Many years ago, I trained as an early years teacher. Later I moved on to work in the primary sector, then at secondary level, and eventually with adults. These days I do a mixture of things, including writing books for educators and volunteering in the classroom. I am also closely involved with early years education, because I have helped to run my local preschool for about four years now. Going ‘back to my roots’ has been a genuinely fascinating and eye opening experience. Certainly, early years education has evolved out of all recognition since I first trained to work in the sector. The practitioners I have had the privilege to work with have been truly inspirational in their commitment to young children.
After Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss’s pronouncements via The Daily Mail on Monday, early years educators were in uproar, and I felt a burning urge to respond: thus, this blog post. Truss seems to believe that many preschoolers are running around, free flowing in a completely chaotic way, refusing to do as the adults ask or to sit still, ever. But this simply does not chime with what I know goes on in the vast majority of early years settings, where practitioners work tirelessly to help children learn and develop. What we do at our preschool, as happens in the vast majority of early years settings is to strike a balance. I’ll come back to that idea in a moment, but first let’s look at what the motivation might be behind Truss’s article.
In the early years consultation that has just closed, providers such as ourselves were asked various questions about ratios. One of the questions was why on earth we weren’t using the wonderful ‘flexible working arrangements’ that had been put in place. Truss has said that fewer than one in three nurseries use these arrangements, which ‘allow them to employ a graduate leader’. Let’s unpick that statement for a moment, because at our preschool we do employ a graduate leader, and yet we haven’t availed ourselves of her wonderful ‘arrangements’. But why on earth not?
Well, the ‘flexible working arrangements’ that Truss is talking about means the ability to use a ratio of one adult to thirteen children, if you have a teacher or EYP in your preschool setting (which we do). But just because preschools and nurseries can use this ratio, doesn’t mean they should or that they will. Surely it’s telling that so many choose not to use the offered ratio? In the response to the consultation, I pointed out this: on some days we only have 13 children in our setting. If I only had one adult in place, they couldn’t flow between indoors and outdoors as they can at present. But worse than that: what if a child wet herself (it does happen in early years, you know)? And then another child fell over and cut his knee open? And then the doorbell went for a delivery. You get the idea, I’m sure. Of course, this is not the main or only reason we use a much higher ratio. That’s because we care about the children getting individual attention, so that we can help them learn and develop.
I’ve asked our EYP in the past whether she would prefer a pay rise, or if she would prefer to maintain the ratio of one adult to five children that we currently achieve. And her answer every time? ‘Maintain the high ratio of adults to children.’ This matters to her far more than any increase in her pay. In fact, she is forever asking me for an even higher ratio, so we involve parents as volunteers where we can, but there is a limit to what I can do with the very limited funds we are given (just over £3.50 per child, per hour).
Remember, this is not a statutory part of a child’s education. If parents wish, they can spend the first four and a bit years of their child’s life doing whatever they want with their child. That might mean turning out little angels, who sit still and listen beautifully to grown ups; but equally it might also mean encouraging their children to think, question, explore, experience, enjoy life, get messy, be creative, sing, dance, play music, and generally learn to love to learn. Little rebels who will challenge what the adults say: that’s what I personally favour.
So, what exactly do preschoolers do all day? Elizabeth Truss might like to know, because obviously she’s not sure right now. In preschools and nurseries these days, there are 3 types of what you might call ‘learning experience’ that go on within what is known as ‘continuous provision’. What this means is that the staff set out resources and inspiring activities to cover all different areas of learning, then they play and interact with the children as appropriate. This is where we can strike that crucial balance. Here’s a quick summary of the three types:
Adult Directed – This is what Truss is after, and in some situations it works very well. With this type of learning, the adult directs or teaches the children. So, we ask our children to sit and do a quick welcome, or a show and tell, at the start of the preschool day. This might be a time when we talk about good learning behaviours, or simply share our news. We also ask the children to sit and listen to a story just before they leave at the end of the day. Similarly, with some of the older children, who are just about to start school, we might ask that they spend a short time focusing on letters and sounds learning. Other adult directed activities include chopping up food for snacks, washing their hands before they eat lunch, and socialising at snack time. Bear in mind the rule of thumb for concentration spans: their age plus two. So, at this age, the sensible adult expects around four or five minutes of high quality concentration.
Adult Initiated – This is the joy of the early years. Our practitioners know their children inside out (remember, this is only possible because we use a ratio of one to five). So, when they see that child would benefit from a specific ‘next step’ in his or her learning, they deliberately create an activity that will encourage the child to learn that concept, or skill, or behaviour. The children are drawn to those particular learning activities, usually of their own free choice, because the practitioner has created them to inspire, to appeal, to involve, to draw the child in because of pure curiosity or a desire to learn. Then, if appropriate, the adults might involve themselves in the play, and talk with the child what is going on, in a process called sustained shared thinking. (I’ll leave Truss to google that one for herself, if she’s interested.)
Child Initiated – This is the kind of learning that Truss worries about, but to my mind it is the essence of the early years. In the half hour before the children arrive, our staff set out a whole variety of activities, both indoors and outdoors. Then, for much of the time they are at preschool, the children make their choices about where they want to play, what they want to play with, and consequently what they will learn. That is not to say that we never direct or initiate a choice, but it is to say that this mirrors the natural process of early learning. I have a vivid memory of my own son, sitting in the garden, covered in mud, pouring water to make a puddle, simply to see what happens. And I know deep down in my soul: this is what learning should mostly look like at this age.
When I work with teachers, I often talk to them about how our education system has a tendency to stamp out this natural curiosity, this natural drive to learn. So much of our time as teachers is spent in trying to reinspire them, to bring this urge back, to reinvigorate the child’s natural desire to learn. We must not let Truss and this government stamp it out in the early years as well.