Analysis: More than soundbites for EYFS reform

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Only meaningful dialogue between the Government and the early years sector will avoid ideological swings in policy and achieve a balanced approach to reform of the EYFS, say Margaret Edgington, Richard House and Kim Simpson of the Open EYE Campaign.

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Nursery World recently reported on calls to scrap the Early Years Foundation Stage made by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) ('Scrap EYFS and devolve Sure Start', 17 June), and in an accompanying editorial, editor Liz Roberts referred to the danger of our Open EYE campaign 'being appropriated by some to ridicule what some call "the nappy curriculum"'.

The track record of ideological think-tanks inspires little confidence that they will come up with policy recommendations that will enhance the quality of early years provision. In our view, the scrapping of the Early Years Foundation Stage in its entirety would be, at best, very premature without a genuinely open-minded, wide-ranging consultation with all stakeholders to determine which parts of the EYFS have been helpful in raising quality in the field, and which have not.

The British education system has suffered for far too long from unrelenting, and often ideological, change for the sake of change. What is needed now is a constructive, non-ideological approach and a meaningful dialogue, particularly where the early years are involved.

This seems like an important moment to re-state once more what has always been Open EYE's position on the EYFS, in order both to contribute to the unfolding debate about its future and to forestall any possible misuse of our main campaigning themes by organisations having agendas to which we would not subscribe.

We wish to reiterate, as we always have done, that the themes of the EYFS are indeed good ones - A Unique Child, Positive Relationships, Enabling Environments and Learning & Development. These themes embody the EYFS 'principled approach' which few practitioners would question.

We also believe that the welfare requirements, as enshrined in the EYFS, are necessary to safeguard and protect the interests of very young children. The problem is that there is both 'baby' and 'bathwater' in the overall framework as it stands. Our task is surely to throw out the latter without endangering the good work that has been and is being done by the former. Therefore, the proposal by the CPS to scrap the EYFS would be tantamount to throwing out both 'baby' and 'bathwater'! OPEN Eye does not support the scrapping of EYFS in its entirety.

ALL OR NOTHING

A major problem with policy and media discussions about the EYFS has been that even to speak about it as if it were some kind of monolithic entity is potentially highly misleading, for the whole EYFS framework consists of several different and quite distinct dimensions, which cannot be considered under one label without major over-simplification and even distortion.

In other words, claims that 'the EYFS has been a success' or that 'the EYFS is a failure' are misleading. They beg far more questions than they answer, as some aspects of the framework undoubtedly have been a success, while others definitely need review and change.

Simplistic 'all-or-nothing' thinking is singularly inappropriate in these discussions, and as a sector, practitioners urgently need to reach common ground on which aspects of the overall framework have been helpful and quality-enhancing, and which have not.

Since November 2007, Open EYE has repeatedly made the point that it is highly problematic to 'smuggle in' what is unacceptable and even harmful legislation by mixing it up with good legislation, such as the welfare requirements, with which no-one would seriously disagree. The latter situation has meant that people like us have been placed in the very difficult position of having to make nuanced and complex arguments in a media age that loves simplistic 'soundbites' and headline-grabbing polarisation.

CRUCIAL DISTINCTIONS

It is our fervent hope that the coalition Government's review of the EYFS taking place this autumn will have such crucial distinctions and complexities at the top of its agenda. It appears that the previous Government single-mindedly refused to engage with any opposing viewpoints, and even stopped listening to its own specialist advisers.

It would be a tragedy if the new Government were to lurch to the opposite ideological extreme, and commit the same kind of error by adopting simplistic recommendations like the total abolition of the EYFS advocated by the Centre for Policy Studies.

In order that the same kind of ideology-driven errors are not made by the new administration, we believe that there is a very strong argument for Government ministers having regular conversations with independently minded figures across the sector, some of whom should hold views that are very different to the Government's, and who are able to argue a strong case.

Ministers will then be in a position to make decisions that are fully informed by considering the widest range of viewpoints from across the field. If the previous Government had listened and responded meaningfully to our campaign, and to its own early years advisers, any nefarious anti-EYFS forces as now exist would have little ground to stand on, and genuine dialogue would now be firmly established.

For the record, then, we believe that practice in many settings has been improved because practitioners, trainers and advisers have been able to use the themes, principles and welfare requirements of the EYFS to promote progressive play-based practice and child-initiated learning. We can, therefore, agree fully with Nursery World's editorial comment of 17 June that 'The EYFS has much that is good, and early years providers have settled in to appreciating its benefits'.

Yet the implication of the comment is that there are also aspects that are not 'good'. Those are precisely the aspects of the framework about which we urgently need to find fully informed common ground.

Thus, as we have repeatedly argued, the EYFS statutory framework in relation to learning and development has little if any practical use for experienced and quality practitioners. And for inexperienced and lesser-qualified practitioners, it is often incomprehensible, all too easily leading to targeting, anxiety-driven over-surveillance and inappropriate interventions.

STRIKING A BALANCE

We have periodically argued that early childhood is a very delicate field, and that while some degree of Government regulation is necessary and appropriate, overly enthusiastic and prescriptive political intrusion into early-years practice risks triggering unintended consequences that sometimes do more harm than any good that ensues.

A delicate balance has to be struck here. The previous Government notably failed to strike it, and we urge the new ministerial team to do all it can to find such a balance, in full consultation with those professionals and parents' groups who are most affected.

The kind of complex thinking required in order to understand the contradictory effects of the overall framework is well illustrated by the EYFS Practice Guidance Manual. We believe this can be used constructively to facilitate planning, but only as long as it is taken as loose indicative guidance, and not as a normatively prescriptive, linear-developmental template.

Yet we believe that the Practice Guidance document has also caused significant damage to practitioners' thinking, as the non-statutory Development Matters grids are increasingly being used to generate uncritical age-related expectations and to track children's progress.

We can, therefore, see that there are complex arguments about the EYFS that need to be carefully unpacked and articulated, before we can reach a clear view about which aspects of the framework to support, and which need fundamental rethinking.

It is a time for magnanimity on the part of both critical campaigners like ourselves, and of the new ministerial team. We should all be prepared to congratulate the previous Government on those aspects of their framework that have worked well, and also to have the non-ideological open-mindedness to assess critically those aspects which have not been helpful to achieving good practice.

In her first ministerial statement, early years minister, Sarah Teather articulated some encouragingly positive policy aspirations (Nursery World, 17 June) - not least, that the new Government 'believes in trusting professionals to do their jobs, free from the top-down bureaucracy of recent years'. This is something on which we have actively campaigned ourselves - although we emphasise again the importance of sensible, proportionate regulation and accountability where it will help quality and not generate negative side-effects.

However, the forthcoming review of the EYFS will be perhaps the first major test of the true intentions of the new Government. We believe that unlike both the previous Government and also the Centre for Policy Studies, very few practitioners want either uncritical acceptance of the EYFS as a whole, or a wholesale and reactive rejection of it.

Rather, we are hoping for a really genuine consultation process that is not pre-decided from the outset, and that sets out to assess honestly and intelligently which areas of the overall EYFS framework have been enhancing of quality, and those which haven't.

If we can collectively achieve such a policy-making 'holy grail', perhaps campaigns like ours might no longer be necessary - and there might be many of us who will warmly welcome such an 'outcome'!

Margaret Edgington, independent early years consultant and trainer; Dr Richard House, Steiner Kindergarten teacher and Roehampton University; and Kim Simpson, Montessori early years head teacher. All are members of the Open EYE Core Steering Group.

This article was written in advance of this week's announcement of an EYFS review.

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