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


Memorandum from Dr Joan Tough CBE [50] (EY 61)

  I hope it is not too late for the enclosed paper to be considered by your Sub-Committee. I was given your invitation for contributions only recently. I regret that I did not know of it earlier.

  I have been in Education all my adult life, starting as a primary school teacher and ending up at Leeds University in charge of the advanced Diploma in Primary Education, and also the Schools Council Communication Skills Project. I also carried out research into language and intellectual development in early childhood. I retired some years ago and since then have served as Labour member of Bradford Council, serving on the Education Committee throughout until this year.

  I have continued as Chair of Bradford's Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership. We are all very heartened by the Government's recognition of the importance of the early years and commend them for it. However it is important that it does more than helping mothers to work. I have serious concerns about some aspects of the policy as you will see from the enclosed paper.

  I'm afraid I haven't taken time to get the paper more professionally produced. The whole thing has been done in a great hurry and could do with polishing up, I'm afraid.

  I do hope the paper is not too late to be considered.

  1.  The list of aspects of Early Years Education Policy in the paper inviting comments omits important aspects relating to the nature of children's development and learning between the ages of three and six years. This has been added to the list which will be discussed in the following order:

    (1)  The appropriate content of early years education as set out in the QCA publication Early Learning Goals.

    (2)  The nature of development and learning between the ages of three and six years.

    (3)  The way in which learning during the early years is most appropriately promoted and assessed.

    (4)  The skills and knowledge that staff working with this age group need and the training and qualifications required.

    (5)  The appropriate age for the start of formal schooling.

  2.  The Appropriate Content of Early Years Education—The content of early years education as presented in the QCA publication Early Learning Goals is generally appropriate. How it should be presented, achieved and assessed are the major issues.

  3.  The Nature of Development and Learning Between Three and Six Years of Age—Learning begins at birth as the baby responds to his physical and social experiences in the family. During the early years the physical needs of the majority of children would seem to be met adequately at least by the majority of families whilst some children clearly suffer from neglect and some from abuse. There are great differences in children's experiences, however, which result from the kind of social interaction that takes place within families. Parents' expectations and practices may follow those used by their own parents when they were children and they may intuitively relate to their own children in the same way. However, knowledge, skills and experiences gained in later years may lead them to a different view of children's needs and to providing a very different home environment from the one they experienced themselves. By the age of three children have already learned a great deal through experiences in their homes but for some what has already been learned may hinder rather than help them to meet the expectations of teachers and other staff when they enter an early education setting.

  4.  Young children have an amazing potential for acquiring the language of the family but in the process they will also acquire the attitudes and learn to use language for the same purposes of communication that they experience at home, including from the way in which parents and others deal with their complaints. From birth onwards most parents and others in the family will talk to the baby and soon the baby will respond by clearly listening and looking for the source of the sound. Soon the child will respond with smiles and gurgles and later with longer vocalisations. By the end of the first year most children will be showing that they recognise that particular sounds they hear refer to particular objects and will begin to try to produce that sound, clearly referring to the particular object or person it represents. They have produced their first words, generally to the delight of parents and family, and so begin to talk, the activity that enables meaning to be expressed, received and responded to immediately. Thus the child enters into using a particular system of vocalisations, a language, which provides the basis for immediate communication. This then becomes the basis for developing further means of communicating through writing and reading, and, importantly, for internalisation, that is for thinking. Missing out on this early stage of development because parents or other carers, although providing adequate physical care, fail to provide the one-to-one enjoyable attention and talk that stimulates such development, may have a damaging effect on all later learning.

  5.  How then does the use of this system of vocalisations develop? It is babies' growing awareness, through the senses, of the world around, and interaction with members of the family, that provide the essential experiences for the development of language to begin. In the first few months babies begin to grasp objects within reach, and explore their properties through touch, taste, sight and hearing. From then on they begin to recognise that particular sounds represent particular aspects of the environment to which those who talk to him refer. Once a child is able to crawl and then to walk the immediate surroundings provide a world to explore which they then begin to know and represent through talk. Such explorations usually offer satisfaction and enjoyment which become the motivation to explore further. However what children learn from these encounters can be very different depending on the adults' views on bringing up children.

  6.  Among activities young children seek and enjoy are those that stem from their interest in aspects of their world and are generally referred to as "play". Through talk with interested adults as they play children may learn not only about the properties and relationships talked about but will also extend their use of language and their range of thinking skills. However, what children learn from play in the home will depend to a great extent on the way in which parents talk with them as they play. Where parents focus on the child's activities, offering names for objects the child is handling, directing attention to particular features, supplying terms which refer to them and using an interested and pleasant manner, helping the child to listen and master pronunciation, and using simple grammatical phrases that offer models and feedback, the child will not only learn more about the world he is experiencing, which may then transfer to other situations, but will also help to establish the intuitive use of basic grammatical rules which will be an advantage in education. Where parents, or other adults in charge, see play as activities that keep children busy and happy whilst they get on with other things children can only learn from one another, and at this young age that can only be limited, and may be unhelpful. Where parents are concerned mainly with children's behaviour, and what they say to children is more in the nature of "do"s and "don't"s and threats if they do not obey, children learn little that is helpful to the process of education. Children may then resort to protesting, demanding and disruptive behaviours to draw attention to themselves, which may affect the way in which they respond to the activities offered in early education settings, and which may then affect the learning of other children.

  7.  From the above it can be seen that the learning children have achieved by the time they are turning three years of age is considerable but can be very different because of earlier experiences. It also indicates the kind of situation in which desirable learning is most effectively promoted at this age. All children need the skills and concepts that those children from educationally advantaged homes are already developing by the age of three. The motivation to learn remains the same, that is that children must enjoy what they are doing or their learning may not be what is intended. The example of play activities has been used to illustrate some characteristics of learning during the early years. Parents talk frequently with their children throughout the day when they are with them, for example, when looking at pictures, looking at books and listening to the story, looking at what is happening when in the garden, when out and about, when shopping and when having meals and going to bed, in fact in all situations throughout the day. Children will try to avoid less enjoyable and unpleasant happenings and may protest when pressed. Such occurrences are likely to concern parents but they provide opportunities for them to listen to and talk with children, helping them to express their feelings, understand why such experiences happen and also, in time, to appreciate the feelings of others. However, parents may respond to protests in ways that produce further protest and problem behaviours can be established that may be very difficult to change. What is clear is that the character of talk used persistently in particular kinds of situation will play a part in how, and for what purposes children learn to use language, and in the development of attitudes and thinking skills. It is the way in which parents and others draw young children into their ways of thinking that determines the kind of skills, concepts and attitudes children will have established by the age of three and which may continue to affect them throughout their lives.

  8.  Research into the nature of learning in the early years has shown that of children who showed similar ability at the age of three on a standard test, those children who came from homes where both parents had left school at the minimum age without educational qualifications not only used language for less complex purposes than those from homes where at least one parent had benefited from extended education, but there were also significant differences in measured intelligence at the age of seven that indicated that children's school experiences had not served to eradicate the differences in either intellectual development or in their use of language (Tough, 1977). This evidence suggested that the years between three and seven years were vital if children from disadvantaged homes were to reach their potential ability. Furthermore it seemed evident that the early learning both of language and thinking had in some way affected what they had achieved by the age of seven and raised the question of the kind of experiences such children needed in the early years of education. It also indicated that experiences in school had not eliminated the disadvantage that stemmed from experiences in their home environment.

  9.  The way in which learning during the early years is most appropriately promoted and assessed—The above description of the nature of children's development and learning in the early years indicates the kind of environment that young children require when they enter an early education setting if desirable learning is to be fostered. The need to explore and enjoy is the important feature if the learning needs of individual children are to be met but it must be that enjoyment motivates intended learning and does not lead to undesirable behaviour. The outcome will be influenced by the adults present and the nature of their talk with children. They will all need help in acquiring skills that will equip them for learning at later stages of education. Their needs will be different and it is essential that they are in the care of skilled staff who can recognise the learning needs of each child and offer experiences that will meet those needs in due course. Many children from educationally disadvantaged families will need first to establish skills that others already have and to establish different expectations of both adults and other children. This will be more difficult where all the children in the class come from disadvantaged families.

  10.  At the age of three children are very interested in older children and tend to try and copy what they are doing. By four and a half children have learned to look to the adult for leadership and the younger children benefit from being alongside appropriate role models. Both younger and older children benefit from being together in small groups during play activities designed to be of interest and to offer learning opportunities for both younger and older children. The younger will be interested in exploring the properties of the materials being used, whilst the older children might be exploring relationships of different kinds. For example a filled water tray may hold objects that float and sink, and vessels of different sizes and other objects, inviting explorations of floating and sinking properties, as well as those of filling, emptying, counting and measuring and younger children may learn from seeing older children's responses. The way in which the adult draws the attention of particular children to aspects of the situation, knowing the learning needs of each, will offer opportunities to develop the concepts and skills upon which further development depends. Children will also need opportunities to develop the imagination, that is to recall and represent aspects of their experiences through role play. This comes very readily to them and they will use materials to create a representation of real situations, for example the home, a shop, a train, and they will enjoy pretending. This is usually dismissed as "child's play" but it is the way in which they will develop skills needed when reading and following accounts and instructions given by teachers and others. That is how they learn to "picture" those situations and examine them even though the scenes themselves are absent and they have not experienced the actuality themselves. A most important aspect of the experience, then, is the talk between adult and child which promotes ways of thinking and communicating according to each child's skills and needs, if meaning intended is be received when they begin to read. Failing to do this will leave many children at a loss when more formal ways of working are introduced and lead them to experience failure from the beginning and so perhaps to avoid what will be unrewarding experiences. The nature of the adult's talk with children, in promoting their understanding and continuing interest, is of crucial importance for ensuring their future progress in education.

  11.  It will be some time before the basic concepts required for literacy and numeracy are established but from the start the early years teacher will be leading towards this in the way that advantaged parents intuitively introduce them to their children. This includes looking at picture books together and talking about what is happening, seeing the adult draw a finger under the line of print as it is read, seeing their names being written on the pictures they produce, helping children to develop the skill of holding crayons and larger paint brushes on the way to guiding them to establish the appropriate way of holding and using a pencil, and helping them to copy their names. Children will also need experiences of coming together in the larger group to listen to stories, repeat rhymes, sing songs, talk about interesting things that have happened around them, and for a range of physical activities.

  12.  As children reach the age of five some will begin to show that they are able to count small groups of objects and select the correct numerals, recognise some signs and place them appropriately, write their names, and to give coherent instructions about what they want the adult to write beside their pictures. By five and a half some will be showing a readiness for reading but many children, particularly from disadvantaged homes, may not have established such readiness until they are nearly six or over. Bringing the older children with similar learning needs together in small groups in order to focus on activities that will help them to establish the necessary skills will not only help them appropriately but will also build in expectations for the younger children who are nearby engaged in play activities with other members of staff.

  13.  Through practical activities with small groups the early years staff will also be looking for appropriate opportunities to lead the older children towards the basic concepts needed for numeracy and the concepts needed for understanding the money system and that of various measures, using practical activities and talking with them to extend each child's level of understanding. Counting and learning to represent through the use of numerals, comparing size, recognising and naming shapes, comparing the weight, length and size of objects in appropriate terms, and playing at shops and learning about the role and relative value of coins and the use of appropriate tools for measuring which will generally be enjoyed. Simple calculations and ways of recording can all be introduced through such activities which children will enjoy and essential concepts will be established. As children turn six years of age, having established essential concepts, they will become interested in activities designed to give practice and further insight into measuring and simple calculations using money. Small groups of older children will enjoy activities designed to promote further learning in these areas and in learning to record the outcome in pictures and written form. They are establishing the skills and attitudes essential for moving towards a more formal approach to learning. Motivation is changing from exploration and enjoyment to interest and discovery. However the need to experience success and satisfaction from their activities is essential if they are to remain enthusiastic to learn more. Being bored, not understanding and being unsuccessful turn young children away from school and what they learn becomes contrary to what is intended.

  14.  Children who speak little or no English when they enter early years education will also benefit most from the kind of experiences discussed above. Research has shown that children between the ages of three and a half and six years of age have an amazing capacity for acquiring another language providing they experience it being used around them and adults are inviting them to use it in the way parents invite their babies to use the family language. When young children join a group where many or some already use English they will hear the intonation, rhythm and stress of English used around them in all their activities and this will be an advantage once staff who use children's home language have helped them to settle and become friends with other children. Staff can then help individual children to begin to use English through feedback and modelling as they begin to try to communicate with English speaking children. When the majority or all children in the group use a language other than English it will be more difficult. However, once members of staff who use their home language have helped them to settle and enjoy the activities in small groups with their friends, one of them can introduce a teacher to them explaining in their home language that this person wants to play with them but does not speak their language. Then it can be demonstrated how the children can help by saying their "names" for the objects they are using in their play and the teacher will tell them the English "names" which they can learn and use. Once children have recognised the nature of the game they are to play they generally enjoy the activity, provided it does not last too long and are eager to join subsequent frequent sessions. They will quite soon begin to refer to objects using English and provided the sessions are enjoyed and a planned and helpful structure is used, children's use of the additional language will go ahead. Observations and notes will need to be made as in all sessions, and the progress of each child will be followed up so that a regular assessment can be made on the progress and particular needs of each child. Gradually, as their skills develop, children will begin to use some English amongst themselves as they play. Research and practice have shown that by using strategies of modelling and feedback children can be using English typical of the area in which they are growing up by the age of six and a half and be establishing skills of reading and writing in English in readiness for a more formal approach to learning (Tough, 1995).

  15.  If educational experiences up to the age of around six and a half have taken account of children's particular difficulties and needs and a positive approach to learning has been achieved, and children from disadvantaged families have been helped to establish both positive attitudes and the skills needed for further learning, a more formal approach to learning will become appropriate and children will be ready for the next stages of education. The above discussion has indicated the way in which learning is most appropriately promoted, that is through enjoyable activities, and the adult's skills in assessing the needs of each child and promoting the development of essential skills, concepts and attitudes through talk with each. The most appropriate way of assessing children's learning has also been indicated, that is through close observation, noting and recording progress and needs of each child and so providing a continuous record upon which an assessment can be reliably based when required.


  16.  The above discussion indicates the range of knowledge and skills that staff in early years education require if they are to identify the skills and concepts that individual children need and to apply ways of developing them. The kind of interaction well educated parents generally provide, on the whole intuitively, will need to be applied deliberately with children according to their observed needs. Clearly all staff working with young children will need to have specialist knowledge of early development and of appropriate ways by which essential appropriate learning can be promoted. They will need to be able to determine and organise appropriate activities knowing their possibilities for the development of skills and concepts needed by younger and older children. They will need to hold in mind what they know about each child so that as they talk with the group they may have exchanges with individual children in order to promote their understanding and learning, and noting their responses for further guidance. They will need skills of accurate and sensitive observation, and the ability to make notes from which reliable judgements can be added to a continuous record from which reliable assessments can be made. The early years staff will also require skill in bringing children together in larger groups for the kind of activities referred to above (paragraph 11) during which they will note the responses of particular children who may have difficulties and seek to help them immediately or sometime later.

  17.  Teachers in charge of early years classes need a degree in education which has a special focus on the early years or, having taken a degree course that focused on an older age range, have taken a further course in early years education. Qualified Nursery Nurses will be needed as assistants if appropriate high quality experiences are to be provided. Appointing assistants who do not have such training and qualifications because they are much cheaper will mean that the intended outcome of early years education, that is the significant raising of educational standards, is unlikely to be achieved.

  18.  It is clear that all early years education provision must be headed by a teacher with both knowledge, appropriate qualifications and experience, and who knows how the desirable development in early childhood can be promoted. Such a teacher needs to know how to manage staff and assess the quality of the experiences being offered and to bring about changes where needed. Notes of observations of children's developing skills and difficulties will need to be discussed from time to time with those who made them, and the role will include holding staff meetings in which information about children is shared with all staff and decisions about future work with particular children and with groups are made. Decisions about the way in which funding is used must lie with those who hold responsibility for the management and planning provision for the particular needs of this age group, and about the skills and attitudes needed by the members of staff. There can indeed be difficulties where the person who makes such decisions does not have the required knowledge and tend to make decisions that are of more benefit to children and staff in an older age range. There is some evidence of this happening in primary schools. It is clear then that those in charge of Early Years Education provisions should be teachers with appropriate qualifications and experience, and desirably with some training in management skills. Such qualified experienced teachers should provide the leadership as heads of units in primary schools, of nursery schools and in other organisations providing education for the age range.


  19.  From the close study of the nature of children's development and learning it becomes clear that children must have developed skills that can only be established through direct observation and engagement with young children in situations that clearly promote desirable learning. There is much for children to learn and essential attitudes to establish before children have the necessary skills and knowledge to respond to direct instruction, recognise and explain their difficulties and recognise the help they need. We need to understand the nature of the early years development and ensure that all children in the age group have the necessary skills and attitudes to meet the demands before more formal methods are introduced. The learning of those children who are proving to be the more able can be fully met within a group where other children need the individual help that can be given within a more informal setting. In many countries the move to more formal methods takes place at six years of age and their results generally compare well with ours.

  20.  It needs to be recognised that teachers of young children need skills equal to those of teachers at any other stage. It also needs to be recognised that the early years are the most important of any if all children are to fulfil their potential. Standards at the end of schooling could be dramatically lifted if only excellent early years education could be provided for all. The outcome of that would be handed on to the next generation through more appropriate parenting. However, even where children have access to early years education the employment of assistants without the necessary skills and qualifications because they are cheaper than qualified teachers and nursery nurses is unlikely to bring about great change. Also the early move of children into reception classes at the age of four and a half and the early introduction of formal teaching in literacy and numeracy before many children, particularly those from disadvantaged homes, have the necessary skills and concepts to benefit, is already having a harmful effect on many young children's learning and attitudes towards school. We have still a lot to learn about the nature and role of learning in early childhood, particularly about the role of talk in establishing the means of communication and thinking that underlies and makes possible all subsequent learning.


  Tough, J (1977) The Development of Meaning. George Allen and Unwin.

  Tough, J (1995) Talk Two: Children Using English as a Second Language. Drake Educational Ass.

  Joan Tough CBE MA PhD

  Chair, Bradford Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership

  Formerly Director of the Schools Council Communication Skills Project, Leeds University, 1973-1985.

  CBE awarded for services to Education, 1979.

February 2000

50   Deceased. Obituary The Guardian 3 June 2000. Back

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