Thank you, dear ministers, for politically uniting our sector

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Richard House traces the roots of the new 'Too Much Too Soon' campaign

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The 'Too Much Too Soon' campaign has its roots in the early campaigning work of Open EYE, and with tongue partially in cheek, I must thank ministers for doing something that Open EYE's concerted campaigning never achieved - uniting the sector against policies that can only do harm to the developmental trajectories and learning dispositions of England's young children.

Long-in-the-tooth early childhood campaigners were almost certainly feeling a warm glow of satisfaction as events unfolded at the end of last week. The Daily Telegraph press open letter titled ‘The Government should stop intervening in early education, of which I was just one of around 130 signatories, went viral last Thursday, as the airwaves were awash with reports and phone-ins on a scale that rivalled the first (and not unrelated) ‘toxic childhood’ open letter that Sue Palmer and I launched exactly seven years ago in September 2006, and which we wrote about in Nursery World at the time.

It is useful and, perhaps, important to locate this latest open letter in historical context. Along with six colleagues, I was instrumental in founding the Open EYE early years campaign in the summer of 2007, and for some years we issued numerous warnings and blandishments about what was happening in England’s early-years policy-making. While a significant minority of early-years practitioners did strongly support our concerns, the more ‘established’ echelons of the sector studiously avoided having anything to do with us, and in a few cases indicated ill-disguised contempt for our challenges to the then policy-makers. Now there are few less edifying sights than people indulging in a self-satisfied outbreak of ‘We told you so...’ – but sometimes it can be very tempting! Just to remind readers, the first Open EYE ‘manifesto’ in 2007 referred with alarm to too-early literacy, to the compromising of a supposedly play-based curriculum, to the infiltration of ‘audit-culture’ mentalities and practices into early childhood, to the impact of utilitarian statutory EYFS ‘guidance’ on practitioners, and to the government statutorily imposing its own view of developmental ‘normality’ on to the sector.  

Does some of this sound rather familiar?... The published version of the new open letter speaks of deep concern about ‘the impact of the Government’s early years policies on the health and wellbeing of our youngest children’.  The letter continues, ‘The term "school readiness" is now dominating policy pronouncements, despite considerable criticism from the sector…. The role of play is being down-valued in England's nurseries…. Research does not support an early start to testing and quasi-formal teaching, but provides considerable evidence to challenge it. Very few countries have a school starting age as young as four, as we do in England…. Successive ministers have prescribed an ever-earlier start to formal learning. This can only cause profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children. We as a sector are now uniting to demand a stop to such inappropriate intervention…..’ (my italics.

What is quite new about all this is that this latest open letter has been signed by many of the most eminent establishment figures in the sector – chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, Purnima Tanuku; chief executive, Pre-School Learning Alliance, Neil Leitch; chief executive of PACEY, Liz Bayram; chair of the Early Childhood Forum, Melian Mansfield; ex Children's Commissioner for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green; director of the LSE Well-Being Programme Professor, Lord Richard Layard; ex Education Select Committee chairman Barry Sheerman MP;  and Founder of Parents Outloud Margaret Morrissey – not to mention the leaders of all of the main teaching unions. And when such prominent and respected public figures as ex Times editor Simon Jenkins and ex Independent on Sunday editor Janet Street-Porter join the media fray with substantial articles supporting our position, it seems clear that some deeper cultural shift in the Zeitgeist (and which Open EYE prefigured and predicted) is now underway.

Not that this is in any way a moment for self-satisfaction or sitting on laurels; rather, it’s a time for everyone to re-double our efforts to consolidate the advances of recent days, and the remarkable achievement of this initiative led by the Save Childhood Movement’s founder Wendy Ellyatt. There are many ways of helping to buttress such a consolidation: writing letters to newspapers; lobbying our local MPs, education ministers and even the Prime Minister himself; voting in the various Vox Pops on England’s school starting age; adding comments to media reports on newspaper websites; voting in the Too Much Too Soon movement’s new petition (see http://www.toomuchtoosoon.org/); making a submission to the DfE’s consultation on baseline assessment; and last but not least, becoming involved in the Day of Action that is planned to take place at the House of Commons in half-term week on Wednesday 30 October.

So in sum, the aforementioned perennial campaigners must fulsomely thank the current crop of education ministers, along with Ofsted’s Michael Wilshaw, for their not inconsiderable achievement in uniting our sector against inappropriate policy-making, and for helping us to ‘come of age’ as a ‘profession’, united in the conviction that professionals and practitioners have a grave ethical responsibility to protect the children in their charge from ‘iatrogenic policy-making’ (a term from medicine which refers to well-intentioned medical treatment which ends up harming the patient – I trust that the parallels with current early-years policy-making will be obvious).

Dr Richard House is Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood at the University of Winchester, and editor of 'Too Much, Too Soon? Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood' (Hawthorn Press, 2011). This article is written in a personal capacity.

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