Nobody is arguing about the goal. Parents, politicians, practitioners and academics all agree that we want our children to be happy, healthy, and prepared for rewarding and successful futures. But agreement breaks down about the best ways to reach that ideal, and it's a sad state of affairs when insults fly and people feel they need to take to the streets to make their point. When views become rigid, it's time to stop and ask: how do we know what we know?
To understand practice and its effects we can study theory and research, read popular books and articles, and reflect on our experience. As early years experience is not in policy makers' CVs, we might expect them to pay close attention to evidence. But while the current Government says it wants to base policy decisions on evidence, it sometimes seems that an attitude of 'it was good enough for me, so it's what children need today' holds more sway.
Michael Gove has been dismissive of early years experts, referring to critics' 'bleating bogus pop-psychology', while Elizabeth Truss misinterpreted the critics of early formal approaches as 'prophets of dumbing down who think children shouldn't start learning until they are six or seven' and labelled the idea of active, playful learning as 'misguided, regressive, inaccurate, superstitious and dangerous'.
I believe rigorous attention to research on practices and their impact on children is essential. It requires both a willingness to engage with evidence that seems counter to our views, and to look deeply to interpret accurately.
For instance, a recent Save the Children report highlighted that children who are 'behind' in reading and maths at seven are likely to stay behind. From this, common sense might say we need to push the three Rs earlier for these children. But just because two things happen together doesn't mean that one causes the other. The children who are behind are also probably the least likely to have a quality newspaper delivered to their homes - but arranging newspaper deliveries won't help them succeed.
Children fall behind for a number of reasons, which will continue to hold them back unless the right causes are targeted. There is good evidence that in the long run it is not the three Rs but building resilience through emotional security and a self-regulating approach to learning that counts most in the early years.