Look to our past, not Europe

Karen Wickett and Dr Verity Campbell-Barr
Friday, February 8, 2013

We should remember past mistakes in early years policy when trying to move forward or our youngest children will be in inappropriate environments, say Karen Wickett and Dr Verity Campbell Barr, lecturers in Early Childhood Studies at Plymouth University

There have been many cries of concern from early years practitioners and parents about Liz Truss's proposed increase in child-ratios. Apparently this strategy will be one way of balancing the budgets of early years settings, whilst reducing the spiralling childcare costs for families and the government. 

We also sense another cause for concern: that the proposal will see more children entering school at a younger age.

Increasingly we are hearing and observing that local authorities are splitting the provision of the once ‘one stop shop’ Sure Start Children’s Centres (SSCC) by separating the non-sustainable childcare and education provision out by putting it under the management of the nearby school. 

This is particularly true in the communities of highest need, as these nurseries are usually the least sustainable.  Further, the provision of places for two-year-olds has highlighted a lack of provision to meet the offer of funded places, with schools stepping in to fill the gaps in provision.

Unfortunately our observations have been reaffirmed in the recent policy proposals set out by ‘More Great Childcare’ (DFE 2013) which now suggests another way forward for childcare is to ‘make it easier for schools to teach younger children by removing the requirement on schools to register separately with Ofsted if they wish to provide for children under three’ (DFE 2013 p. 12).  

Although this could be an opportunity for consistency for families and children and of course balancing the budgets, there is a cause for concern.  

The concern is the continued pressure to ensure children are ‘school ready’ (whatever that means!).  Recently Gove shared teachers’ worries that children were not school ready as they were unable to sit still, listen, hold a pencil, ask questions and were still in nappies. 

Well this is hardly surprising as children are starting school younger. Placing the youngest children in school and training them in school drill does not mean they will be ready for school earlier.  Perhaps it is schools that need to be child ready and in doing so they need to be able to respond to the needs of the child – or is that a policy rhetoric that is now forgotten? Ideas of school readiness create a very narrow view of children and childhood.

This is not the first time there have been cries of despair that our youngest children are being subjected to inappropriate learning environments and curriculum (Sharp, 1998). During the 1990s there was an increase in children starting school at four years old.  It is interesting to note that despite this earlier start children are still not achieving the educational grades set out at the end of Key Stage 1.

The response appears to be that children are therefore deficient as they are failing to ‘make the grade’ and that more needs to be done to mould them into the right shape. However, has the Government ever stopped to think about whether we are providing appropriate environments for children’s learning and development? Furthermore, how appropriate is this moulding when we are talking about children as young as two?

As long ago as 1905, the Board of Education claimed that the youngest children were subjected to inappropriate learning environments and curriculum.  Often the under-fives were subjected to the formal instruction of reading, writing and arithmetic and harsh discipline (Board of Education, 1905 cited in Bilton, 2002).  Over a hundred years later it appears that some policies are suggesting that even younger children should be subjected to inappropriate environments.

It is worth noting that the inspectors in 1905 praised the practice of kindergarten teachers which had been inspired by Froebel’s work (Gillard, 2011).  Unfortunately it was not until 1996 that the early years sector became central to government policies. Since 1996 we have learnt much about appropriate environments for young children and their families.  

We would agree with Liz Truss that there are learning opportunities from looking at overseas provision, but we would also argue that we must learn from our mistakes in the past. Therefore, we would suggest a way forward is to recognise and respect the differences in heritages of schools and early years settings and how these routes have informed the curriculum and the environments provided for children. 

Instead of introducing more formal teaching methods sooner, parents, teachers, early years practitioners, childcare managers and head-teachers need to create a ‘meeting place’ (Moss, 2013) where they can talk and construct learning environments for children, their families and practitioners/teachers.  It is imperative that appropriate learning environments are constructed for young children or else the longer term cost to society could be a lot higher.


Bilton, H. (2002) Outdoor Play in the Early Years (2nd ed) London: David Fulton Publishing

DfE (2013) More Great Childcare DfE

Gillard, D. (2011). "Education in England." (Available from) www.educationengland.org.uk/history [Accessed 31st January 2011].

Moss, P. (2013) Early Childhood and Compulsory Education Reconceptualising the relationship London: Routledge

Sharp, C. (1998). 'Age of starting school and the early years curriculum.' Paper presented at the NFER Annual Conference, London, 6 October.

Karen Wickett              Dr Verity Campbell Barr

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