A new international manifesto for early childhood

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Early years practitioners need to take a principled stand against political power that is not in the best interests of children, argue Marie Charlton and Richard House of Early Childhood Action

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Early Childhood Action’s new document for early childhood, Unhurried Pathways (1), was launched last month at ECA’s inaugural conference held at the University of Winchester, and attended by 250 enthusiastic delegates eager to hear from the stellar line-up of keynote speakers; Baroness Susan Greenfield, Penelope Leach, Colwyn Trevarthen and Sue Palmer.  

Presenting on behalf of ECA, Richard House referred to the notable failure of practitioners, teachers and academics to speak ‘professional truth to political power’ – a phenomenon which was highlighted by a seminar held at Winchester the previous day delivered by conference participant Hulda Hreiorsdottir.

Hulda described the very different way of life and approach to child-raising that exists in Iceland, with an empowered population of professionals and citizens who simply would not allow their government statutorily to impose policies that were contrary to young children’s well-being. In the view of ECA, this seeming apathy and inability in England to take a principled stand against overweening governmental power is certainly a phenomenon that needs urgent attention.

Representing ‘political power’ and the policy-making process, the indomitable MP Annette Brooke also spoke at the conference. Annette has ‘fought the cause’ since the beginning (2) and was the Shadow Minister who intrepidly rooted out the then DCSF’s chicanery in suppressing its own commissioned research, conducted by London’s Institute of Education, which not only failed to support the then new EYFS, but actually argued strongly against it (3). In the event, it took a Freedom of Information Act request by Annette Brooke to bring this duplicity to light.

At the conference, Annette’s explanation of such government intransigence was that it is ideologically driven; and the best way for us individually to contest it is to appeal to our local MPs to challenge such ideologically driven abuses, which make a mockery of any rhetorical claims by politicians to be supporting so-called ‘evidence-based practice’.

In the conclusion to Unhurried Pathways the great humanitarian scientist Albert Einstein is quoted thus: ‘If we want to change the world, we have to change our thinking…. We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’.

In other words, had ECA merely produced a replacement ‘curricular’ document that was a substitute for the EYFS, it would have been tacitly condoning the deeply questionable view that it is appropriate for anybody (and in England’s case, the government) to lay down didactic ‘rules and regulations’ about how very young children’s development and learning should be directed.  This is precisely the kind of tired, increasingly irrelevant ‘old-paradigm’ thinking that Early Childhood Action is determined to challenge and transcend.

What the ECA early years framework does is to set out a vision for early childhood that very carefully avoids telling practitioners what they must and mustn’t do – but rather celebrates a rich diversity of approaches to early childhood that share a common theme of unhurriedness. On 17 November, the ‘Slow Education’ movement (http://sloweducation.co.uk/) was featured at the London Festival of Education.  The values and ethos for which 'Slow Education' stands cohere very closely with those of ECA. As Winchester’s Vice-Chancellor stated when recently describing the ECA conference, ‘Revolution was in the air!’…

In Unhurried Pathways,  attention is drawn to some specific pedagogical approaches – eg Forest Schools, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Steiner Waldorf;  and  whilst ECA is explicitly championing the virtue of unhurriedness in early development - which includes joining TACTYC in taking a long, hard look at England’s absurdly early school starting age (4) - the principle of diversity is championed even more strongly.

If for example, nurseries, childminders and playgroups (and parents) wish to follow, and be inspected according to, a government-imposed framework, they should certainly be free to do so. In taking this principled position, ECA is granting a privilege to the EYFS that the government has singularly failed to grant to nearly all of England’s settings and practitioners (save those with the lobbying power and political clout to negotiate their own special exemptions from the EYFS’s pernicious learning and development goals – exemptions and concessions that are inequitably not available to anybody else).  

Forwarded by Professor Janet Moyles and with an Afterword by early years consultant Margaret Edgington, Unhurried Pathways is very much a living, evolving document, into which we want the whole early years field in England and beyond to have an input, such that the whole sector can feel ‘ownership’ of it. We believe that it is only through a grass roots, ‘bottom up’ process of proposing a better way that any real, sustainable change can happen.

In an environment in which the current government seems to be open to at least some measure of sector deregulation, there is an important question regarding whether any regulation is appropriate in the early years – and if so, what degree of regulation, and how it is implemented. Certainly, few if anyone disputes the importance and beneficence of the welfare requirements of the EYFS; but it is a completely different matter to ‘regulate’, and set normalising targets for, very young children’s development and learning. It is the latter which ECA and its many hundreds of supporters are challenging and refuse to accept.

What has become increasingly clear is that the EYFS should never have been made statutory with regard to learning and development, and notwithstanding the vociferous efforts of the likes of the Open EYE campaign, the noxious ramifications of this have only dawned very slowly on the sector.

Within a statutory framework, the best-quality settings will very likely be able to comply in ways which do not significantly undermine their own diverse approaches to their children, and they will also tend to be articulate with Ofsted. In contrast, it is the poorer settings which will tend to comply without sufficient awareness of the potential negative consequences that such uncritical compliance routinely generates – for example, making children try to meet the ‘learning goals’ with little awareness of those that are developmentally inappropriate – perhaps understandably motivated to earn ‘brownie points’ from Ofsted for particular reasons.

Whilst ECA continues to advocate and campaign for less hurried pathways, the quality of the environment (which for young children means everything they come into contact with, including the practitioner) remains of paramount importance, no matter what the adopted philosophy or pedagogy.  Emphasis needs be on the thoughtful, developmentally informed monitoring of what we provide for children, and how we endeavour to meet their individual needs, and this remains an unchanged and critical training issue.

In sum, ECA’s advocacy of an uncompromisingly unhurried approach to early childhood experience is challenging head-on the modern fashion for an ever-younger school starting age, and the counterproductive ‘earlier is better’ ideology in early learning (5).

Since its launch ECA has been approached by concerned professionals from a number of countries (including the US, Canada and Australia) who are interested in embracing the approach set out in Unhurried Pathways in their own countries.

In response, ECA is currently in the process of setting up an international list of contacts and representatives, so that the approach in Unhurried Pathways can have an international influence. With the book Too Much, Too Soon? currently being translated into Chinese, these are clearly concerns that have a resonance across the globe, transcending particular cultures and continents.

ECA very much welcomes your ideas and thoughts. Please download Unhurried Pathways from www.earlychildhoodaction.com (see footnote 1); and email ECA with your suggestions for improving the document. You can also email us from the website to be listed as one of our many hundreds of supporters or contribute at ECA Face book. Together with your help and involvement, we really can make things better for our children; we can ‘shift the paradigm’!

Notes and References

1    ECA’s new early years framework document Unhurried Pathways is freely downloadable at: http://www.earlychildhoodaction.com/docs/ECA%20EYF%20Unhurried%20Pathways.pdf. We are urging anyone associated with early childhood to offer feedback and suggestions for the document, by writing to us at: info@earlychildhoodaction.com. See also the substantial report published in Nursery World, available at: http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/1156825/Campaigners-launch-alternative-EYFS/?DCMP=ILC-SEARCH.

2    See Annette Brooke’s Foreword to the book Too Much, Too Soon? (See footnote 5).

3    P. Curtis, ‘Education: Early-years writing lessons "do no good"’, The Guardian, 14 July 2008; available at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,2290715,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=8.

4    See D. Whitebread and S. Bingham, ‘School Readiness: A Critical Review of Perspectives and Evidence’, TACTYC Occasional Paper 2, 2012; available from: http://www.tactyc.org.uk/occasional-papers/occasional-paper2.pdf; and R. House, 'Head-start, Early Finish? – The Scandal of England’s School Starting Age', New View magazine, 64 (summer), 2012, pp. 3–9.

5    See R. House (ed.), Too Much, Too Soon? - Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood, Hawthorn Press, Stroud, 2011

Marie-Louise Charlton is an early years consultant and writer who, as a Froebel-trained teacher, has held headships of three very different nursery schools, the last being awarded Beacon Status despite its zero-pressure philosophy. She has a Masters Degree in Equal Opportunities in Education.

Richard House Ph.D. is a chartered psychologist, a trained Steiner Waldorf Kindergarten teacher and Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Winchester. He is also editor of the book Too Much, Too Soon? (Hawthorn, 2011), and co-editor of the book Childhood, Well-being and a Therapeutic Ethos (Karnac, 2009).

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