Memorandum from Dr Jacqui Cousins (EY
Thank you very much for your telephone call in which
you clarified the forthcoming enquiries into "Early Years
Education". Yes, I do fit the Early Years" Sub-Committee's
request for written evidence from "interested parties"
on the following two counts. Firstly as the blood mother, step-mother
and adopted mother of eight very vulnerable young people and the
grandmother of 13 boys and one girl (nine of whom are aged between
one and eight); secondly, as a free-lance volunteer Family Support
Worker and specialist practitioner-researcher in Early Years Education.
After a successful career as an architectural
designer, my second career began as a Playgroup mother and then
as a "mature student" to first degree level as a Nursery
and Infant teacher. I am therefore committed to the provision
of similar opportunities for "mature" people who wish
to train and specialise to a further degree level in the Early
As might be imagined, I can offer the Early
Years committee a breadth of family support experience and share
with them 30 years experience within Early Years education; three
of them as a community liaison teacher in London followed by five
years as head of an infant school with an Early Years "Assessment
and Diagnosis" Centre in Devon. That post required additional
skills in family and inter-agency collaboration which included
work with young offenders as well as with teenage parents. Those
experiences enabled my practice and further study of early intervention
and preventative work within families and the founding of a Family
Support network in Devon. In "retirement", I am now
one of their volunteers.
A second degree in psychology enabled my move
into the advisory service and (eventually) to Oxford and into
Higher Education with the achievement of a doctorate by research.
As that study included the analysis of the oral language (talking)
and activities of four year olds which resulted in their high
quality learning, a summary of those findings will be included
at the end of the Families' Contribution to the committee.
It is heartening that we find ourselves in the
midst of such a serious and on-going Early Years educational debate
in Britain. Very good progress has been made in only two years.
It is appreciated within Family Education that some of the changes
and revolutionary initiatives will take time to filter through
the various systems. Some modifications will inevitably have to
be made but consultations of this nature play an invaluable part
in bringing about lasting change for all young children and their
Dr Jacqui Cousins a free lance (voluntary sector)
Family Support Worker and Early Years Education Consultant in
Devon and to Coram Family (formerly Thomas Coram) in London.
The families and practitioners represented in
this contribution are volunteers from "Mansion Open House
Family Centre", Totnes, South Hams; families served by their
outreach rural family support workers; families who are taking
part in an "Early Intervention: Early Prevention" research
study and inter-agency practitioners with the Totnes Community
Family Trust. Before addressing specific enquiries of the sub-committee,
they wish to record:-
Our satisfaction with the very positive attempts
to speed up and ease the communication and clarification process
about current initiatives through the publication of telephone
numbers etc. of appropriate "named" people in the "Sure
Start", "Qualifications and Curriculum Authority"
(QCA) and "Early Years" division of the DfEE.
Our surprise and pleasure in the openness and
constructiveness of all those to whom specific (and often very
difficult) questions have been addressed between 1998 and 1999.
Our respect for the seriousness with which "Education
and Care" concerns of families have been listened to by Government
Ministers (and in Totnes, by Politicians and Councillors of all
Parties) as well as by Early Childhood specialists in the Home
Office division of Sure Start and in the Early Years division
of the QCA.
Our concern at the seeming contempt which OFSTED
showed for the earlier QCA consultation process on "Desirable
Outcomes: Early Learning Goals" in which we in Family and
Community Education took part as unpaid, committed volunteers.
To initially ignore the findings of such a professionally conducted
consultation process pulled against our democratic principles
and encouraged our less experienced families towards cynicism
and political apathy. That is dangerous in any society but most
of all for those who have been seriously disadvantaged in the
past but are being supported to believe that families "have
got a voice!" and need to take part in such discussion in
order to bring about crucial change in their children's lives.
Our delight that our concerns were heard and
the consultation process appears to be back on target.
We in "Family Education" understand
that (a) our views and those of our families will now be listened
to (b) the new "Early Learning Goals" will be based
on sound principles and the new literature will provide supportive
and clear examples for practitioners in a variety of settings
including "Family Centres" (c) the "teaching and
learning goals" will reflect the combined inter-agency discussions
of specialists and practitioners' interpretations of "quality
of teaching and early learning" rather than be based on narrow,
outdated and seriously misinterpreted theories of early learning
which perpetuate social class divisions.
We also understand that the QCA is acting as
the facilitator for these "new-goal" consultations but
it remains the responsibility of OFSTED's Chief Inspector to make
the final decisions, Does that mean that OFSTED's interpretations
of quality can over-rule the recommendations made by a cross-party
"Education Sub-Committee" such as this?
Section (1) "The appropriate content of `early
years education' in the recently published QCA/DfEE Early Learning
1.1 This document reflects (more closely)
the way in which young children develop and learn as individuals
and as part of a social group with high quality adult support
(see (2) and (3).
1.2 Sound and clear early childhood principles
underpin the contents: it is those principles and the needs of
young children which are emphasised throughout but NB: "The
term "learning goals" still directs attention falsely
to the measurable outcomes of activities. Outcomes associated
with the development of the emotions (eg positive attitudes towards
themselves as life-long learners) and the development of the brain
cannot be measured in that way. In "preventative" family
support work it is those areas which are crucial. Within families
whose confidence is already shaky, early failure (or seeming failure!)
can sow the seeds of depression and addiction" (Paediatric
psychiatrist: Family Centre voluntary adviser).
1.3 The introduction of the seemingly revolutionary
concept (to some in British society) that "young children
learn through their play!" is celebrated by us (Play worker).
1.4 The practice included in "living!"
examples offers good support to those settings where practitioners
did not recognise the value of some of their own more playful
activities and moved young children too soon to formal ways of
working. This points to the need for more staff training.
1.5 The language of the document and the
practical examples included match our own family observations,
experiences and shared knowledge of young children's development.
1.6 Those examples add clarity, give insights
into how children in the same age group develop at their own pace
and need to be observed in a variety of activities.
1.7 The contents add breadth without being
prescriptive as to teaching methods.
1.8 The introduction of the term "Foundation
Stage" and the clarity with which that stage is outlined
is applauded but without training, we anticipate that there will
still be many who will focus only on goals and will still misunderstand
and misinterpret them. Their anxiety and desire to do their best
for the children; save them from later failure and to pass OFSTED
inspections puts pressure on practitioners which, in turn, they
pass on to children and families 
1.9 There is now an urgent need for the
provision of high quality premises* (see (2.1)) for young children
so that they can be highly motivated learners both indoors and
outside, for example "we work in leaking old wooden huts
with a tiny garden and even in this rural area most of our children
have nowhere to explore and play outside . . . no wonder the children
get on their parents' nerves . . . it would have driven me to
drink!" (A Playgroup Grandmother who helps at the Family
Section (2) "The way in which the content
should be taught"
2.1 We believe that all children should
have the opportunity to experience Nursery education of a "high
quality" at the Foundation Stage.
2.2 High quality should include:-
(i) regular contact with staff with specific
qualities and qualifications (see ).
(ii) opportunities for the curriculum to
be delivered in settings designed for the sole use of the Early
Years children both inside and out of doors;
(iii) opportunities for young children to
remain at the same setting all day;
(iv) space for the children to keep resources
and activities to be returned to for completion (particularly
important for group "engineering", for imaginative constructions,
fantasy games and quiet reading or stores;
(iv) an adult ratio which allows for consistent
"small" groupings of the children; a key person to support
the social, emotional, creative, physical, spiritual as well as
the intellectual development particularly of disadvantaged young
children and those who are "gifted" or do not have English
as their first language.
2.3 The methods used to teach young children
should not be laid down because there is no one method which works
for all of them; they learn the same things in so many different
ways, eg. in discussion with their families and friends; while
listening to stories; through being physical and practising various
skills; by drawing and beginning to write; by playing games such
as shopping or tiling the doll's house floor; when they dig for
worms in the garden and ask questions about the world around them
etc. More than anything, what young children need is high quality
staff who are able to provide them with a variety of opportunities
to develop to their full potential as people who remain enthusiastic
learners for the whole of their lives (continued in section [3.]).
Section (3) "The kind of staff needed
to teach it and the qualifications they should have"
The human qualities of those who work with young
children are of crucial importance: particularly in the "preventative"
field with disadvantaged, deprived or depressed families.
Those human qualities should include:
3.1 The ability (and the will) to build
positive relationships with all young children and their families
(irrespective of their social or ethnic origins).
3.2 The "listening skills" which
would help them to gain a clear understanding of how to make "Equal
Opportunities" and "Partnership Policies" work
3.3 The ability to work with other Early
Childhood specialists from the statutory and voluntary fields
which would enable them to develop non-hierarchical and reciprocal
3.4 Staff should be "open-minded"
and prepared to take part in on-going in-service courses which
firstly acknowledge their knowledge and experience of young children's
development and secondly take their thinking and practice further.
3.5 (Taken from a poll of families and volunteers)
the staff should have:
warmth and humour; patience; a commitment to
young children; intelligence and imagination; a sense of enjoyment,
enthusiasm and fun; organisational abilities to help manage the
demands of groups of lively young children; management of time
to listen; willingness to learn from mistakes and to say "sorry!"
They need stamina!
The following description of "our high
quality staff" is taken from an interview with five formerly
"chaotic teenage mums! now off drugs and coping well . .
. thanks to the network of support and the practical help we've
been given for the past three years." "They are now
continuing their education (three at a Community College, one
at a College of Further Education and one at University). Each
is relishing their "second chance" in life. In their
words, "We've been lucky and can see how the staff can break
down traditional "class" and educational "professional
vs family" barriers. They work as a team and listen to us.
They give us strategies to cope which really do help. They show
respect and give us the responsibility to make our own decisions.
They are firm but fair and treat us as equals. They support our
more vulnerable children sensitively and understand people like
us who were abused as children. They make us feel accepted so
that we are all able to be more positive and can begin to build
more trusting relationships. They've developed our skills in communication
which include our negotiation of consistent boundaries of behaviour
with our children. They show us how to say "no" to our
children and not to give in to them when they behave badly. The
staff are mature, they understand!" (see also [Sure Start]
The Academic Qualifications
3.6 Each setting should have regular access
to an early childhood specialist mentor who has a qualification
to degree level in Early Childhood Development and Early Learning.
3.7 An inter-agency approach to initial
training for Early Childhood degrees would help daily Education
and Childcare practice and add breadth to staff knowledge and
understanding of essential areas of study such as:-
(i) the structuring of play for literacy,
numeracy, creative and scientific development;
(ii) various approaches to teaching and learning
including adult responses to "child initiation" evident
in young children's spontaneous conversations and action;
(iii) management and observation of individuals
and small or large groups of young children;
(iv) inclusion and support of all children
with special needs and those from all cultures;
(v) "partnership" approaches; inter-personal
relationships; negotiation and communication.
3.8 All staff, families and regular voluntary
workers should have access to short and longer courses in parenting
and child development at all stages in their on-going professional
development. With adequate funding, these could be facilitated
locally through the Early Years Partnerships. Courses could be
run by Community or Life Long Education, Colleges of Further or
Higher Education or through Centres of Excellence. These courses
need to be reinforced nationally with reasonably priced Conferences
with specialist Early Years HMI and others from the diverse professional
associations. (Family Centre and Nursery staff "we cannot
afford to go on courses or to Conferences and pay for travel and
childcare so we are excluded from a valuable source of information,
practical networking and knowledge").
3.9 Supplementary support and training material
and more courses in Early Childhood Development are now needed
to support the new "Early Learning Goals" so are informative
and accurate TV programmes (eg. Learning Zone) to help alleviate
3.10 "We think the new DfEE ads. On
television ("Maths is Fun") are brilliant! We never
got started to become mathematical because we were so frightened
of getting everything wrong. These ads. show easy ways to enjoy
Maths together as familiesthe DfEE should do more of that
stuff for the Early Years and far less OFSTED Inspections which
terrify us all! The whole nation should be switched on to maths
in this way and put less pressure on their young children to sit
down and do sums . . . that's not Mathematics . . . " (Playgroup
Section (4) "the way quality of teaching
and learning in the early years is assessed" (completed by
Playgroup and Nursery staff and families)
4.1 We have little faith in the present
system of OFSTED Nursery inspections and the present assessment
modeldespite having had contact with individual inspectors
who have been very knowledgeable and sensitive in their approach.
4.2 In the main, the best inspectors have
a lot of experience of working in the Early Years, either as nursery
teachers or as playgroup supervisors. Some of them are highly
qualified or are still studying for higher degrees in early childhood
development. However, they could not give us any concrete advice
to help us improve our practice because they were not allowed
to under the terms of OFSTED. "We consider that a waste of
their expertise and tax payers' money. It is dubious whether that
kind of assessment is in the children's best interests!!"
4.3 We would like those experienced inspectors
to help us to monitor our progress and provide an "external"
form of quality control. Linked strongly to initial training and
ongoing professional development it would be more constructive,
less wasteful of all our time and a more effective use of their
specialist knowledge. For example, many of us have had difficulties
with "observation and written planning" but have had
no-one to turn to for help because there haven't been enough tutors.
In another area, we still have trouble with our more challenging
children and have needed expert advice to support them and their
families. The inspectors could certainly play a key part in early
4.4 If we link closely with the families
and have clear written purposes for the activities we set up for
their children we can assess their improvements and achievements
sharing close observations rather than looking only at end products.
A lot happens spontaneously anyway.
4.5 We are very concerned that the brief
of OFSTED has been extended to include "Childcare".
A recent report in a local paper indicated that those inspections
will include "childminders".
As a mother has reported, "whether that
information is true or just another media hype, our childminders
all know their Health Visitors and many in Social Services but
they are already frightened of OFSTED. We have seen our older
children and some of their most conscientious teachers get into
a panic about inspections. Some of us are Managers at their nurseries
and schools and have already been through it with them. We have
this image of the Chief Inspector as an ogre wielding a big stick!
Some childminders are already saying they would rather "give
up looking after kids" than face OFSTED's inspections. That
is very serious for our children and families."
The Sub-Committee will know that the "knock-on"
effect of losing our Childminders would also be very costly to
children and to the Exchequer because, without an "extended"
(i) single mums and dads will have no-one
to look after their children;
(ii) single mums who are childminders will
have to go back on benefits;
(iii) many other people will have to give
up their studies or part-time jobs;
(iv) many will go back into the poverty trap!*;
(v) many might get a feeling of hopelessness
and be tempted to go back on drink or drugs or be tempted to start
(vi) there will be an increase in "compensatory"
catalogue buying to overcome depression;
(vii) there will be an increase in crime
to pay for drink and drugs.
*"Yes we do mean poverty! Grinding poverty
where we don't know where the next meal will come from ... there
is no dignity in poverty and we have worked hard to escape the
poverty trap and the depression that goes with it! Many of us
have worked for years to get back into the educational system
or to start again ..." (see section on [Sure Start])
Section (5) "at what age should formal schooling
5.1 Unanimously we believe the age of six
should be the age of starting formal schooling. It is likely that
there will be many misunderstandings and misinterpretations of
the term "formal". The word itself conjures up images
of children of six seated in rows and getting on with their "proper"
school work. Does that mean sitting and listening to adults who
relay information to be copied from chalkboards or from books
just like they did in our days?
5.2 With a much more appropriate and stimulating
Early Years "foundation" stage, we anticipate that many
more children by the age of six will be active learners who are
confident, curious, fully motivated and inspired. They should
be uninhibited by fear of failure. With low expectations removed,
world wide research such as "High Scope" (with a longitudinal
evaluation spanning 30 years) has already shown how children with
such secure educational foundations are more likely to become
articulate, literate and numerate. They are also able to express
their own ideas, ask questions, have fun in life and even to challenge
the "status quo" and stay out of trouble. Formal schooling
needs to continue that process and to increase the children's
opportunities for sport as well as music, art, drama and dance.
Already many of our youngest children are very familiar and competent
in their use of "Information Technology". They are helping
us to become much more "switched on ... imagine how they
will be by six! Let's not switch them off with too much formality."
5.3 Any children who are in "reception
classes" from the age of four to six should have access to
high quality, fully qualified nursery staff committed to that
5.4 Headteachers in schools with Nursery
age children should be equally well qualified and have specialist
knowledge of the Early Years Foundation stage of education and
5.5 The youngest children should also have
adequate and suitable play and exploration resources indoors and
outside and not be exposed to the very frightening mis-named "playgrounds"
with older children.
A RESEARCHER PERSPECTIVE
High quality learning which was observed in
the activities of 130 children aged four and in the depth of language
they used was analysed in terms of the cognitive (thinking) demands
which the activities made on the children. Those higher order
demands moved away from simple labelling and repetition of "given
information" or "skill in following instructions".
They included the following evidence of a high
level of thinking:
use of the imagination; making intelligent
guesses (what will happen next?);
being motivated by interest and curiosity
(wonder why? wonder how?);
building "new" knowledge on
"old" such as in using information and making connections;
questioning, initiating and formulating
problems and trying to solve them;
listening to and negotiating with others,
eg for materials, resources or action to take;
making and giving reasoned decisions
for action; early hypothesising;
arguing a case or expressing feelings
about the matter in hand with the support of an adult;
arguing a case or expressing feelings
about the matter in hand without adult support (higher demand
on language use and development of sense of "justice and
using language to represent things not
seeing things from another's point of
view and understanding "consensus" decisions;
retelling familiar stories, rhymes, poems
and songs and beginning the reading process.
The emotional impact of activities was also
assessed. This included children:
showing enjoyment and enthusiasm
for learning (inner and outer energy levels high);
showing confidence and taking the initiative
in choosing activities;
revealing an ability to organise their
own resources before, during and after activities;
becoming involved and sustaining concentration;
persevering to complete activities to
their own satisfaction;
persevering to complete activities to
the satisfaction of others in their group;
daring to take risks in experimentation;
showing positive attitudes and not fearing
failure (eg practising skills and trying again);
responding positively to adult support;
*daring to say "no" to peer group pressure
(eg avoiding distraction; sticking to point, etc);
*this forms a strong foundation for children
to gain confidence to say "no!" later if faced with
other forms of peer group pressure, eg bullying, vandalism or
to smoke or take drugs.
Inevitably, other aspects of the inter-actions
were also examined. These included:
opportunities which the practitioners
provided to encourage high quality learning;
their educational beliefs (philosophy)
and theories about early learning;
their open-mindedness, positive feedback
including non-verbal communication;
their organisation of resources, management
of time, ratio of adults and space;
observed intervention styles of the adults
(eg teacher as instructor or as facilitator);
the groupings of the children: key person
with small group or managing a large ratio;
the implications for support materials
and training in Early Childhood Education.
Results: While some of the oral language
(talking) of the children was sometimes immature, the activities
which encouraged high quality thinking were:
self or peer group initiated which
encouraged curiosity and spontaneous conversation and puzzlement,
eg scientific discovery areas, inside or out of door; colourful
artifacts from other ethnic minority groupsparticularly
musical instruments and foods
at the children's pace and allowed
time for them to work through a problem to its conclusion, eg
gathering materials for a construction, building a bridge with
friends, testing the strength of the bridge with a toy train,
re-designing and trying again if it did not work
contact with fossils or natural things
such as growing plants or caring for rabbits
making up stories based on real life
experiences, eg visiting grandparents, coping with an accident
and going to hospital; going on a magic carpet to wonderland
choosing art materials, mixing paints,
selecting papers, painting and discussing the outcomes
looking at beautiful books in comfortable
areas which were calm and where the children could develop their
fantasy play with dressing up clothes and real props rather than
relating the details of various journeys
or expeditions, finding places on the globe and reporting television
programmes about nature linking this to computer programmes.
The quality of talk and thought in these activities
depended largely on the opportunities provided by staff for spontaneous
child-initiated play. Resources were well selected educationally,
inexpensive or recycled, plentiful and very stimulating, eg cooking
initiated by children took place very safely in some settings.
Their groups were smallone adult to eight childrenso
that the most disadvantaged and gifted children were well supported.
Staff were very tuned in to the young children and allowed plenty
of time for them to explore. The skill of listening to them was
of fundamental importance and so was the child-observation which
reassured them that the free flow play made very many demands
on the children's thinking and revealed many of their particular
interests and early literacy and numeracy skills. This is a key
area for training in Parenting and Early Years Education and Childcare.
The "Sure Start" initiative: the perspectives
of South Devon rural families
While we welcome and fully support initiatives
which give young children and their families a better start in
life, we do not think that "Sure Start" is the most
effective way to fairly distribute such large sums of money. Although
we have been listened to very sympathetically by "Sure Start"
officials, we believe there has been a serious underestimation
of the need for secure funding for long-term "Parenting Support"
initiatives in rural areas such as ours.
Our rural reality
Over the past 10 years we have become increasingly
aware of how many young parents slip through the various safety
nets of all the statutory agencies. Social Services and even our
superb team of Health Visitors have not known of their existence
or their plight. In some cases it has been a "milk-tanker"
driver or the postman who has alerted our "outreach"
Family Support workers about distressed families. In more serious
instances, it has been the police because desperate mothers have
abandoned their babies and disappeared. Others have been involved
in petty crime to either feed their children or to feed an addiction.
Family Support and "Early Preventative"
and "Intervention Programmes"
We have to depend heavily on our voluntary workers
for their specialist input particularly with young families who
are very depressed or appear dependent on drugs and alcohol. With
the best will in the world, our volunteers already have their
own families to support and some also have full professional commitments.
Between us we try to ensure that fewer young children are suffering
because of poverty or are neglected or abused.
Issues associated with funding for our long-term
For the past 10 years at the Family Centre we
have lived through funding difficulties, often clinging onto our
premises by the skin of our teeth through our own fund-raising
efforts. As a Registered Charity, we apply yearly for every possible
grant aid and have often been successful. This year we have been
able to extend our "outreach" mobile Family Centre through
a lotteries grant. However, at the same time the Family Centre
where that service is based and upon which it depends for its
resources and training is again under threat.
The Education Department in Devon are funding
the salaries of a full-time manager and two part-time members
of staff, but Social Services and Health have very limited resources.
They reduced their contributions in 1999 and will do so again
this year. This state of affairs is impossible for families and
staff to unravel. In reality it means that already effective long-term
"Early Preventative" programmes are being cut despite
the increasingly dire state of housing and employment for young
farming families and an influx of young inner-city runaways with
babies. This is an absolute nightmare to all of us.
At the heart of this rural funding difficulty
We recognise that some of the statutory funding
difficulty lies in the demographic imbalance in Devon with an
ageing population. But should we really be put in the invidious
position of having to compete for Health or Social Services funding
with other essential services such as "home-care" and
"meals on wheels"?
Counting the cost in human or financial terms: is
anybody listening to families?
It is clear that our Family Centre saves Health,
Social Services and the Police time and money because so many
families who might otherwise need their intervention come directly
into the Family Centre. Through "self-referral" there
is no stigma attached. Parenting is acknowledged to be very challenging
and many of these young people become each other's extended family.
They support each other and put a shape and purpose into their
lives. Many go back to school or continue their education. They
all develop more positive attitudes towards themselves as responsible
parents. Isn't that a really Sure Start?
48 Listening to four year olds: how they can help us
plan their education and care (1999) Jacqui Cousins pub. National
Early Years Network, London. Back
A Study of Teachers Theorising from Experience (1998) unpublished
PhD thesis. University of Exeter. Back