A child-led approach based on learning through play is reaping great rewards, as Ruth Thomson reports
Sandwell has high unemployment (well above the national average), high levels of deprivation (over half of families qualify for housing benefit) and high rates of teenage pregnancy (one of the top three in the country), but it is hoped that the introduction of High/Scope into early years and primary settings will help improve the life chances of its young generation.
High/Scope is an approach to early years education that has at its core the belief that children gain confidence, initiative and a lifelong love of learning when involved in well-supported activities of their own choosing (see box). Such benefits, it is claimed, are carried into adult life, producing a generation with positive attitudes to education and society.
Iris Birks, early years consultant with Sandwell Local Education Authority, had run courses on the approach, but its adoption by local practitioners gained momentum when director of public health Dr John Middleton also became convinced of its benefits and secured 150,000 of Health Action Zone funding for High/Scope training.
He was impressed with findings of the Perry Pre-School Project in the US, which tracked 123 people over 30 years and found that those educated under the High/Scope method had been more likely to graduate from school, enrol in further education classes and find employment. They had also been less likely to commit crimes, be assigned to special needs classes and become teenage parents. And there were benefits for the public purse, with each $1 spent on High/Scope saving $7 on remedial services in the long term. 'If we want a thriving, vibrant community in 20 years' time, then to make it happen we need to start working with young children now,' says Dr Middleton. 'The social and educational benefits of High/Scope are considerable. If it were a drug, we'd have to prescribe it. It would be unethical not to.'
So far more than 120 teachers, nursery nurses, health visitors, childcare workers, school heads and managers have attended introductory and awareness-raising sessions. A further 28 early years practitioners have completed Curriculum Implementation Courses, with eight of those becoming High/Scope endorsed trainers, qualified to cascade the training within schools and other early years settings.
While the main attraction of the scheme was its potential long-term benefits, it is already bringing short-term benefits to both children and practitioners in settings implementing the Foundation Stage.
The High/Scope approach marries well with the Foundation Stage. Both see play as an integral part of early childhood learning. The key experiences and developmental markers of the High/Scope curriculum reflect the areas of learning and stepping stones of the Foundation Stage. 'The High/Scope curriculum is entirely compatible with the Foundation Stage,' says Mrs Birks.
She believes that the High/Scope training changed some teachers' attitudes, with scepticism about 'this thing from America' giving way to a profound change in thinking about early years learning.
'Previously, the attitude had been "I am the teacher, the giver and the font of all knowledge and you will learn from me", but that attitude has changed to seeing learning as a shared process,' she says.
She goes so far as to say, 'For some people, it was a life change, because the training makes you reflect on your own philosophy of life. It makes you reassess your values and how you associate with other people.'
The extent to which the 'converts' have changed methods within their own settings varies, says Mrs Birks. 'It's a learning process. Every practitioner is at a different starting point, but the change is starting to happen.' Open to question is the extent to which some will ever effect a permanent culture change, given performance targets under the national curriculum and potential tensions with initiatives such as the literacy hour. 'It's going to be a hard nut to crack, but we'll keep chipping away,' says Mrs Birks.
Dr Middleton is struck by the short-term benefits to the children - principally their ability to communicate better with both their peers and adults - and remains committed to extending the training in primary schools. 'We see these startlingly confident young children, and it would be a great shame if this vitality and enthusiasm were lost in pre-schools. So the thinking behind High/Scope needs to be spread to teachers of older children.'
High/Scope in action
In-house expertise on High/Scope has enabled Causeway Green Primary School to develop a child-initiated approach to learning in its reception classes. Now the curriculum content is negotiated with the children and planning is determined by the children's interests rather than rigidly set topics, exercises or worksheets.
The change, says Foundation Stage co-ordinator Lesley Harris, has resulted in a fundamental shift in control. 'Whereas before we were being controlled by the curriculum, now adults and children share control.' To achieve this, the day is structured around High/Scope's Plan-Do-Review routine. Early in the day, the children are told of resources available (some permanent, some stemming from the children's interests) and adults' plans (for example, 'I'm playing in the shop'). They are then allowed to choose what they would like to do and where (the learning environment incorporates the corridors and outdoors).
This level of control increases motivation, says Mrs Harris, leaving children eager to learn and willing to participate in all activities, including writing. Achieving this way of working depends on the morning's all-important greeting time, when the children's discussions enable practitioners to gauge current interests and plan accordingly. For example, Christmas may be a distant memory for most of us, but the children at Causeway Green are still interested in the journeys in the Christmas story and have wanted to pursue their interest in travel. In response, the staff have planned for the children to set up a travel agent's, make a travel brochure and design their own magic carpet, to be used in the imaginative play area. 'Their news is where we go from,' says Mrs Harris.
Another change has been in recording. Here the school has replaced assessment by markers such as an awareness of colour, shape, numerals and words with High/Scope's developmentally appropriate recording system. 'The old system didn't really tell you anything about what the children understood or about the process of learning,' says Mrs Harris.
The change in approach has been 'radical', she concludes, but the end result is that the school has a 'highly motivated and committed early years team' - and 'our children absolutely love school.'
What is High/Scope?
- The High/Scope approach is based on the central principles of the provision of a developmentally appropriate curriculum, consistent and genuine relationships with adults and the opportunity for children to engage in active learning experiences and develop initiative, decision-making and problem-solving skills, writes High/Scope UK director Joan Norris.
The daily routine gives a secure base from which children can explore and experience their world. This flexible framework, transferable to many settings, will always include the Plan-Do-Review sequence.
The child will express their intentions for 'work-time' in a way that is developmentally appropriate, and will then actively engage in a number of purposeful activities, supported by the practitioner. After work time they will come together with the practitioner and be encouraged to 'review' what they have been doing.
The form of the review will be dependent on the developmental level of the child in question, but will give an opportunity for the child to reflect on what they have done and for the adult to acknowledge the action and problem solving that has taken place.
The Plan-Do-Review sequence provides children with the opportunity to think about cause and effect, to overcome problems and to work with others. The discussion gives scope for language and listening skills to develop and, as they mature, the opportunity to reflect on their experience with increasing verbal ability and logic.
The High/Scope approach has been used in the UK since the early 1980s and is practised in settings across the early years sector. There are now more than 200 High/Scope endorsed trainers and an estimated 20,000 practitioners using the method, with 250,000 children each year experiencing the approach.
- High/Scope UK provides advice, training courses (including new courses for childminders and parents), and support materials such as videos, books, Child Observation Records and the core textbooks, Educating Young Children and Tender Care and Early Learning.