There are winds of change blowing through the early years sector in England – and not a moment too soon, says Richard House…
As I write this column I’m recovering (somewhat!) from organising the first Early Childhood Action conference at Winchester – perhaps the most exciting aspect of which has been the launching of our new framework document for early childhood, Unhurried Pathways: A New Framework for Early Childhood. With well over 200 delegates attending from Britain and beyond, the ‘buzz’ in this conference, and the feedback we’ve had since, suggest to me that something really significant is in the air. It’s now 50 years since the publication of the highly influential book by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which Kuhn showed how, historically, paradigms and fundamental worldviews come to change – and the complex dynamics and stubborn resistance that accompany any shift in our defining worldviews.
For well over a decade now, a quite alien paradigm has dominated early years policy-making in England, whereby an ideology of ‘only that which is measurable counts’ and ‘earlier is necessarily better’ has held sway – and with at times devastating impacts on the quality of practice. I’ve argued over many years that in early childhood settings, an ‘audit-culture’ mentality is the very last kind of approach we should be embracing, and that an obsession with assessment and accountability yields unintended side effects which comprehensively swamp any good that might come from such practices. The government’s revised EYFS is in essence no better (and in some ways it’s worse) than the original which it is replacing; but most importantly, it shows an abject poverty of the imagination, and an inability to fundamentally rethink our whole approach to early childhood experience.
There are many straws in the wind now that point to a new paradigm being on the verge of being born, with just the latest being Cambridge University’s David Whitebread and Sue Bingham’s vital new report on school readiness showing quite overwhelmingly that there is no research evidence favouring England’s early school starting age, and a wealth of contraindicative research evidence against it; Dr Aric Sigman’s ‘Time for a view on screen time’, a comprehensive review of the research on the multiple negative effects of screen time exposure on young children in Archives of Disease in Childhood; and Eton College’s Mike Grenier’s development of what he calls ‘slow education’. Yet one of the most frustrating aspects of the current situation is that government policy making is very long on ideology and the selective cherry-picking of research that happens to suit its own predecided ideological agendas, and very short on any attempt at dispassionate engagement with the totality of evidence that’s available. ECA would like practitioners from right across the field to allow our new early years document to feed and stimulate their imaginations, so helping to generate new progressive ideas for practice. We’d really like to see the creativity and experience of the whole early childhood sphere ignited and mobilised through this new document. And we’d therefore like everyone in the field with an interest in progressive early years practice to give us constructive feedback on our document, as it is very much a living, evolving document, which we want the whole field to take ‘ownership’ of, quite independently of political and policy-making intrigue and machination.
In this classic ‘bottom-up’ way, we hope that ultimately, the document will make such an impact that it will contribute to a fundamental paradigmchange in the way policy makers think about early childhood. But until that longed-for day arrives, practitioners can still use our document to ‘humanise’ their work with young children such that it strives to be as unhurried as possible – and also to challenge those aspects of the EYFS that hurry children’s learning and development unnecessarily and, at worst, harmfully. At the ECA conference, chair, Wendy Scott, also referred to a vital but long forgotten report published nearly 20 years ago now by the British Association for Early Childhood Education and called Quality in Diversity in Early Learning: A Framework for Early Childhood Practitioners. According to Wendy, this excellent document can also serve as a very suitable complement to Unhurried Pathways (or vice versa); at any event, Quality in Diversity clearly needs to be re-discovered, and urgently – and placed at the heart of the new early years paradigm that is emerging.