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The Early Years


The field of Early Years education has never had such a high political profile as the government struggles to contain and reverse a widening acheivement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children. But the field is riven by controversy between those who believe providing high quality play experiences is the major part of good early years education, and an increasingly formal learning agenda pushed by the government.

The Early Years - sponsored by the National Education Union
 
The 21st Century has seen a major change in our thinking about the Early Years in education. As governments increasingly intervene in the educational experiences of this age group, the early years has become a politically charged issue. Driven by fears about standards of literacy and numeracy, governments are prescribing how, when and what should be taught, thus taking decisions about pedagogy and planning out of the hands of practitioners. At the same time there has been an explosion of high quality research into the Early Years, much of which is critical of government prescription. These issues are reflected in the collection of articles on the Early Years that have been published by Teaching Times over the past few years. We provide an overview of those articles here.

Addressing System Inequalities
 
Let’s start with a review of the Early Years Foundation Stage for England. Members of the steering group for Open Eye praise the guidelines for their identification of the EYFS environment as a place that should include outdoor play as an entitlement, where children initiate their own learning goals. This sits uncomfortably alongside the restrictive and inappropriate statutory learning and development goals identified in the document. The ‘Unique Child’ of the guidelines is compromised by ‘legislated early learning goals.’ An audit culture has entered the field ­– ‘Targets, outcomes, delivery, rolling out, drilling down' – the language of accountability impacts on a young and undertrained workforce expected to deliver age related outcomes.
 
Understanding the rationale for government intervention is grounded in research. At age 5 the gap between the most disadvantaged children and the rest is 4.3 months and is related to 40% of the overall gap at 16. In response government has sought to widen access to Early Years provision for all children culminating in 2017 with working parents being entitled to 30 hours free childcare per week. Unfortunately the funding rates for free entitlement are insufficient to cover costs for providers and the negative impact of this on provision is now emerging.
 
Further research on inequalities between children can be found in the Leadership Briefings. In November 2015, “Growing up in Scotland” a longitudinal study comparing two cohorts of children from 2004/5 to 2010/11 is summarised. In February 2017, the Briefing present research prepared by the London School of Economics to compare quality in Early Years settings based on children’s school achievements at the end of Year 1. In December 2017, the Briefing summarised findings from SEED (Study of Early Education and Development), a longitudinal study to investigate the impact of early childhood education and care (ECEC) on children’s school-readiness and longer-term outcomes. The briefings provide succinct summaries of the latest research findings.
 
Unsurprisingly in light of the need to narrow the gap between children a number of articles have focused on provision improvement. Children’s speech and language is widely seen as key to closing the gap. Children cannot become good communicators if their voices are not heard and valued. By age 3 there can be up to 10 months difference between advantaged and disadvantaged children, rising to 15 months by age 5. Research claims a child’s development score at 22 months is an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26, emphasising the importance of early intervention.
 
Children Need to be Stimulated and Given a Voice
 
Good practice requires skilled adults who can model good language skills to facilitate and stimulate children. This has to be combined with listening to children and giving them a voice. The activities of singing and gestures, games and storytelling are emphasised as well as children’s ability to makes choices, give reasons, listen to others, agree and disagree and give opinions.
 
An example of good practice in promoting language and its link with research is found in the Primary file Leadership Resources. Here a nursery teacher focuses on language development, as children are encouraged to use their imagination to make choices and give reasons. Informed by the research of cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik we know that the 2-3 year-old has developed causal maps of the physical world, have a theory of mind and can imagine counter-factual – the ‘What if’ questions asked by the skilled teacher in this example. Such thinking can be promoted by a curriculum steeped in stories and imaginative play.
 
Play is at the Heart of Learning
 
The government’s focus on early literacy and ‘school readiness’ leads to fear that this might impact negatively on play. Senior Leadership Today (SLT8.3, 60-66) discusses the pressures on teachers to get children ready for the phonics test in year 1, where play is seen not as an entitlement but as a reward for completing formal tasks. The pressure to adopt more formal teaching to meet learning outcomes can lead to worksheets and activity-focused tasks designed and planned by the teacher, which does little to motivate or extend children’s learning. Opportunities for talk about concepts, questioning and explaining are lost in adult-directed tasks. Children have less opportunity to make choices. Time to practise and apply the skills lose out to schemes of work that squeeze out child-led activities and discussion between children and adults.
 
Research is very clear that children are active meaning-makers and strive to make sense of their environment. In a highly literate environment like the UK children are surrounded by environmental print. A curriculum rich in story to support children’s imagination has been identified as central in an early year’s classroom. Children need opportunities to listen, act out and produce their own stories. Incorporating literacy into imaginative play through continual provision of role-play, puppets, small-world play and other drama-based activities. The impact on children’s literacy of a year-long story curriculum is examined through a case-study of one nursery.
 
Maths is often taught discretely rather than emerging from play in context. Discussion on mathematics in the early years points out that numeracy is not just about counting and number recognition, but about shape, pattern, space, measurements and solving real-life problems. Setting leaders need good knowledge of maths and maths teaching if they are to support staff and integrate maths into all their practice to surround children with mathematical concepts, where practitioner’s model using numbers everyday, where songs and games introduce concepts and free choice activities like the mud kitchen provide clear opportunities to experience mathematical concepts.
 
Parental Involvement and Child-Centred Assessment is Key to Success

Research shows how school/home partnerships can raise children’s achievement, improve behaviour and reduce the attainment gap. Advice on how to build the relationship between parents/carers through dialogue and interaction is summarised in a useful set of recommendations. This relationship will depend on staff really knowing the children, which puts observation and assessment at the heart of Early Years practice. A case study of one child and the home-school relationship illustrates one issue around emotional well-being.
 
A key challenge for EY staff is to ensure that their assessment processes improve learning. At the heart of this is getting to know the child and knowing how to promote engagement and learning to move the child on. The authors recommend a cyclical formative assessment process and provide a useful list of things to do that are on-going and continuous. They stress that whilst observation can provide a snapshot of where children are it doesn’t necessarily tell us where they are going. It is important for staff to have effective ways of recording progress and an ability to use progress data to plan for children’s development. This should always be informed by aspirational values and high expectations.
 
Practical ways to carry out such on-going assessment comes from ‘Evaluating EYFS Provision’. Evaluation should help practitioners know whether their provision meets the needs of all the children, which means using documentation to try and understand the child’s pathway to meaning making and to build respect for the individual talents, interests and needs of each child. This approach also helps staff evaluate their practice and can help them engage with families. 
 
The relationship between home and school is especially important with regard to Special Education Needs. The SEND Code of Practice puts great emphasis on engaging parents and carers in making decisions and shaping their child’s education. The ‘Taking time for Talk’ project is introduced and a case study shows how it made a difference in one nursery. An interview with a nursery manager illustrates how she involved parents in the important task of making decisions for their children.
 
Does Technology Have a Place in Early Years Learning?
 
There are few areas that cause more controversy than the use of technology in the Early Years. The Leadership Briefing in January 2018 reports on findings from Pearson and NLT annual EY literacy survey. Some unexpected findings challenge ideas about the role of technology in the nursery and home. Differences in terms of gender and class are explained. Children are more likely to have above average vocabulary if they look at both printed stories and stories on a screen than those who read printed stories only and that holds true for all children regardless of class or gender. The research compares children from AB and DE households and by gender. Unsurprising is the finding that children who read daily have above average vocabulary, more surprising perhaps is that 81.3% of parents talk about story with their children and only 3.2% don’t do any supportive activities. 91.7% of 3-5s have access to touch screens at home, which has doubled since 2013.
 
The question of whether children are ever too young for technology is important and shows the polarised views of parents and practitioners. Some surprisingly different patterns of interaction with technology are reported based on socio-economic backgrounds. Whilst the majority of children have access to touch screens at home, only 22% of early years’ providers do. The research is divided with some claiming touch screens have positive impacts on literacy and on speaking and listening, whilst others claim they distract from physical play and social interaction. 
 

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