Examination of witnesses (Questions 147
WEDNESDAY 5 APRIL 2000
and MS SUSAN
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
(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 childis 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
(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.
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
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
(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.
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.
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
Chairman: Well, we did see some very young children
joining up the dots of `e's and `a's and `b's yesterday, very
Charlotte Atkins: A playgroup, that was.
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.