only open from 9.30am – 2.30pm for 38 weeks a year. There is no way I would be able to help manage a voluntary run setting that was open 8am to 6pm, 52 weeks a year. It’s hard enough to get committee members right now: do you expect parents to volunteer to run full day, year round provision?

5. You talk about how keeping all the provision in one place eases transitions for children. Intellectually, I understand what you mean – transitions are tricky, and our staff have to work closely with our local primary to manage them. But life is full of transitions, and helping children to manage these is part of helping them to grow up and learn to cope with change. Are you sure that it is such a good idea for a child to enter a school at two-years-old, and to pop out at the other end, at 18, topped up with just the right amount of exams? As a parent, the transitions from preschool to primary, and from primary to secondary, seem to me to have been a vital part of helping my children learn to handle change.

6. I understand that you have a problem with supply in the childcare sector – there just aren’t enough two-year-old places to go around. But here’s a thing: in the private sector, high demand for and low supply of a ‘product’ leads to only one outcome. The cost of the ‘product’ goes up. At present the sector is drastically under funded, with government paying around £5 an hour for places for two-year-olds, and only £3.50 an hour for three and four-year-olds. Have you considered the usual way of increasing supply in a market, which would be to stop asking providers to subsidise the ‘free offer’ and pay them a bit more money?

7. When I got to the bit of your speech where you said: “And as we know, parents trust schools”, will you forgive me for laughing out loud? Is this not just a tad ironic, given the overpowering nature of our current school accountability system, and the fact that Mr Gove spent his tenure as Education Secretary giving completely the opposite impression?

8. You say you are ‘living the early years’ at the moment, now that you have a child of your own. It’s lovely to hear that you and your partner (I’m assuming you’re not a single parent) have a new baby. I’m not going to be so impolite as to pry into your private life, but I’m happy to share some aspects of mine, to give you an insight into what childcare looks like for ordinary people. When we were new parents, our thought process went: give up work (not financially viable); hire a nanny (not financially viable); find a childminder (no one locally); find a part time preschool/nursery place (phew). We are lucky that we can work from home, so we could spend as much time with our small children as possible, which for us was part of the joy of having them. Your vision seems to be of parents dropping off their tiny children at schools, from the age of two, so that they can work full time (often in poorly paid jobs). Does this sound like ‘living the early years’ dream to you? You mention ‘choice for parents’ in your speech. Is there a reason why you didn’t mention childminders (often a vital part of the childcare picture for ordinary folk) and the fact that the number of childminders has reduced drastically in the past few years? What about those parents who would like to care for their own two-year-olds? What are you offering them?

9. You note the sector’s concerns about the ‘schoolification’ of the early years (it’s more than “some people”, Mr Gymiah, it’s LOTS of people, and it’s those people who are already working in the sector). You mention some examples of learning through play – yes, that is what play can look like. But if this is your vision of ‘learning through play’, then why does your regulator have these videos of ‘learning through play’ on its website as examples of good practice, videos that very clearly show adult directed learning (what you might call ‘teaching’)? (See also my blog here.)

10. Now, the elephant in the childcare room is, of course, babies. And here, I begin to wonder about the government’s long term, unspoken, aims. By moving two-year-olds into school based provision, the government would make it very hard for other settings to remain financially sustainable. The sector has grown up organically over the last 50 years (our preschool is about to celebrate its 50th year in service to the local community). At present, full daycare nurseries usually cater for 0 to 4 year olds, and settings such as ours for 2 – 4 year olds. If school nurseries take children from 2 years old, then you do not widen choice, you narrow it, because settings such as ours would have to close. So my final question is this: do you envisage a time when full daycare nurseries cater only for babies from 0 – 2 years old? Or is your long-term aim to get those babies into schools?


Posted in Children, Early Years, Schools | 4 Comments

Sh – ee – p

J: Ssh … ssh … [he holds his finger to his lips]

N: Why do we have to be quiet?

Sue: Because we don’t want to wake the monster that lives under the ground. That’s our game. We’re playing together.

N: Can I join in? I love playing games.

J and Sue: Sure!

E: [coming over from the other side of the playground] Look! There are some sheep in the field over there! Can we go and play with them?

J & N: [fingers to lips] Ssh, you’ll wake the monster!

Sue: And you might scare the sheep away too.

[The early years setting is very rural. There are animals everywhere.]

A: [joining them] Shall we go and see them? The sheep?

Sue: That’s a great idea. Hey everyone, can you hear that ‘sh’ sound we keep making? Remember? That’s our sound this week. Shall we see how many times we can spot it? [everyone nods] We could count the sheep too, if you like?

E: That’s the best way to fall asleep. [they all laugh]

A: Then afterwards we can go inside and find lots of ‘sh’ toys. Sharks!

E: And shields!

N: And shells!

J: On the seashore!

Sue: Sure thing. [they all high five] We could write some of them down in our explorer’s notebooks, if you like?

A: Hey, that’s another ‘sh’ sound. Sure.

Sue: Let’s talk about that ‘sh’ another time …

[They head off to count the sheep.]

Posted in Children, Early Years, Play | 5 Comments

How (NOT) to Learn through Play

“Play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”

According to Ofsted, this is what learning through play looks like. In the first video, the teacher presents the children with ready made police hats, then she takes them outside to search for animal pictures on cards. When they find the animals, they must sound out the word: sh – ee – p. The teacher plans the direction the learning will take; the children do not have any input. The teacher takes all the decisions; the children do not make any choices of their own. The teacher has a predetermined outcome for the activity; the children cannot move laterally from this objective. The teacher speaks a great deal; the children hardly talk at all. The children, we are told, do this to please the teacher (rather than to please themselves.)

This, then, is not ‘play’ in any shape or form. This is what I would call ‘adult directed learning’. There is nothing inherently wrong with adult directed learning, as part of a balanced diet of early years provision. However, you can often get to the same end result in a much more playful and play based way, usually by following the children’s lead (see my blog here). There are a number of potential disadvantages of a heavy focus on adult directed learning:

* The children’s interests are sidelined in favour of the adult’s objectives. (It’s important to note that this is not a statutory phase of education – the children are not here to be made ‘school ready’, they are here to be cared for, to have fun and to learn.)

* The opportunities for building decision making skills and independence are limited. The children do what the adult tells them to, with less chance to make choices of their own.

* There is no element of personal creativity or imagination involved in the activity. (What a missed art opportunity those police hats represent!)

* There is often little talk involved when the adult directs a large group, and therefore less chance for the process of sustained shared thinking to take place.

I’m sorry, Ofsted, but you cannot just stick a police hat on a child, set all the rules of the game, tell the children exactly what to do, and then call it ‘play’. Play is messy, joyful, creative, child led, imaginative, risky. It is about defining yourself, your relationship to your peers, and to the world in which you live. It is a fundamental part of the way in which young children develop. And children tend to laugh a lot when they are doing it. Therefore, I conclude that these videos are not an example of ‘learning through play’. They are a demonstration of ‘direct instruction for tiny children’.

Posted in Children, Early Years, Play | 5 Comments

A Standardised Lesson Plan

Insert creative ideas here —>

(Base these on: your subject knowledge, your professional judgement, your knowledge of your children, their interests and their individual needs. Note: other teachers have lots of good ideas, you can also borrow and adapt these to suit.)

Posted in Teaching and learning | 1 Comment

Finding your Form

I’m writing a book at the moment. Or, to be more accurate, a book is writing me. I know what the book is about. I’ve had the experiences I needed to write it. I know exactly what I’m going to say. But the book just hasn’t found its form yet. This is partly a waiting game. The book will come when it wants to come. However, there are some things you can do to speed up the process of finding your form:

* Just write, even if it’s rubbish.

* Go sideways: explore some other art forms and think about how they could link to your project.

* Experiment – try writing what you want to say in different forms, in different styles, and for different audiences.

* Think about covers, and tag lines, and blurbs, and all that fun stuff.

Finding your form is a bit like shaking up a bottle of coke, then waiting for just the right moment to take off the lid. If you open it too soon, the danger is you get all sticky. If you open it too late, all the fizz is gone. But, at some point, you have to take the lid off. And, basically, see what happens. #amwriting

Posted in Writing | 5 Comments


“I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

W.B. Yeats

It takes a lot of courage to share your writing. What will people think? What will they say? Will they like my ideas? Is my writing any good? Most people lack self confidence when they first start writing. 25 years and 25 books later I’m pretty confident that I can write well. The fact that my books sell helps me believe that people want to read what I write. But when I started out, you could have crushed my confidence in my writing with a single ill-judged comment. (Luckily, we did not have the Internet when I began.) Even now, when I write a new book, I still feel nervous about how it will be received.

One of the strangest things about being a writer is that you must care deeply about what your readers think about your writing, and yet at the same time you must not care at all.  You write for your readers, but you don’t write because you think your readers will like what you wrote. You write because you must. Sometimes people will take against what you write. They will dislike your ideas, or the way that you express them. The problem is, when it comes to writing, that the writer often conflates the two. An attack on your ideas can feel like an attack on your writing, even if the reader didn’t mean it in that way.

As educators, we understand that helping children learn and develop is about having high expectations, but that it is also about building self confidence and self esteem. If a child’s writing is riddled with errors, we don’t highlight everyone single one, because that would be counter productive. We look for parts we can praise, at the same time as giving targets for improvement. We practice the art of being subtle. People often ask me if they can send me samples of their writing, so that I can give them advice. I could send their writing back to them, spray painted with ‘don’t do THIS!’ and ‘what are you THINKING!?’ But that is about as much help to an emerging writer as a chocolate tea pot. It is far, far better for me to give general advice, constructive criticism and to highlight what is working well. Then allow the person to figure out where they want to go next – what kind of writer they want to become.

My blog is an experimental space, and it doesn’t bother me at all if commentators don’t like my ideas. I don’t even mind when other bloggers take my blog posts and use them to write ones of their own, in which they very kindly point out all my errors of thinking. (I’m looking at you, Mr Old.) But for those new to writing, I can see that this might be enough to crush the writer’s confidence and make them think twice about writing again. We don’t always have to say what we think. An awful lot of the time these days, I find myself biting my tongue. And if we do want to make our feelings known, we can do so in a way that is polite and that models the message we want to send. There is enough space in the world for people to share all different kinds of ideas. It is wonderful that different writers have different ways of expressing what they want to say. And we do not need to crush anyone else’s dreams to have dreams of our own.

Posted in Blogging, Writing | 8 Comments

It’s Not About the Money, Money, Money

This week my daughter finally earned her sticker from school for doing 25 nights of reading. She has been looking forward to getting the sticker. The sticker acts as a useful ‘marker’ of her achievement. But we would have read every night anyway, because we love reading. Yesterday my son came home from school and proudly announced that he had earned 3 green slips. He was delighted to receive them, even though the prize they earn him is irrelevant because he eats packed lunches (you get to go to the front of the school dinner queue). The slips act as a lovely way for the school to let us know how hard he is working. But he would have worked hard anyway, because he loves to learn.

Today brought news of a £1.6 million study into whether cash incentives and offers of trips would boost student attainment at GCSE level. (They didn’t. No, I’m not surprised either.) I find myself baffled as to why anyone would choose to spend so much money to research this particular question, not least because of the values that lurk behind it. Motivation is an incredibly complex subject; different people are motivated by different things. But the idea that we would think to use such a blatant extrinsic reward is astonishing to me. This is Parenting 101, for goodness sake. If you constantly say to your child ‘Do x and you get y’, after a while they respond to every request with ‘What do I get if I do it?’ Just because it’s hard to get children to be intrinsically motivated, doesn’t mean that it is not worth trying. My aim as a parent has always been to teach my children that learning is of value, and deeply rewarding, in its own right. How on earth can we even envisage an education system that tells them that no, actually, it’s all about the money?

Posted in Children, Motivation, Rewards | 4 Comments