Tuesday, 26 August 2014


From this September, 40% of two year olds will be eligible for free childcare - a total of 260,000 children, according to government calculations. Places are said to be in short supply, with The Observer reporting on Sunday that 63,000 two-year-olds are on waiting lists and that "it appears many private and voluntary nurseries, which provide the vast majority of places, are reluctant to embrace" the government's free place initiative.

Although the source of this information is unclear, the inferences drawn are that the amount the government is willing to pay may not be attractive to private providers, and that existing paying parents might object to an influx of children from the more deprived families eligible for the free childcare.

In this context the article refers back to a speech given by Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw on 3 April 2014, in which he pointed to a false dichotomy between play and learning for pre-school age children. "It is", he said, "a middle-class prejudice for which some of the most disadvantaged pay the price. The chattering classes will never have many problems in bringing up their children and finding the best ways to educate them from the earliest age."

Sir Michael is correct about the false dichotomy. As he says:
"Play in many families is inherently educational. When a child interacts with an adult it is an opportunity to learn. Children naturally absorb new skills, words and ideas. The parents, rich or poor, who teach their child every time they hold a one-way conversation with a baby, convey lifelong advantages.
"They teach when they count the stairs as they carry the child to bed. They teach when they read a toddler stories and sing nursery rhymes. They teach good behaviour by loving their children, showing their affection at every available moment, but also by setting clear boundaries and acting as good role models. They guide them so that they can play with other children."
He should not forget, however, that this process is only partly a "doing" by the parent; children learn experientially, whether a parent intends it or not, from whatever is going on around them at any moment in their waking hours. Play in all families is inherently educational, because everything a child does or experiences teaches them something. It inevitably follows, however, that many young children learn things that, ideally, they would not learn at so tender an age. Sir Michael is incorrect, therefore, to say that some children are not "taught" in their families. The problem is simply that they may be "taught" the wrong things.

The dichotomy that really matters, therefore, is between "good" learning and "bad" learning where, in extreme cases, the latter is learning what it is like to be neglected or abused. The capacity of pre-school settings (as well as schools themselves) to supply any deficiency and correct, in so far as possible, any misdirection, is clearly an important issue. The problem arises with the list of things that Ofsted thinks that children need to be taught. Sir Michael quotes a list of "ten ticks", as follows: "to sit still and listen; to be aware of other children; to understand the word ‘no’ and the boundaries it sets for behaviour; to understand the word ‘stop’ and that such a phrase might be used to prevent danger; to be toilet-trained and be able to go to the loo; to recognise their own name; to speak to an adult to ask for help; to be able to take off their coat and put on shoes; to talk in sentences; to open and enjoy a book."

If preparedness for "academic" school learning is the only objective, the list makes sense. It supplies children who are problem-free, co-operative and receptive - i.e. manageable, even passive. In reality, however, young children are more receptive to the word "yes" than "no"; prefer opportunities to "go" rather than constantly be told to "stop"; are not, at the age of five, well disposed to sit still and listen for more than a short period of time, unless truly engrossed; are only dimly becoming aware of their own individuality, let alone that of those around them; may not willingly open and actively enjoy a book until well into their teens; etc., etc. If these criteria form the basis for all pre-school activities it is highly likely that "challenging" children will become more challenging still as each day wears on, while those who are more compliant will miss out on stimulating opportunities for exploration and self-development.

Children who "fail" in conventional educational terms often start off with difficulties that get worse. For that reason, a child's early learning experiences are, indeed, of great importance, but the trajectory suggests that the education they are receiving does not respond to their needs at a given age. For young children those needs are, above all, exploratory; they need to find out about the world for themselves, and a good pre-school setting will ensure that these explorations form the basis for a social and emotional development that is positive, engaging and constructive.

The most deprived children are not the ones who are not yet toilet-trained, or who can't sit still, undo their coat buttons, talk coherently, do what they are told or take an interest in a book. The truly deprived are those who have too infrequently heard a kind word; whose experience of relationships is acrimonious rather than compassionate; whose freedom to explore their environment has been constrained; who are more used to criticism than encouragement. Long before any "academic" shortcomings can directly affect their life chances, these children are at risk of crashing out of a system that is more interested in their progress with letters and numbers than their emotional and social well-being.

Forget, therefore, “playing” versus “teaching”, or "middle class" versus "economically deprived". Think, instead, of the importance to all children of “developing” as distinct from “achieving”. What a child can or can't do in practical or intellectual terms at the age of three, or five, or even eleven, is broadly irrelevant when compared with the quality of the individual adult that emerges post-18. There is plenty of time to play catch-up, provided the fundamentals are in place. What those fundamentals consist of, however, is far removed from that Ofsted tick-list.

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