Learning & Development: Scotland - Early days

Ann Langston
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The different aspects of a new early years guidance document for Scotland are weighed up by consultant and trainer Ann Langston.

The future for young children in England will be of concern to many readers now that the review of the EYFS has reached its conclusion (see nurseryworld.co.uk) and the Government prepares to publish its poverty strategy on the back of the report Early Intervention: The next steps. North of the border, the focus has been on early intervention as well, and the Scottish Government has now superseded its first birth-tothree guidance with a new document, Pre-Birth to Three: Positive Outcomes for Scotland's Children and Families. This is part of a multi-media resource with a focus from before birth rather than beginning at birth.

The publication reflects a growing body of research into the effects of early experiences on children's life chances. The ministerial foreword reminds readers that 'the period between pregnancy and three years old' has 'the greatest bearing on outcomes' and is critical in terms of 'breaking cycles of poor outcomes'. This assertion is well-supported by material in the accompanying CD and DVD as well as a number of recently published reports.

The material drawn on to create the guidance emphasises the importance of very early experiences in shaping the architecture of the brain, the effects of stress, persistent fear and anxiety on the developing brain, and the role of positive relationships as an antidote to these.

A strong case supporting early intervention with mothers-to-be was also made in the Strategic Review of Health Inequalities in England, which said that 'what happens during these early years (starting in the womb) has lifelong effects on many aspects of health and wellbeing from obesity, heart disease and mental health, to educational achievement and economic status' (Marmot 2010:16).

The case for early intervention with new parents and parents-in-waiting is strong, so how will the new guidance support this approach?

First, it should be remembered that the status of this document is guidance, rather than a statutory requirement. However, assuming the guidance is followed, it will provide excellent information about ways of supporting all children, even the most vulnerable. Children's wellbeing is certainly at the heart of the document, which sets out four key principles:

  • - Rights of the child
  • - Relationships
  • - Responsive care
  • - Respect.

KEY PRINCIPLES

Distinguishing it from the previous guidance, children's rights are given greater prominence, showing Scotland's commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN: 1991).

Central to the document is Article 12, which is the child's right to give an opinion and to have their views listened to by adults and taken seriously.

The inclusion of the Rights of the Child principle is a significant, commendable step. It signals the need to value and respect differences - including diversity of language, religion, culture, gender and ability - while also endorsing the remaining articles. The declaration that a child's social background should not prevent them from achieving positive outcomes in the future is another aspiration that all would support.

The statement, 'Relationships begin with the care and attention that babies experience while in the womb' is profoundly moving, and sends a reminder to anyone supporting pregnant women of the importance of their role in helping mothers-to-be to build relationships with their unborn babies.

The document also stresses the importance of affectionate relationships between children and staff, characterised by companionship that enables children to feel 'secure, loved and appreciated' (p22).

Responsive Care links well to the principle of A Unique Child in the EYFS. However, unlike England's document, it recommends the key person approach, rather than making it a requirement. This may in time lead to some variation in approach between settings, and it could represent a missed opportunity to ensure that 'this key adult becomes the primary carer within the early years setting who provides the trusted support and love the child needs' (p47).

The final principle, Respect, links back to children's rights and focuses on staff taking a genuine interest in children, valuing difference and respecting children and families while being sensitive, fair and egalitarian towards all.

Nine features expand the principles, focusing on areas such as the role of staff, attachments, transitions, observation, partnership working, well-being, literacy and numeracy, environments, play and several others. Though most people would agree that the majority of these are important, the inclusion of literacy and numeracy will be contentious for some.

The Role of Staff feature is essentially about ways of establishing and building a vision and a view of quality in the early years. On its own, the document provides only a general direction, rather than a detailed description of the journey towards quality. However, this is in keeping with the approach set out, which offers extensive support via DVD footage and other documentation. Rather than prescribing particular methods, it seeks to engage practitioners through Reflection and Action points, case studies and Signposts to Research for each of the nine features.

OTHER FEATURES

From conception, children's life chances are influenced by the quality of relationships that surround them. Where relationships are positive, they build resilience and sound mental health. In the absence of at least one positive relationship, children are likely to be more vulnerable. To address this the guidance consistently conveys the message that attachments, health and wellbeing, transitions and partnership working, all have a part to play in helping children's development across personal, social, physical, cognitive and linguistic spheres, contributing at the same time to their mental health.

Attachment focuses on the importance of the invisible bonds that bind children to people such as parents, grandparents and other caregivers as they learn what it is like to be loved and cared for by them. The importance of transitions in children's lives is also emphasised - those times of change when children can be excited about starting something new while feeling anxious at the same time.

Pleasingly, the document recognises that transition can be as profound for parents as it can be for children. This links to the Partnership Working feature, which focuses on relationships with parents and those that should occur across and between services. Linked to this is the feature Health and Wellbeing, which focuses on preventing harm and promoting physical and mental health.

The Environment feature is intended to ensure that staff pay due regard to providing the right kind of physical and emotional space for children, so that they can benefit from their time in the setting. Observation, Assessment and Planning is described as an important way of encouraging practitioners to know children well so that together with the child and parents, they can assess children's learning and development and, if necessary, intervene further to support their wellbeing, health or development.

The inclusion of literacy and numeracy as one of the nine underpinning features represents a significant shift from previous approaches. It emphasises for parents and practitioners the importance of these skills in helping children to function effectively in everyday life.

The inclusion of literacy and numeracy is a bold step which may receive significant opposition from some within the early years. Yet, as the document states, 'children are born into a literate and numerate world' (p61). But while the filmed guidance for these subjects may be extensive, the written guidance is brief. More may be necessary to support practitioners further if very young children are to be given appropriate early literacy and numeracy experiences.

As one might expect, play has been given more coverage than any other feature. What the document does not do is set out in detail how practitioners and parents can support young children's learning through play. If all practitioners are to be secure about ways to do this, they will need to study the DVD in some depth.

AN EXCELLENT NEW STARTING POINT

Taken together, the principles and features of this document create the strands of Scotland's early years 'mat' and it is hoped that when the strands are woven together, through the use of this document, the next generation of children will receive every support so that they are able to thrive emotionally, socially, linguistically, physically and cognitively.

The guiding principles and features are an excellent new starting point from which existing staff in Scotland can continue to build a pedagogy of early years education and from which future practitioners can learn. However, while the document is itself such a helpful starting point, the use of the accompanying materials alongside it will be essential to ensure that the high aspirations of those who want the best for children in Scotland are achieved.

Ann Langston is an early years specialist, conference speaker and trainer who has written widely on effective practice in the early years and contributed to the development of the EYFS and Birth to Three Matters frameworks. She works with Dr Jonathan Doherty providing services to a range of early years providers to support young children's well-being and learning. For information go to www.EarlyYearsMatters.co.uk.

 

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