Sir Michael: Champion of the disadvantaged or child catcher?

Imagine an early years system which set out in minute detail what goals young children should be working towards. This system analysed in hundreds of detailed statements what could be expected of children socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually -from birth. Imagine that teachers were expected to intervene in the ‘natural’ development of children to ensure they made progress against all these many stated goals. In fact, in this system the ordinary play of children is not viewed as adequate (p16), it must be thoroughly scrutinised by adults. Their main role is then to step in and improve that play to make it more educational. Imagine that even the ordinary and developmentally normal progress of these children must be assessed regularly. The tiniest progress must be thoroughly recorded by teachers who spend hours with cameras and post- it notes to produce a large assessment dossier on each child – Then imagine that this system is then viewed as one which protects children’s childhoods from the agenda of adults.

Of course I am describing our current Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for 0-5 year olds. There are things I really don’t like about it but I do think much works well. However, in some ways it is an odd preferred approach for those that  champion an end to ‘the erosion of childhood’ within our culture. For them the current threat is from Sir Michael Wilshaw, whose Ofsted report on the quality of early years provision advocates an approach which, according to 235 authors, academics and nursery leaders, would be:
‘catastrophic for children’s mental health and risks ‘setting up many for failure at a young age’

Their concern is not really that children are in nursery provision, rather than at home with their mum or dad, or that adults are trying to help children reach goals or assess them (all part of EYFS). The anger appears to be because Wilshaw wants to put children into a school environment before their time. He says this is a way to close the achievement gap between the wealthy and the underprivileged, who are often not ‘school ready’. There are certainly lots of headlines about school for 2 year olds and stuff about how two year olds are already failing according to Mr Wilshaw.

So is this Sir Michael’s agenda? Well that really depends what meaning you attach to words like ‘school environment.’ In his speech Wilshaw bluntly suggests the reason there is a 20% gap in development between the poorest and those from advantaged backgrounds is because:
‘Some parents teach.’
Ah ha! I can see exactly why proponent s of the EYFS ‘play based learning’ approach are up in arms – it makes perfect sense. We don’t want two year olds being taught formally, like at desks and similar… Except Wilshaw goes onto explain what he means by ‘teaching’:
‘Setting up play and learning as opposites is a false dichotomy. The best play is challenging. The favourite game is the one that promises mastery of a new skill… Play in many families is inherently educational. When a child interacts with an adult it is an opportunity to learn. Children naturally absorb new skills, words and ideas. ..They teach when they count the stairs as they carry the child to bed… read toddler stories and sing nursery rhymes…by loving their children…also by setting clear boundaries.’
Oh, but surely we have agreement here? It is just a big misunderstanding as Wilshaw says he also wants young children to learn through play. Even the going to school aged two is a red herring it seems. Wilshaw clearly states that he just wants more nursery provision through schools because it tends to be higher quality and easier to access – in fact higher quality EYFS provision. There has been no special objection by anyone to schools running nursery EYFS provision to date and they tend to do a better job than some nurseries in deprived areas. If we look at Wilshaw’s idea of school readiness (to enter year 1 aged 5-6) it seems what he wants children to be able to do is reasonable enough:
• To sit and listen
• To be aware of other children
• To understand the word ‘no’ and the boundaries it sets for behaviour
• To understand the word stop and that such a phrase might be used to prevent danger
• To be toilet trained and able to go to the loo
• To recognise their own name
• To speak to an adult to ask for help
• To be able to take off their coat and put on their shoes (steady, pushing it now…)
• To talk in sentences
• To open and enjoy a book.
Hardly controversial stuff… So it was all a media storm caused by some incendiary headlines that did not reflect Wilshaw’s position!

Well no… There is very real fundamental disagreement here – it is just not that simple to tease it out from all the rhetoric. So passionate are those that oppose Wilshaw’s agenda that they have sent a petition to the Telegraph which threatens:
‘the first wave of principled non-compliance with government policy that our education system has known in living memory.’
Serious stuff. Actually I must confess that even I feel some discomfort with some of Wilshaw’s rhetoric which takes responsibility for what is clearly the job of parents and places it with schools. However, that is not the big objection. An inkling of the real issue is clear from a quote in The Telegraph by Nancy Stewart, an independent early years consultant. She told Sir Michael that his basic goals are low level (true enough) but she implies that they are the wrong goals not just too basic:
What counts in children’s later success is not putting on your shoes and going to the toilet it … is things like being confident, being curious and motivated.’
On twitter I read tweets such as :
Children under five need to play, share, explore and experience being with each other. Wrong to hustle them through that.’
and
Play leads to primary socialisation, attachment, security. They must come first; then time to study’.
The petition letter to the Telegraph was headed by Dr Richard House (an advocate of Steiner education which does not believe children should embark on any formal learning until they are 7) makes things clearer.
This utilitarian shift from experience to content betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience. The determination to dragoon England’s young children into unconscionably early quasi-formal learning is catastrophic for their well being.’

So we know Wilshaw expects young children to learn through play but it seems the problem for those erecting the barricades is that they believe you must CHOOSE, play (with many real benefits as outlined by its proponenets) OR content. One is ideal and the other is apparently harmful. It is Wilshaw’s desire to include ‘content, especially the content of formal schooling, in the education of 0-5s (rather that experiential learning through child initiated play) that is the nub of the issue. Concern that he wants to ‘schoolify’ early years is raised because some of the outcomes Wilshaw desires are knowledge based – that is the root cause of the uproar. Add to this the fear that if more nursery provision is provided by schools it will make content transmission more likely (although all provisions follow EYFS). It is also true Wilshaw talks about ‘some adult led sessions’ and openly suggests there should be ‘some discrete direct teaching’ in the context of language development but we have already established from his own words that he doesn’t mean toddlers spending their days at a desk or anything close. However, it would mean an increase in adult directed activities, rather than those initiated by the child.

What is this content and what are these adult directed activities? The actual Ofsted materials refer to those 10 goals, language development activities, counting games, learning nursery rhymes and other standard nursery stuff. So, despite the off-putting rhetoric about children being made ‘school ready’, the content agenda is hardly controversial to the public at large. Neither are activities such as counting or language games.

It could be that Wilshaw’s stated goals are the thin end of the wedge, although I’m not sure why you would threaten non-compliance over that. However, the battle lines are not where some might like to suggest. Rhetoric about stealing childhood and school for two year olds will provoke condemnation from all sides but would the public at large really think that a play based approach with some adult directed activities, such as counting and language games, is catastrophic for a toddler’s well-being?

My own view must be pretty clear. I am uncomfortable with some of the implications about the role of schools in place of parents and I really didn’t like some of the bureaucratic target and assessment driven ‘best practice’ outlined in the Ofsted report (although anyway it is part of the current EYFS). I think what bothered me most were objections to Sir Michael’s goals that then suggested that a better solution to underachievement is to solve the root cause –poverty. Make of that what you will but I find that sentiment concerning. I am with the much derided Liz Truss on this one when she says:
One of the organisations [which objects] calls itself the ‘Save Childhood Movement’… for the most vulnerable children the result of this group’s misguided, regressive, inaccurate superstitious and dangerous idea wouldn’t save childhood. It would only crush their future.’

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10 thoughts on “Sir Michael: Champion of the disadvantaged or child catcher?

  1. Could you clarify:

    ” I think what bothered me most were objections to Sir Michael’s goals that then suggested that a better solution to underachievement is to solve the root cause –poverty. Make of that what you will but I find that sentiment concerning.”

    Is that because you don’t see concentrating on the root cause as a “better solution”. You don’t believe it is the root cause. Why does it concern?

    What about concentrating on both at the same time? Not a criticism just a little bemused?

    1. So many things I wanted to expand on but I am trying to make my blogs less mammoth!
      I see a strong implication that education can’t change outcomes in that sentiment. I believe we should work for a more equal society in all sorts of ways but passionately believe education is one of them.

  2. Your article is sound, showing a refreshing integrity and an insight which has made me admit (reluctantly) that on some issues at least, he has a point.

  3. The trouble is that we confuse child care and early education in this country. If we seriously want to close the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children we should do what Mr Wilshaw is advocating. That is to have a nursery staffed by qualified teachers and under the direction of the head teacher in every school. There is a world of difference between this and the day nurseries I see in my job. Ten hours a day five days a week with poorly educated and minimally trained staff is NOT the way to ‘educate’ children. But it does not come cheap!

  4. Very young children can learn a huge amount through telling them folk and fairy stories and through oral drill. Simple, traditional approaches, used for a few hours a day, can lay excellent foundations.

    I tend to think it’s better if their parents do this, though. It certainly doesn’t require professional qualifications. In fact, these qualifications are likely to prejudice people against such an approach.

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