Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 147 - 159)




  147. Good morning. Can I welcome our first group of witnesses to our meeting. To Susan Hay, Wendy Scott and Jean Ensing, thank you very much for coming. When we started this inquiry, some of us knew very little about the early years, and some knew a great deal, but all of us after a visit to Oxfordshire yesterday learned an enormous amount about the whole field and indeed we have just decided that we will specifically open up the inquiry into the sort of zero to threes which was not specifically included in the original terms of reference, so that might be of interest to you. After the evidence we had yesterday, it seemed absolutely clear that we would be negligent not to look at that period and look at it as a coherent piece. Can we start this morning by saying that we in a sense chose three different kinds of voices to hear this morning to contrast and compare. Wendy, are you leading this morning?
  (Ms Scott) It is a combined effort, I think, but yes. Perhaps we could also respond in kind because we have got slightly different perspectives and I think that may be a strength.

  148. Would you like to say a couple of words just to open up?
  (Ms Scott) Yes, certainly. I am here in my role as the Chief Executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, which has been fighting now for nearly 80 years for high-quality early education for all young children. With me is our President, Jean Ensing, and I think it would be very nice if you were to introduce yourself, Jean.
  (Ms Ensing) I have been President for two and a half years. Formerly I was an HMI with national responsibility for under-fives until I retired from Ofsted five years ago. My background is in teaching young children and 40 years ago starting a mother-and-toddler group, following my children into education because I was a young mother at that time and, as a headteacher, running a training for playgroup workers, among other things, but over the years I have counted up that I have visited something like 800 early years settings, inspection visits, in this country, mainland Europe, Scandinavia and the United States.
  (Ms Scott) I would like to add to my credibility through playgroup and working in the private sector too. Our third colleague is Susan Hay who might like to introduce herself. She has come as a member of our association.
  (Ms Hay) I am Susan Hay and I am Managing Director of a company called Nursery Works which runs nine private sector nurseries in London and across nine different London boroughs. These nurseries cater for nought to five-year-olds, the whole range, and approximately half the places across our nurseries, which total about 400/450 places in all, are supported by employers, so parents are helped with the funding of those places through their employers. I am a member of BAECE because it makes no distinction between sectors or settings as far as its model of good practice is concerned and that is why I feel I have a role here today.

  Chairman: I think two of our Members need to declare an interest.

  Valerie Davey: Yes, having recently accepted, and delighted to have done, an honorary position with BAECE.

  Mr Marsden: I am the same.


  149. Let's get down to the questions. Can I start off by saying that what was absolutely apparent yesterday in our day in Oxfordshire, looking at a number of schemes and also taking evidence over quite an extended period, was that there seemed to be emerging two strong views about the best start that children can have in terms of entering into learning so that we develop their skills to the best possible effect. On the one hand, what was startling was that we went to one group where people worked on the minimum wage with less training and were in charge of children in their pre-nursery stage and of course we went to an early years learning centre which was within a school. The question we were asking or some of us were asking last evening was what is the best start for a child—is it a more formal education in schools or is it supervised play? What is the best way to start a child into education?
  (Ms Scott) I think we need to separate out some of those issues. I think it is perhaps misleading to assume that schooling equates with formal education. In this country we have a tradition of nursery education which is actually predicated on the child-centred approach and I think we would argue that wherever children are, that would be the most appropriate. I do now call the approach learner-centred because I think it is appropriate lifelong and it is not just an issue for young children. The most appropriate approach can be implemented by people in all sorts of different settings and of course happens often instinctively at home and needs to be built on in that way. The key really is the understanding and commitment of the adults wherever they are and that is helped by training. I think we would certainly argue that.
  (Ms Ensing) Yes, I think there are lots of tensions between wanting lifelong learning and having lots of initiatives that are looking at just skills. It is interesting that you used the word "skills" at the beginning and I would certainly want that for the beginning of young children's learning, which starts of course prior to birth, but it is not just skills, but it is attitudes, it is the dispositions to learning, feeling that you are secure, that you feel good about yourself and you know what you are about and it is encouraging that for that you need the right sort of people with the right sort of attitudes themselves and training, the right sort of programme and the right sort of environment for children to be in.

  150. Is the early part of education where, on the one hand, there are graduate teachers with a long period of education, postgraduate education at that, who are teaching these young children and, on the other, a number of people that have had really no education until they have got the job and then are trained on the job and are being paid the minimum wage? It does seem a tremendous contrast. It would not happen in any other bit of education, this dramatic contrast. I am sorry to push you on this, but is this a happy situation or is it something that we can reconcile ourselves to?
  (Ms Hay) No, it is not a happy situation at all and I think, following on from Jean's point, the importance in early years is for the adults in the setting to have the time not only perhaps to teach, but to listen to the children and to have the time and the inclination and the understanding of how to observe young children properly in order that the planning can then follow from the observations that they have had time to make. I think that one of the pushes, the drivers on education for adults in early years settings has unfortunately limited them to the experience of the setting that they happen to be in as distinct from being a broader level of training which would equip them better for more children, despite the setting they are in.
  (Ms Scott) I recently did the Ofsted training for nursery inspectors which was to help inspectors take on board the evaluation of provision for three-year-olds and it struck me very forcibly in a way it had not done until last week actually that it skips off the tongue very easily, knowledge and understanding, and we apply it to children, but we need to apply it to adults as well and certainly part of the Ofsted training demands that staff working with young children should have knowledge and understanding of the curriculum. It is easy to have knowledge of it and you can find out what the expected outcomes or learning goals might be, but more important is the understanding of how to achieve those. I think one of the issues in the early years is that it is a very complex field and it is difficult or impossible actually to give prescriptions, and when it is done well, it looks very easy and people are often building on their own personal experience in their homes and that is entirely valid, but unless it can be coupled with broader matters of principle, philosophy and indeed knowledge and understanding about how to reach very desirable goals, we are going to be in difficulties in the longer term. Therefore, just as there is evidence to show that the better outcomes come from children whose mothers are well educated, I would argue that the same is true for their primary carers in the settings as they leave home, so it is very, very important in these early months and years to make sure that the people who are working with them can influence them through knowledge and understanding and a much deeper awareness so that they can be flexible in the way they respond to the children's needs. It is a curriculum in the mind. The structure is actually in the adult's mind rather than out there in a formal curriculum.

  Chairman: Well, we will be coming back to that.

Mr Harris

  151. At what age should children start learning how to write?
  (Ms Ensing) Well, they make marks very, very early on. If you mean at what stage should children be sitting down with a pencil and holding it, that would depend much on their development. We know that certainly girls develop their fine motor skills much earlier than boys, but it is a very difficult issue because people think of children having to copy underneath or copy over and examples like that which are not good exemplars for how children learn to write, but I think it is much later than we think and I think that is why we have so many problems with writing in this country.

  152. So later than current practice, is what you are saying?
  (Ms Ensing) Yes.

  153. So is the introduction of the Foundation Stage which, in your evidence, you say is interpreted by Ofsted inspectors as suggesting that at five there should be at least some time devoted to formal reading, formal writing, formal writing of numbers, is it going in the wrong direction with that emphasis based on the evidence?
  (Ms Ensing) I welcome the Foundation Stage and I think it will actually open up the practice and it will open up analysis of how we should do things.

  154. That was not my question. I was asking about the Foundation Stage in the sense in which it has been interpreted by Ofsted inspectors, where, according to your evidence, they are really in a sense penalising schools where they do not see formal reading and writing before the age of five.
  (Ms Scott) Can I give you the reason why that was put into our evidence, which was to do with the training that Ofsted inspectors had, which, as an Ofsted inspector, I certainly did, and if you are working in schools, section 10, the school inspection, if you are to be accredited to inspect now as a team member, it was necessary to undertake a certain training and Ofsted indicated in that training that every child in every school in every class across the country must experience the literacy hour. Now, that is not legally the case, but it is the case that for inspectors who did not have early years expertise, they might think that that is what is required and so then as they go into schools, and some schools have experienced this, it is not to do with the Foundation Stage directly, but it is to do with the expectations then of reception classes which now are part of the Foundation Stage. One of the reasons why we welcome the Foundation Stage is that it should open up, as Jean has said, possibilities of bottom-up pressures, if you like, and understanding and knowledge about how children learn which is not necessarily through the literacy hour.

Charlotte Atkins

  155. Coming in on the literacy hour just for a second, I think you say in your evidence that there has been some misinterpretation of how the literacy hour is delivered in early years. Would you like to say something about that because I think this is an argument I have with many headteachers about how they cannot fit in the literacy hour in the day and the children find it very difficult to cope with it?
  (Ms Scott) Because Jean has advised on this, I think it would be very helpful if she responded.
  (Ms Ensing) I think there are mixed messages. The guidance on the literacy hour of the literacy strategy is that children going into reception, so they could be as young as four years, one month going in, should have experience of the different elements, storying and noticing words, learning about sounds over the course of their whole period of time in the day in school, whether it is two and a half hours or five hours, but then by the end of the year that they should be working towards those elements together in preparation for year one. Now, that is what it says in the guidance. It also unfortunately says that the sooner you do it, the better, so hence primary heads, who are not secure in understanding how young children learn, might interpret that, that you do it in the first couple of weeks of term when they are only 50 months old, and to sit and concentrate for an hour in that way is really not doable.

  156. So what would you advise the approach to be?
  (Ms Ensing) That it is flexible and appropriate and that is what the Foundation Stage is saying, that we want all the elements of literacy. We do not have a problem with the objectives, but it is how you do it and how you spread it out over the course of the child's time in the setting.

Mr Marsden

  157. Are you then suggesting, or am I being too mechanical here, that the literacy hour in that setting could be delivered in sort of bite-size chunks, 20 minutes here and 20 minutes there, or not?
  (Ms Ensing) Yes, it could be. Certainly we all know that in settings you have group times and stories everywhere. I cannot think of a setting which does not have stories, where you do not have talking and listening, where you do not have looking at books. All the elements can be there, but they can be a mix and match over the course of the day or several days.
  (Ms Hay) I really welcomed your comment that you were going to extend your inquiry to nought to three-year-olds because I think that we can learn a great deal from the nought to three-year-old sector about the rhythm of young children. The rhythm is not to sit down for an hour and concentrate on a book, but it may be something different. It may be that, but it may not be and it is going to be different on different days and different at different times of the day and so on and so forth, so I think we can learn from that rhythm of very young children and that will help us enormously in looking at the whole early years frame.

Mr Harris

  158. On this subject that I started off, I get the feeling that there is a bit of beating around the bush here. It says in your evidence, "Comparisons with other countries suggest that there is no benefit in starting formal instruction under six. The majority of other European countries admit children to school at six or seven following a three year period of pre-school education which focuses on social and physical development. Yet standards of literacy and numeracy are generally higher in those countries than in the UK", which suggests that rather than there being a benefit, there may be an advantage, and yet you are also saying that some people interpret the Foundation Stage, and certainly the Chief Inspector would, as saying there should be more formal education earlier and let's formalise it and grade it and baseline assess it and have children reading and writing at four and five.
  (Ms Scott) It depends what you mean by "formal". Are you imagining children sitting in rows at desks with worksheets in front of them and pencils?

  Mr Harris: No, they could be sitting in a circle doing it!

  Chairman: Well, we did see some very young children joining up the dots of `e's and `a's and `b's yesterday, very young.

  Charlotte Atkins: A playgroup, that was.

Mr Harris

  159. Your evidence would suggest that that was a bad thing.
  (Ms Ensing) I think there are better ways of doing things than joining up dots.

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