Since late 2007, the Open EYE campaign has challenged key aspects of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), most particularly its controversially statutory learning and development requirements, its developmentally inappropriate ‘Early Learning Goals’, and the impact on practitioners’ thinking of a relentless, ‘assessment-mindedness’, determined far more by England’s uniquely early school starting age than by any serious concern for young children’s general well-being.
While small children in the rest of Europe are free to play, England imposes a school mentality from earliest infancy. With a new coalition government less ideologically and personally identified with the EYFS, hope was initially raised that the worst mistakes of the original framework would be rectified, or, at the very least, substantially ameliorated. However, the Revised EYFS falls tragically short of addressing its well documented shortcomings, and as such it is hugely disappointing, and a missed opportunity whose scale is difficult to overestimate.
Let’s begin by giving credit where it’s due. The new framework continues to be underpinned by the universally welcomed four themes and principles; and it does at least strive for succinctness, and reduces the EYFS’s bureaucratic burden – a key recommendation of Dame Clare Tickell and an issue consistently highlighted by Open EYE. In addition, the three Prime Areas of learning and development recognise and give status to the fundamental importance of personal, social, emotional, physical and language development in early childhood; and it is a massive relief to Open EYE’s many supporters that the new framework does not contain any statutory requirement for the presence of ICT in early childhood settings. But sadly, any plaudits must end there.
Not only has the revised framework preserved the extraordinary notion of statutory, normalising ‘learning goals’ being imposed upon the massive diversity that is young children’s development, but the ‘goals’ causing most concern, those for literacy and numeracy, have in some cases been made even more demanding than before, . Worse still, there is now to be a ‘Progress Check’ for 2 year olds and an ‘expected’ developmental level for children to have reached at the end of reception year – , when some children are almost a full year younger than the oldest in their year group. These impositions not only totally undermine the principle of the Unique Child, but will also undoubtedly ensure that many children will continue to be seen as ‘failing’ and receive inappropriate, ‘labelling’ interventions.
Tthe government’s ‘school readiness’ agenda is therefore brazenly showcased in the revised EYFS. This might not be so concerning if it weren’t for England’s uniquely early school starting age of four, which is routinely met with incredulity when our more enlightened European colleagues and parents witness what we’re doing to young children in England. The content of the EYFS continues to be ideologically driven, rather than led by research and practice-based evidence from people actually working with young children. Notwithstanding the reassuring rhetoric that periodically emanates from the DfE, they have not begun to understand the distress of those organisations, like ours, who have the freedom to speak out – which practitioners in the field often do not – against the ‘too much, too soon’ ideology that has surreptitiously come to dominate England’s early childhood experience..
With regard to style, the revised framework contains around 220 instances of the word ‘must’, or, on average, eight to nine ‘musts’ on every page of the 26-page document – what we might call the ‘you-must-ification’ of early childhood. Such a deprofessionalising mentality, especially when couched within a statutory framework that repeatedly contains the ominous-sounding phrase ‘...commits an offence’, cannot but lead to a kind of fear-driven, unthinking compliance in practitioners.
Open EYE will continue to campaign for an approach to early childhood which leaves behind altogether the idea of a ‘curriculum’ that monitors young children’s development and learning, within an audit driven and ‘school readiness’ agenda., Instead, we will concentrate on promoting as thoroughly as possible the qualities that practitioners and environments should aspire to in order to create the necessary conditions for maximising developmental well-being and potential. Such an approach focuses on quality of input and experiences rather than measured output, and in this sense it is far more appropriate to the way in which young children engage with their world and learn experientially. After all, the most important aspects of early human development are not easily measured in the short term.
Only an approach to early experience that enshrines at its core the principles of professional empowerment and autonomy, and respect for diversity of children and practice, can hope to generate the kind of fundamental paradigm change that is essential if we’re to avoid ‘too much, too soon’ ideology which damages a generation of children. Practitioners and academics who hold young children’s well-being as non-negotiable will continue to campaign on their behalf about these issues until some sanity begins to prevail in early childhood policy-making.
Margaret Edgington, Grethe Hooper Hansen, Richard House and Kim Simpson, for the the Open EYE Steering Group