Early years culture needs to change

Written by Sue Palmer on 25 April 2016 in Comment

Author and chair of Upstart Scotland Sue Palmer on how premature formal schooling is holding kids back

How can childcare expansion happen without sacrificing quality in early years education?

The conflation of ‘childcare’ and ‘early years education’ speaks volumes. Although Scotland’s Early Years Framework extends to the age of eight, we tend to see ‘early years education’ as stopping at the age of four or five, when schooling begins.

The expansion of preschool ‘childcare’ over the last few decades has led to a hotchpotch of very variable provision and the driving force has not been high-quality early years education but the need to get parents back to work. Since preschool only covers a year or so, what happens to the children doesn’t get much attention in educational terms.  

So CfE’s Early Level is split down the middle: one or two years of highly variable childcare; one or two years of prematurely formal schooling.


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Instead of a properly trained early years workforce with responsibility for the four most formative years of children’s educational career, we have ‘early years practitioners’ (some of whom have marginal qualifications) and primary teachers (whose focus is on delivering the curriculum, rather than supporting individual children’s development).

This isn’t to say that Scotland doesn’t have many talented, well-qualified early years practitioners, including EY teachers. It’s just that, in the current culture, they aren’t able to do the job as it should be done, and their expertise is seriously undervalued. Further expansion of childcare is unlikely to change this position – it’ll still be a hotchpotch, with the main motivation being to look after children of working parents, until they’re old enough to start school.

It’s now vital that we change these cultural attitudes to early years, which are damaging entire generations. As Upstart suggests, we should establish a ring-fenced kindergarten stage for children from three to seven, based on the Nordic model. Unless we do, we’ll continue to struggle with a widening attainment gap, an increasing number of developmental conditions and behavioural problems, and a rising tide of child and adolescent mental health problems.

Many of the challenges throughout our education system start in early years because children are asked to settle down in classrooms and perform formal operations too soon. A comprehensive system is clearly going to be in trouble if children haven’t started their education on the levellest possible of playing fields.

Time for a rethink of Curriculum for Excellence?

Not time for a rethink, but definitely time we started putting its principles into practice. Probably the most important principle is that the Early Level of CfE (up to the end of P1 and continuing for many children into P2) should focus on health and wellbeing, and on the need for active, creative, play-based learning, taking into account each individual child’s developmental level.

Children’s success in the rest of their educational career (and beyond that in the workplace) depends upon their level of physical, emotional, social and intellectual maturity when schooling begins. But Scotland’s very early school starting age means we have a cultural attachment to cracking on with formal learning at P1 so the principles of the Early Level are forgotten.

When sound developmental foundations are not established – and most children are not fully mature in every respect until they’re six, or even seven – there are likely to be problems in the future. Some children will develop behavioural problems because they lack the emotional and social skills needed to settle in a classroom.

Some will have trouble with literacy because of inadequate language or with maths because they haven’t yet internalised the underpinning concepts. Many will have low levels of emotional resilience and self-confidence (both of which are developed through play) and therefore find it difficult to deal with stress and setbacks. Since 21st century adolescence is exceptionally stressful, this is a growing problem during secondary schooling.

And these issues are, of course, much more salient for disadvantaged children who often arrive in P1 with a significant developmental deficit. 

Not only does our early school starting age mean the developmental principles of the Early Level are often ignored, but the stress now placed on achieving literacy and numeracy outcomes means that parents and teachers also lose sight of the central significance of health and wellbeing.

The introduction of national tests at P1 is likely to exacerbate this situation. 

In contrast, countries like Finland and Switzerland, which traditionally have not started formal schooling till the age of seven, are doing extremely well in international surveys of achievement. 

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