Quality of provision - It's time to set aside sector rivalries

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Ofsted's first early years report has prompted a fierce debate about the best place for children to learn. But, argues Dr Julian Grenier, we can only truly improve quality if we work together

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As I walked through Westminster to hear Sir Michael Wilshaw launching Ofsted's first early years report, the air in London was still gritty with a mixture of pollution and Saharan dust. For the next two hours, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector did his best to stir up early years opinion - and it saddens me to comment that the early years sector has spent most of the subsequent weeks flinging the sand around instead of working out a unified response to the report.

As the national chair of Early Education (The British Association of Early Childhood Education), I am fortunate to be in touch with a wide range of early years practitioners from different backgrounds - schools, settings, children's centres and childminding - as well as advisers and academics. So it was noticeable how most of the early years sector split down predictable sector lines following Sir Michael's speech.

In response to the recommendation that there should be more school-based provision for two-year-olds, about the mildest comment came from Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, who said that 'it is simplistic and misguided to suggest that all children will be better served by the provision of formal education in schools from two'.

This notion that school-based provision would inevitably be 'formal' was expressed so stridently by others that by the end of the day, some school-based nursery staff were feeling beleaguered and upset. School-based early years professional Sarah Green represented many when she tweeted that it 'feels like open season on those of us in school nurseries today ... Feel constantly put down'.

As the headteacher of a nursery school myself, I was certainly taken aback by the implication that early years provision in schools had somehow become 'formal education', with two-year-olds made to sit and learn letters and numbers by rote.

There is no reason to call for all funded two-year-olds to be in schools, but equally there is nothing essentially wrong with school-based provision. It is, surely, what children experience that matters - not where they are.

APPROPRIATE EARLY EDUCATION

Thanks to multiple international research projects, including the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project in England and Northern Ireland, we now have a fairly good picture of what constitutes appropriate early education and care for two-year-olds and older children in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Unfortunately, many of those features were either missing from the Ofsted report, or insufficiently explained.

We know that it is crucial to support the emotional well-being of young children, to nurture their developing sense of self, their curiosity and their confidence. We know that an appropriate pedagogy should be play-based, and it should be rich in language, first-hand experiences, and prioritise movement and healthy living. Ofsted's insistent references to 'teaching' are not wrong in themselves, if they mean this type of evidence-based pedagogy.

Despite the furious response to Sir Michael's letter to early years inspectors, there is nothing wrong with 'teaching children the early stages of mathematics and reading'. Parents and practitioners do it all the time -when shopping, when reading with children, when taking an interest in a child's drawings. You could read that sentence to mean nothing more than singing and saying nursery rhymes every day with a toddler.

TWO TYPES OF TEACHER

The early years sector could put forward a case for reclaiming the word 'teaching' - on our own terms. Indeed, this was Cathy Nutbrown's argument in her report Foundations for Quality, where she proposed a new type of early years teacher who would be trained in both the learning and care traditions, and qualified to work with all children from birth to seven years old.

Instead, we now have two types of early years teachers: those with Qualified Teacher Status, and those who are working towards the new qualification that has replaced Early Years Professional Status. Here again, the continued hostility between the sectors has allowed this confusing division to happen - and it will lead, in time, to hundreds of 'early years teachers' being employed on low wages and with fewer opportunities for career progression than their counterparts in schools.

It is in everyone's interests to bring higher wages and higher status to professionals working in all sectors of the early years. Sir Michael implicitly endorsed something close to this view when he praised the Finnish early years sector in his lecture, noting that the workforce was graduate-level and well paid, and that Finland's education system was rated far higher than England's in the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. But the overall tone of Ofsted's early years report was very different to what the Finnish do and say.

The second way the response of much of the sector was less than helpful was the general failure to engage with much of Sir Michael's argument about the double disadvantages faced by children in poverty. How can we be complacent about this when the research into the pilot phase of free places for two-year-olds found no benefit to the children overall because the quality of their experience was not sufficient?

That same research also found that quality had not improved in the poorest areas since it was last evaluated at the turn of the century in the Millennium Cohort Study. It is surely very worrying that there are so many parts of the country where well under a quarter of children who are eligible for free school meals achieve what is termed a 'good level of development'.

But, while recognising the importance of these issues and the genuine passion behind Sir Michael's arguments, I would draw very different conclusions to his. The answer to the problem of quality is not merely to argue for one sector and against another. When Sir Michael calls for all children in poverty to be offered school-based provision, where does this leave a provider like London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), which has a track record of offering quality in many of London's poorest areas?

PROMISING WORK

Some of the most promising work on improving quality is occurring where there are partnerships between the maintained sector (schools) and providers from the private and voluntary sectors. For example, in Corby the network of settings around Pen Green Centre - which includes a maintained nursery school - are all rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. One of the most promising initiatives I am professionally involved with is 4Children's Childcare and Early Learning Hub programme, which is bringing different providers together with a focus on quality.

My fear is that by seeming to side with one sector over another, Ofsted could undermine such ventures, which depend on mutual trust and respect. There are, surely, many possible models that could be developed to improve the quality of early years provision in poorer areas, and one would not wish to see a very strong, community-based social enterprise like LEYF marginalised by Ofsted. This is why Early Education's Early Years Pledge campaign is calling for quality early years provision to be an entitlement for every child, whether in a setting, a school or with a childminder.

An under-reported feature of the Ofsted report is its finding that maintained nursery schools provide the best quality in the most disadvantaged areas of England - whereas the opposite is true of both primary schools and early years settings, with, of course, notable exceptions.

It is also worth noting that every one of the small number of local authorities where more than half the children achieve a 'good level of development' by the end of the EYFS has a strong commitment to its nursery schools. I would argue, based on Ofsted's findings, that we should be planning for an expansion in the numbers of nursery schools - provided that those nursery schools, like Pen Green, are actively involved with the wider local community.

ENGAGE CONFIDENTLY

The early years sector needs to engage confidently with Sir Michael and Ofsted. There is no point in denying that there are major problems with quality, and that these problems lead to social inequality. Instead of becoming obsessed with rivalries, we should argue with one voice for more investment in high-quality training for staff and a single role and pay scale for early years teachers, wherever they work.

The historic battle between care and early education has not served anyone well: we need to develop arguments that can be widely understood, to promote an appropriate early years pedagogy.

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child states that decision-making must uphold the best interests of the child. All young children should experience care and early education that promotes their well-being, health and development in the broadest sense. A push to formal teaching of the youngest is incompatible with this. On the other hand, the rotten deal that many of the most disadvantaged children get when they attend early years provision is also incompatible: poor children should have the same entitlement to quality as any other children.

Dr Julian Grenier is chair of trustees at Early Education (visit www.early-education.org.uk and see also www.facebook.com/eypledge). He will be chairing our conference, Two-Year-Olds: Policy and Practice, on 9 July. See www.two-year-olds-conference.com

For news throughout the week, visit www.nurseryworld.co.uk

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