Time to get creative beyond the early years

Written by Tom Freeman on 25 October 2017 in Comment

Analysis: the whole education system needs to catch up with the early years in recognising the power of the creative arts

Forest school, East Lothian - Fiona Wilson Beales

“We are not saying children have to eat soil,” Henry Mathias of the Care Inspectorate told Holyrood’s Creative Play event.

The comment was a reference to the 2016 book ‘Let Them Eat Dirt’ by B. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta which caused ripples by suggesting we may have been making children sick by keeping them too clean.

In Scotland there has been increasing awareness that open, free play in which children are put in control of their own learning is effective in the early years, and this often includes going outside and getting muddy.


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The famous quote from children’s activist Lady Allen of Hurtwood ­­- “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit” – seems more relevant than ever in an increasingly risk-averse and litigious world, but it is an ethos understood by Scotland’s early years sector.

Significantly, the inspection regime is catching up.

The Care Inspectorate has been forced to adapt its inspection criteria to recognise the innovative work done in early learning settings across Scotland, including nurseries in which the entirety of the learning is done in a forest or a field.

Regulation, of course, is itself traditionally risk-averse, as Mathias admitted, but the strategic lead for the National Care Standards Review said inspectors needed to understand when the benefits outweigh the risks.

“We don't want the policing of services to be the main conversation,” he said.

This sentence is similar to the language used by Education Scotland when it talks about the way inspections of primary and secondary schools are changing – sharing good practice, supporting improvement and encouraging collaboration are the buzzwords of the era.

But the early years sector understands something which has been increasingly forgotten or marginalised by formal schooling – the importance of creativity and the arts in attainment.

Despite creativity allegedly being at the heart of the Curriculum for Excellence’s broad approach, the truth is this year’s figures showed a decline in pupils taking languages, social sciences and the arts in the senior phase.

Music lessons, drama or art clubs and even school libraries have become the Cinderella services many councils are struggling to fund.

Yet what early years practitioners know, and what all the scientific evidence shows, is creativity is exactly what children need for their development and empowerment as future citizens.

As Heather Armstrong of Starcatchers told today’s event: “If you miss out on the expressive arts to prioritise other elements of the curriculum, then you miss out on the key tools of your job.”

What’s more, creative environments at home and in the classroom are most effective at tackling what the Scottish Government has named as its number one target: the attainment gap.

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