There are growing tensions in the Early Years (pre-school) and they are multifold:
1) The Rose Report steps on the toes of influential Early Years advisers and they don’t like it. Rose has entered their domain. Wendy Scott headed up a petition of 100 ‘experts’ published on a Times Education Supplement (TES) blog under the title ‘Experts slam the phonics enforcers’.
These experts are clearly making their stand but fortunately there are so many parents and teachers who have experienced the mixed methods/balanced approach and then compared this to subsequent synthetic phonics teaching practice that many representative people were able to express their support of the synthetic phonics approach. This petition does indicate, however, the battle ahead to bring evidence-based teaching into the Early Years and forewarns parents to be vigilant as to future practices in the pre-schools.
2) The government’s statutory Foundation Stage Profile pre-school assessment system is excessive in its requirements and fails to distinguish between ‘goals to aspire to’ and ‘goals to attain’. To manage the profile as officially demanded is onerous to say the least. It is badly designed and a logistical nightmare. The associated FSP formal monitoring and moderating regime has skewed early years practice with its over-emphasis on observing, assessing and evidencing judgements with paperwork and photographs per child. A time management study would soon confirm these assertions. We hear of many parents who are shocked about the level of recorded details of their children’s conversations and activities. Many have stated that they don’t want their children scrutinised to this degree by those on ‘clipboard vigil’ and they would much prefer their children to be interacting with their adult carers rather than being constantly observed by them. Many Early Years teachers are quite incensed that they feel reduced to ‘observers’ rather than feeling free to teach the children in their care. And it is a rare Year 1 teacher who describes that they actually look at the hundreds+ of bits of evidence on the Foundation Stage Profiles and find this helpful.
3) The same onerous requirements for planning and assessment are expected of all Early Years practitioners no matter what their qualifications, type of provision or pay. This is unacceptable. The government has recently introduced its Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum which will be made statutory in 2008. Are there no bounds to the interference of government in stipulating the minutiae of provision for pre-schoolers? Is this symptomatic of a nanny state or are we moving closer to total central control? It is certainly a pedantic state of affairs. In any event, those in charge of the Early Years need to understand the difference between providing detailed guidance for information and training purposes and the need for something much simpler for planning and national assessment purposes.
4) Whilst the government’s rhetoric is heavy on personalised learning and catering for pupils’ individualism, it is conversely prescriptive in its Early Years curriculum expectations, monitoring and inspection regimes. There is no respect for the individualism of practitioners and the context of different settings. Many Early Years advisers are also so convinced about the correctness of their own perceptions of good Early Years practice that practitioners are told what to do (and what not to do) and consequently work in a climate of Big Brother as they worry about what they ‘ought’ to be providing and commonly asking the question ‘is that enough?’ in terms of providing evidence for the Foundation Stage Profile.
5) This situation is increasingly intolerable. Following many discussions on the TES Early Years online staffroom forum, contributors decided that they needed to express their views starting with the creation of an online petition:
It is early days for this ‘coming out’ of disaffected practitioners and there has been no response from ministers thus far other than through Lord Adonis’s office stating that there were wide consultations to create the EYFS. So what! The point is that there is wide discontent about the direction in which advisers, inspectors and government ministers are travelling - towards dictatorship for pre-school practitioners and unreasonable expectations as to what practitioners of all descriptions should commonly provide and ‘evidence’ for pre-schoolers’ progress. This is a sorry state of affairs and raises the question as to whether ministers really have a finger on the pulse of the spread of views and experiences of parents and Early Years practitioners.
6) Politicians with any sense should investigate the rising discontent in the Early Years domain and not bury their heads in the sand. The ‘Early Years’ is far from a pink and fluffy world - it is a hot bed of disagreement, pressures, policing and unhappiness. Central government seems to have forgotten that politicians are there to represent the people and not to dictate to them.
7) To top it all, Wendy Scott, who headed up the anti-phonics-in-Reception petition on the TES blog, is speaking about ‘Perspectives on Phonics’ at the forthcoming national Early Years conference in September hosted by the Mark Allen Group. Furthermore, Dominic Wyse, major critic of the Rose recommendations, is speaking about ‘Reading and writing before school’. The fact that there appears to be no speaker at this weighty conference who is likely to represent the common sense substance of the historic Rose Report indicates just what influences and biases Early Years practitioners and parents have to contend with. Representatives of the Reading Reform Foundation have approached the Mark Allen Group to draw attention to, what looks like, a lack of balance and representation of the Rose recommendations at this prestigious Early Years conference. The RRF was told that it was too late to change the events as these were already publicised but that the RRF was welcome to provide a stand and workshop in the general exhibition. The comment was also made that the Early Years advisers are not against phonics but just against it in Reception. Well - that has already been made clear in their TES petition. Yet again a question has to be raised, however, as to how ordinary parents and practitioners can have an effective influence - or representation - in the national domain when the Early Years advisers with established influence are basically in control of organising such events as the Mark Allen Early Years Conference in the first place and are no doubt advisory to many people in high places.
Ordinary people are caught between advisers who consider themselves ultimate authorities on how to care for and educate our pre-schoolers and central government’s advice which is policed by local authority advisers. Now practitioners have to contend with the roll-out of the soon-to-be-statutory Early Years Foundation Stage guidance and the government guidance and training on synthetic phonics. Practitioners on the TES online forums are describing that they already receive contradictory advice from different people in various authoritative roles. Is this going to get worse? The caring and teaching professionals doing the actual providing are being drowned with the details of Early Years documents and buckling under the pressures of the focus on their professional and individual ‘accountability’ - what to do, how to do it, how to assess it and how to account for it. This is no climate in which to work day in and day out - and it is no way to promote professional confidence.