Early education is the foundation for later success, but are we filling vases or lighting fires?

Article for 'Early Years Educator'

By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

Article ("Let play fan the flames of learning") for the January/February issue of EYE

Good early education is the foundation for later success. There is a wealth of research evidence which clearly demonstrates this, the most recent of which highlights the link between good experience in reception and GCSE results.

The provision of high quality early years education and childcare is critical to ensure that children are ready to take full advantage of the education experience at school.  With over 90 percent of early years education and childcare providers being judged as good or outstanding by Ofsted, it is clear the whole sector is playing its part.

However, reports that children are not ready for school persist, and this is something which Ofsted appears to agree with, casting doubt, in its 2016-17 Annual Report, over the EYFS curriculum.

Findings reported separately in Bold Beginnings appear to have influenced the opinion of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman.  Bold Beginnings examined how schools prepare four and five-year olds for school life and future academic success.  It also identified a degree of mismatch between expectations at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and National Curriculum/Key Stage1 readiness.

Both reports were interesting, with the latter also proving controversial.  A degree of confusion about what and how four and five-year olds should be taught being a point in question. The report, and commentators on it, appear, somewhat predictably, to make presumptions on the value of formal or adult-led learning and learning through play, fuelling further the debate over best early years practice, the ‘schoolification’ of the early years and the necessity of formal teaching.

Play does not stop at school. Early years and reception class teachers and teaching assistants fully understand the value of play in the learning process.  Play is an essential learning building block – it does not replace adult-led, age-appropriate teaching activities. Rather, it enables children to practise, consolidate and extend the learning experience – and it’s fun!  Neither is it consigned to the development of personal, emotional and social skills only. It enables children to reconstruct formal learning in a practical context – enjoyably. 

François Rabelais, the Renaissance writer and humanist, is credited with saying that: ‘A child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit’.  If this is so, play fans the flames ignited by early years and reception teachers and teaching assistants, who all want to inspire children to acquire good learning habits that will lead not only the acquisition of knowledge, but to the application of knowledge and learning for life.

Teachers and teaching assistants ignite the fire by teaching or leading learning and providing opportunities for children to consolidate their learning through play-based activities.  They know that children understand when they ‘do’. It is how they put ‘I see’ and ‘I remember’, ‘I do’ and ‘I understand’ into action.

There has long been dialogue within the early years sector about whether children should be prepared for schools or schools for children – and, it seems from Bold Beginnings, prepared for KS1 ad infinitum.  This has led to recommendations in the report to review the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) to achieve greater alignment between the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) and National Curriculum for Year 1 and to reduce teachers’ workload. 

While there is merit in the recommendations, caution must be exercised.  EYFS and ELGs must not become KS minus 1. Any action to reduce teacher workload is welcome, but clarity of interpretation and expectation of the assessment and moderation process will contribute to this too.

As a rationale, the reports imply that each phase of education is purely preparation for the next phase, with the needs of the system taking priority over the learning and developmental needs of children.  The culture of accountability that has been promoted through ideological, politically-motivated targets and obsession with national and international league tables is preventing the system from working – not the dedicated, highly skilled and experienced professionals working within it.

To mend the system, the early years sector and schools need to work together to ensure a harmonious transition process.  They also need the capacity, investment and time, which the system currently does not allow, to be able to do it.