Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Jacqui Cousins (EY 59)

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 Years.

  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 families.


  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 Goals"

  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 [48] (see (3)).

  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 Centre).

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 [3]).

    (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 in practice.

  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 relationships.

  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] section).

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 families' anxieties.

  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 families—the 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 mum).

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 model—despite 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 years training.

  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" family,

    (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 those habits;

    (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 start"

  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 age phase.

  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 child development.

  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.


  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 fair play");

    —  using language to represent things not present (abstraction);

    —  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 groups—particularly 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 plastic

    —  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 small—one adult to eight children—so 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 preventative work

  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.

Statutory funding

  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

49   A Study of Teachers Theorising from Experience (1998) unpublished PhD thesis. University of Exeter. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 January 2001