Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 197 - 218)




  197. Thank you very much for staying with us and listening to the preceding questions and answers. Can I start by saying that you have heard a range of opinions this morning, the job of this Committee is really to delve into everything that is out there in terms of new ideas, innovations and best practice? We are listening to anyone who wants to talk to us or write to us and we are going out there and seeing things on the ground. We are always going to be grateful to people like yourselves who say, "Go and look here, go and look at this sort of practice", and we are even going to Denmark in three or four weeks to have a look at their practice. Obviously we should have gone to Hungary instead. However, I understand, Professor Abbott, that you are responsible for the whole notion of the Climbing Frame and when people talk about the Climbing Frame notion of training it is attributed to you, so can I congratulate you on that? It is now used everywhere for everything. Can I ask you to say a couple of words of introduction about yourself?
  (Professor Abbott) I am responsible for Early Childhood Development in the Institute of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, which includes teacher education, multi-professional development for all workers involved in the care and education of young children, continuing professional development for teachers and people who are working across various sectors and departments, and practitioners working up to master's and PhD level in the early years. I am also very much involved in research into the education and care of children under five. I am delighted to hear that you are now widening your remit to look at the age range birth to three. We are very much involved in a research project working with the under-threes and are just producing training materials and resources to help practitioners right across the board to look in a rigorous and reflective way at their practice.

  198. Thank you for that.
  (Dr Fabian) I too work at the Institute of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University and have a similar field to Lesley, working with teachers who are training to be early years' specialists and working in the field of continuing professional development with people who are in the field of early years. My particular interest is the start of school and the way in which children are brought into compulsory education now. I am also here today representing TACTYC.

  199. I am sure I offended everyone concerned with early years when I made the remark, "You wouldn't hire a plumber who was not qualified", but I did that to bring the argument out. What is your opinion in terms of the ways in which we train the people who are responsible for the early years of our children? As I said yesterday, there are stark contrasts and it is very different. One was a playschool hiring people on minimum wage and then training them. I am not saying that those people were not very good, but there are very many of them in the country. Then we looked at other establishments where people have very much longer training. What is your view on this contrast of education and training backgrounds for people in the early years?
  (Professor Abbott) My response would be that all people working with young children should have adequate and supported training. That is not to say that we will not have the gifted amateur and people working alongside people who are highly trained, but I think the aim should be to provide access, funding and support for all those who are working with young children. Having recently been a member of the Government Review of-Pre-Schools and Playgroups and looking at the barriers to full inclusion of pre-schools and playgroups in the provision of early years care and education right across the board, one of the most compelling findings of that group is the fact that access to, and support for training is one of the barriers that we really do need to look at. I would advocate training for all those who are working with young children, but anyone in a leadership position in any early years centre must have high quality training. My response would be that it needs to be graduate training, whether a teacher, re specialist early years training or an early childhood studies degree which equips those people to lead the team, to manage, to work with parents and to identify and meet the needs of the children that they are working with. They need that skill.

Valerie Davey

  200. It begs the question whether we should have graduate parenthood. The people most involved with children are the parents, so are we actually saying by implication that there is this need—I want to come on to your continuum 0 to 8—but ultimately the parent is the child's first teacher?
  (Professor Abbott) Exactly, and research has shown just how important that first educator is. My concern is with children in out-of-home settings and if parents are going to invest in care and education out of their home, then that child deserves the best and the most highly educated people are required to work with those children. I would not disagree at all. I think parents work tremendously well with their children, they respond to their children's needs. Recent research has just shown how important that is and the News Night programme on Friday looked at the ways in which parents were responding so sensitively to their children's needs. Research suggests that parents are programmed to respond to the needs of their children. We are talking about out-of-home settings and I would say that those children deserve well qualified and well trained people.

  201. But in the out-of-home setting the people responsible for the young people by implication are also, therefore, involved with the families from which those children come to get the best development for the children. I remember the time when the NNEB qualification was essentially for 16 to 18 olds and then we realised that the responsibilities they had in day nurseries or in other settings involved talking and sharing with parents and they were not qualified, simply by the lack of experience, to deal with that setting. So how are we going to ensure that those qualified do have this wider concern and involvement and are able to be creative and responsive to it? Secondly, and importantly, how do you ensure that in the setting of care for young children we give a positive creative message to the parents as well as to their involvement?
  (Dr Fabian) One of the things that we need to consider is the close communication between the setting and the home. You are right, people need training in ways of communicating with parents. I think for most courses that are available that is an element of the course. Within that training people need to have systems whereby they can communicate with parents and invite parents into their setting so that they can also see what goes on. You are almost educating the parents along with the children very often.

  202. We have just heard that the development of oral language is key. The oral language is going to start at that very early level. If that is true, then the essence of what we are doing in those early years is a link between parent, teacher and child. How do we get it right?
  (Professor Abbott) I think we get it right by supporting parents and by acknowledging parents as partners in the process. I think we can be very patronising in talking about educating parents. I know that parents are educated by seeing a different model of working with their children and I think the closer involvement in their child's pre-school or early education offers the parent the opportunity to see a different model of handling, a different way of responding to their children's needs. It is the interaction of different skills and different responses to children that I think is important. Making our settings welcoming to parents, rather than making them feel as though they are handing over their child to the professionals, is a very important aspect. There is strong evidence that many early years settings are doing just that. Parents are seen as partners in the process and many settings feel that they could not function without parents. This is one of the strengths of the playgroup movement, parents are involved right from the beginning, but it does not excuse us from training the leaders of the playgroups and the managers of those groups appropriately, so that that team approach is employed.

Charlotte Atkins

  203. We went to many early years settings yesterday in Oxfordshire and every one of them said that their staff were trained, or were being trained, but clearly there is a huge range of difference between the various training courses, some are vocational and some are academic. Can you tell us what the major differences are and what you think is useful training and what is relevant? Clearly it would partly depend on the setting, but is some training really just a paper exercise and really not very effective in terms of getting the best out of those young children?
  (Dr Fabian) As with most professions, you need a variety of people within that profession, you cannot, for instance, with a health organisation, simply have all consultants, you have to have a range of people, and hence there is a range of training on offer to people. The teacher training that exists is a course that looks at 3 to 8 year olds and they are covering that age. That, of course, does not cover our 0 to 3 year olds that we are now looking at, so perhaps that is something that needs opening up.


  204. To follow Charlotte's point—you are the Climbing Frame people, or Lesley certainly is, who are the people at the top of the climbing frame? What are their qualifications? What have they got that the people at the bottom have not got? What is the difference? If I am sending my child to be stimulated by someone who is only at the bottom of the climbing frame as opposed to the next door neighbour who is sending his son to someone who is at the top of the climbing frame, who is getting the best deal?
  (Dr Fabian) I would hope that they are both getting a good deal, because I would hope that the people who are working with them are—I do not like talking about the bottom of the climbing frame or the top, but—

  205. It is your climbing frame.
  (Professor Abbott) People who are just starting out may be young apprentices, may be people who are being trained in the workplace towards achieving NVQs, and those people will be supported by, or should be supported by, people who have the qualifications at the top of the climbing frame. They should be supported by qualified early years specialist teachers, maybe someone with a master's degree, maybe someone with a PhD in early years, but that support should be there. The people who are beginning that training, maybe a vocational training, will need some support in terms of acquiring underpinning knowledge. One of my concerns is that purely workplace based training does not always give those students access to the underpinning knowledge. I think what we need to be looking at is vocationally related training allied with an opportunity for those people to step out of their setting, to mix with other people, to talk about the key issues in early childhood care and education, but not to be so blinkered that they only train within the workplace and only come out with a competence based qualification. I think that mix, that diversity, is very important.

Charlotte Atkins

  206. We spoke to someone yesterday who said that she had done a diploma, but she found that the NVQ 3 was really just about providing evidence and clearly had decided that she had not got time or it was not really relevant to her work place. How can we make sure that the training that they get is relevant and effective in terms of right across this hotch-potch, as an earlier witness said, of the early years settings we have?
  (Dr Fabian) Training does not just stop at the point at which they have their NVQ, there has to be continued professional development and it has to be diverse, they have to learn about systems that are wider than the setting that they are in. It is no good practitioners just being with practitioners, they have to have that underpinning knowledge. Presently the training that people take on top of their basic qualification is often in their own time, in the evenings and on Saturdays, and perhaps there is a case for releasing people from work in order to go and have extra training.
  (Professor Abbott) I think, to be fair, we have come a long way and we must recognise that. The QCA framework of accredited training is important, but I do not think it goes quite far enough. NVQ level 4, which is supposed to be the link with higher education, is not yet fully developed and higher education is not yet linked into that framework, so the QCA climbing frame stops short of the link with higher education. I think a lot of work still needs to be done on the link between initial training and continuing professional development. One of the strengths is that we now have specialist early years teacher training and recognition by the Teacher Training Agency. Many of us have worked long and hard for that revolution. An advanced study of early years is now seen as comparable to a specialist subject in maths, English, science and other primary national curriculum subjects. We have actually won that battle. What we need to do now is safeguard the needs of early years teachers who are required by the Teacher Training Agency to do everything that every other student training to teach at any other age has to complete. All the additional early years areas such as child development, management, leadership and working with parents, must be sidelined as well. I think we are in a dilemma, we do not want to hive off early years teacher training as a separate area, as in many other countries to which reference has been made this morning. We are the one country that has graduate teacher qualifications for all our early years teachers and I think we have to hang on to that, otherwise we will not get primary head teachers who know anything about early years, because people will say, "We are not going to appoint an early years trained person if they have not also worked with children in the later years." What our teacher training strives to do, and we battle to do it, and I think we do it effectively, is to allow our students to experience the later years as well as the early years so that they have that spread but also specialist early years knowledge and skill.

Mr O'Brien

  207. It is rather building on the line of questioning that Valerie had and just putting to one side that the Climbing Frame analogy does have this hierarchial problem that we were concerned about earlier, and you might want to think about spiders' webs—
  (Professor Abbott) We are going that way, we have got away from the ladder.

  208. I am struggling. You know that I have been pursuing a line of questioning in the earlier sessions about—as I see it from the evidence of my own eyes, albeit I expect not a scientific example, but certainly from my own constituency experience—the value placed within these early years settings of the gifted amateur and the involvement of parents, from all backgrounds, not just necessarily those who have got, one might say, an enlightened view on these matters. I am wrestling, I have to be honest, and would hope to have your view on this, with this trend that appears to be creeping in that somehow we need to get children away from their parents as soon as possible in order to give them to the professionals, because parents are simply not up to the job of giving children the right start. It is my belief, and it cannot be more than that, that that is completely the wrong way round and the parents are the right place to start, of all backgrounds, and we should not presume that only the "middle-class" are capable. I will be grateful for your views given that that seems to be contrary to a lot of the training course success.
  (Dr Fabian) I do not think that we are wanting to get children away from their parents necessarily to the professionals. A lot of the reasons why that happens in some areas is because of the social and cultural influences that are there. It is usually mothers who want to go out to work and need to go out to work in order earn a living. Therefore, they are looking to the professionals and good care, good education for their children, and that is why they are sending them to a lot of the settings that they are.
  (Professor Abbott) I would not say that we are advocating taking children away from parents. I think that some children need to be in settings where they can learn alongside other children and can benefit from other models and other styles of handling. I think what is important is that parents should have that choice and should have a diversity of provision from which to choose. Their choice may be to bring up their child in the home, but the choice ought to be there. If they want two days a week of good quality childcare and early education with well qualified people who they can trust that choice should be available, I think that is the important issue. So the choice will still remain with the parents. I do not think anyone should put pressure on parents to feel that they are not doing a good job and that the professionals will take over. I would advocate very strongly a partnership model, but I think the choice ought to be there and the choice ought to be from a level playing field, so that wherever they choose to place their child, whether it is with a childminder, in a private nursery or in an early excellence centre, then the qualified people to work with their child should be there. So we are not saying that is an inferior type of provision. I think that choice and diversity is what we ought to be working towards.

  209. I think a lot of the thrust of what you have been seeking to argue and achieve is to place a value upon the provision and the recognition on the provision that is made for early years outside the home setting, and I think that it must be helpful—again your views will be very welcome—to try and put that alongside the continuing value of those parents who choose to retain the children within the home for the longest possible period of time, not least because I think there are a number of pressures that are now creeping in on those mothers—I do not want to use that in a discriminatory way—but it is primarily mothers who choose to keep there children at home for the longest period of time and a lot of them are made to feel somewhat guilty or have to question that motive. It is often proven that mothers who can give time to read stories to their children, very often the reading skills of their children are way in advance of others, and it is those sorts of examples which ought to be given, I think, some equal weight. Again, your views will be welcome on that.
  (Dr Fabian) Again, there are some families who choose not to send their children to school at all. If you look at the organisation of education otherwise, that is one of their main criteria. They feel that they can do it better outside of the school or the formal setting. However, I think we have moved a long way on this, inasmuch as a few years ago parents were put under a lot of pressure to start their children earlier at school and there are some authorities now who are wanting all the four year olds to start in school in September, which for many children is disadvantaging them. There are other schools who are much more willing to take the children later on.


  210. You prefer the latter?
  (Dr Fabian) I think parents need the choice. The discussion earlier was talking about children developing at different rates and there are some children who develop very quickly and who are ready for that compulsory schooling earlier rather than later.

  211. Some teachers told us yesterday that the difficulty is when you do not have a class of your own and children keep changing in and out all the time.
  (Professor Abbott) In answer to your question I think that I would just say that parents need to know how exciting, interesting and stimulating early childhood education is. I think one of the things that we have got to look at is that, however good the home is, and however positive the parenting, some children will benefit from being with other children, having a broad and balanced and relevant experience of exciting activities from which they will gain a great deal. I think parents need to feel that that is appropriate provision for their child, maybe not on a full-time basis, but an opportunity to which they will have access. I think maybe we have a job to do in advertising much more just how exciting early childhood education is.

  212. Perhaps this is why we are urging you to kite-mark it. What I was particularly interested in, when I was reading the evidence that you gave us, firstly the TACTYC point when you said, "The processes of children's learning are far more important than the content of teaching." Processes against teaching. "The observation of children developing attitudes, skills and knowledge are vital to the basis when performing teaching." You go on to say, "Developing the appropriate approach to learning at this stage is vital in the creation of life-long learners." What I wanted to ask is, first of all, can you describe the appropriate approach to learning for young children? What is the secret? What is the best approach? How is this going to lead to life-long learning? Finally, are there indications about who is the best qualified educator of pre-school children? In other words, if process is important, what does that lead on to in terms of who should conduct the process?
  (Dr Fabian) We have already heard this morning that play is an important element of the way in which children learn. Part of that play needs to be structured and, again, we have heard about the notion of a planning and assessment cycle so that practitioners are planning the learning that is taking place, albeit through play, albeit through investigation and decision making, and within that there is also some unstructured play whereby children can develop further by interacting with other children. So certainly one of the approaches is play and that is important[6]. The other thing is that the teaching is important whereby the teachers and the practitioners need to be observing the children's learning and assessing what they are doing in order to plan the next stage, so they can then move them to the next stage of learning. They have to see where those children are at before they can move them on.

  213. What you are saying leads me to conclude that the better qualified, the more highly qualified supervisors of that process, the better?
  (Dr Fabian) Yes. They need to be able to observe children and the training they receive as teachers or as nursery nurses gives them that qualification. They are good at observing.

  214. Lesley do you want to add anything to that?
  (Professor Abbott) Yes. I think the process is important. The way in which children learn is as important as what they learn. I do think we have to get the balance right, we have to make sure that the people who are working with young children have knowledge, skill and the right attitude. It is that balance between knowing when to intervene, when to step back and let children take the lead and when to participate in children's learning. All early learning should be planned, should be carefully and rigorously planned, but the knowledgeable and well-trained adult will know when to step back and know when to take the lead from the child and when to intervene and develop that play. I think there is an under-estimation of the competence of young children and play has got a rather bad press in many ways over the years. I think what we have to do is to make sure that people are aware of the complex nature of play and recognise that play is an umbrella term for a whole variety of complex behaviours in which children engage. It is those kinds of understandings that an appropriate training will help those educators to gain and to use with children.

  Chairman: We want to finish on baseline assessment and Michael Foster has a question on that.

Mr Foster

  215. In your submission you mentioned failure and labels being applied. Can you give us some specific reference to what type of a system you are referring to so we can get a feel for what it is that the children are failing at?
  (Professor Abbott) I could give you an example from a nursery I was in last week, I hasten to add not with one of ny students, where a head teacher had said to his nursery teacher, "I want you to do some baseline assessments with the nursery children." There was a parent and child and the child was moving from another area and the teacher had been asked to give the child some kind of baseline assesment. Together the parent and child were being, what I would call, tested. The teacher was holding up four red elephants and saying, "How many?" "What colour?", and the child was getting more and more frustrated because he did not want to answer and the parent was getting embarrassed and anxious. That same child, in the afternoon, was with a group of students who were working with the children and one of the students said, "Pass me four red counters from that pile. Pass me three blue bricks", and the teacher was carefully observing and ticking off what the child knew. The child was not being put in a failing situation and the parent was not made to feel a failure too, because the parent was saying, "He does know. He knows. Tell the teacher." What is needed is that understanding of what assessment means in the early stages. We have to give children the opportunity to show us what they know and what they can do. It is starting with what the child can do and not what the child cannot do that is important and making sure that those people who are doing the assessing actually know what they are looking for and how to record it, rather than adopting a check-list approach. Untrained people, and it is not their fault, and those who are minimally trained will often hang on to a document and use it as a life-line to tick off children's achievements I think we have to guard against that. Assessment has to be started from the child.

  Mr Foster: My second question was going to be, can you suggest good practice and bad practice? But you have done that in the example.


  216. Are we getting it totally, totally wrong? You heard the previous contributions. Should we absolutely scrap what we are doing and our methodology and take up the Hungarian methodology, because we are just missing something fundamental and we are not performing to the same standards in early years as these countries such as parts of Belgium and Hungary?
  (Dr Fabian) I do not think we can polarise the situation like that. There is good in all those practices that we have heard about today. In some settings in this country there is very good practice and what we need to be doing is identifying what that good practice looks like and building on it.
  (Professor Abbott) There is certainly no room for complacency. I think we have some excellent practice in this country and as someone who has worked in Denmark and Sweden and visited Reggio Emilia I have seen some excellent practice there, but I think if we did the same and we had study tours over here we could take people to some excellent centres in this country. I am sure that you have visited many of those centres. What we want is best practice for all our children in whatever setting they are being cared for and educated in. We have to learn from other countries, we have to learn from the many pieces of research that are presented and apply it to our own culture and to our own context and certainly not to be complacent, but to strive for what we have in many of our early excellent centres and many of our early childhood settings.

  217. We represent a lot of parents as elected Members of Parliament and what, in a sense, I am saying to you is, do we not need to be able to assure parents out there that when they send their child off to early years learning the door they go through is recommended for quality? I am not saying it is three star, four star or five star as we have in a guide to hotels, but something that gives an assurance, a kite-mark, that that quality of experience is of the best. Yesterday, asking everyone, and listening this morning, I was not sure there was a kite-mark there that I could discern.
  (Professor Abbott) If we are talking about kite-marks, I think we have to look at a whole range of factors. Research is showing that one of the strongest and most influential factors in the provision of quality education and care is the appropriateness of the training received by those people who are in a leadership role within each setting. Having said that, we have to look at provision, you may have well qualified people but very poor provision in terms of the physical environment in which children are operating, and this is why there is no room for complacency. The Government is obviously pushing diversity of provision, and I would not argue with that, but I think it has to be diversity with quality. We have to be honest with the parents and say research is showing that centres where there are trained, well qualified people, where the setting in terms of physical provision and environment are of the highest quality, are coming out as being the most effective types of provision. I think we have to be honest, but I think we still have to strive for the best provision in every setting that is offering care and education.

  218. Is the best way of doing that the OFSTED Report, or is it for an organisation such as the one that gave evidence first to actually do the kite marking? Who would you leave it to?
  (Professor Abbott) It is a balance. It can be an appropriate OFSTED inspection if it involves people who know what they are looking for and using a framework that allows them to do that, and also an organisation that has that overall umbrella responsibility for ensuring that best practice is actually introduced. I think we have still got a long way to go in terms of getting the OFSTED inspection framework for early years right.
  (Dr Fabian) The implication of that is those people who go and do the inspection, whether it is under OFSTED or whoever, need to have their training right as well and they need to know what they are looking for, not just in the teaching but in the provision of the resources that are there and the buildings that are there as well.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. We much appreciate all the time and trouble and expertise of the witnesses. Thank you very much and I hope that you will, as you drive away or go away on the train, think of something that you should have said to us and add to your evidence. Thank you.

6  Note from witness: Other approaches to learning include:

    - Children being active: by having first hand experiences both on their own and with others;

    - Children engaging in real-life situations which are meaningful and where they are encouraged to think by engaging in problem-solving activities;

    - Children having opportunities for trial and error and taking risks;

    - Children having time (learning cannot be hurried) to be immersed in experiences and gain a disposition for learning; and

    - Children have opportunities to be creative and use their imaginations.

In this way children will be helped to develop resilience, social understanding and confidence to succeed. Back

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