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


Memorandum from Margaret Cook (EY 75)

  1.  The oral and written evidence presented to the Select Committee on Education and Employment (Early Years) suggests a growing recognition that Early Years education is somehow different in kind from later education. What that difference is, and its pedagogical relationship to the years of statutory education, has not been so clearly indicated. This lack of definition may be leading to some tensions within Early Years provision, and between Early Years providers in general and those mainly concerned with the years of statutory schooling.

  2.  I would like to suggest that this difference arises from Early Years educators' attempts (conscious, successful, or otherwise) to construct a curriculum which addresses three significant facts:

    —  learning begins at birth;

    —  parents are involved with their child's learning from the start;

    —  the major modes of teaching and learning at home and in school/nursery are different.

  3.  In practice, what this means is, first of all, that children arrive at a nursery or playgroup with very different kinds of knowledge and skills. They may have already acquired well established ways of learning which may not include positive learning habits (such as a disposition to learn), academic friendly concepts (such as the meaningfulness of the printed word) or expectations of relatively formal ways of acquiring it (for example, group activities). This aspect of difference is easy to conceptualize as leading to disadvantage and needing to be addressed in the interests of social justice or the raising of standards.

  4.  A great many parental partnership and family literacy programmes attempt to address this kind of difference by providing parental education programmes which support the involvement of very young children in books, drawing and writing, and related activities (Book Start in Birmingham, PEEPs and the Families And Schools Together (FAST) service in Sefton are good examples of this). At their best, these programmes build on existing family and community knowledge, are empowering rather than belittling, and have something to offer every family, however seemingly privileged. (At the worst, it has to be said, programmes can be patronising and demeaning to parents and children and it is important that we are sensitive to programme designers' essential aims and values before supporting them.)

  5.  It seems curious that the best of these approaches are not built into Early Years provision as a right for all children and I suggest that your committee should make a suitable recommendation for this. In my experience, Early Years providers differ widely in their understanding of the importance of working with parental partnership programmes, often regarding them as an "add on" rather than an essential part of providing, equality of educational opportunity.

  6.  The second consideration is currently less well addressed. This is the explicit way in which the pedagogies of home and school are different but complementary, needing to have their individual contributions acknowledged, and brought together in parental partnership programmes, and within Early Years provision. Until we understand how this can be done, we are in danger of seeing home and school as providing alternative, and sometimes incompatible, ways of educating young children.

  7.  The debate about the role of play in Early Years education illustrates the point. Watching young children play, it is easy to see its potential as an educational context, but once drawn into the planning web, it is easy (though not necessary) to destroy its meaningful purpose and individuality. Yet children at home can maintain high quality and ingenious play for hours, and learn from it with only a little adult intervention. To some extent, this tension between structured and (apparently) unstructured provision for play, may lie behind the difficulty which parts of the playgroup movement has with the methodology of nursery schools, which to them often seem over structured and, in particular, lacking in a real understanding of play.

  8.  The problem would seem to lie in a lack of understanding of the pedagogies characteristic of home and group provision. Typical of the ways in which young children learn at home are child initiated conversation and play, and parents/carers' response to these. Parents may provide resources and ideas for play but on the whole they do not have selected learning and teaching objectives as intended outcomes. Learning opportunities occur naturally, are turned into teaching events by parents and carers, and are abandoned when interest and attention flag. As TACTYC points out in their written evidence, parents work with what children produce and, in Vygotsky's terminology, scaffold the child's responses in the light of what they know of the child's level of understanding and their own knowledge of an appropriate area of learning. The learning outcomes are not fortuitous, exactly, but there is a large measure of happenstance, and there is growing evidence that the parent's level of education, as well as their empathy with the child, plays a large part in the success or otherwise of the encounter. I would guess that this is what's happening with the "gifted amateur" and it's almost certainly why opening up the curriculum garden to parents seems almost always to result in raising standards. Where parents and carers have a rich internal curriculum resource, they can draw on this whatever the learning context, adapting and shaping their input as they go. (The Basic Skills Agency has many examples of how parental education can raise standards).

  9.  Primary school scaffolding techniques, for example in the shared work component of the literacy hour, are not at all the same. Teaching objectives are identified beforehand, they relate to the previously assessed achievements of a whole group, and the context for teaching is identified beforehand by the teacher. This is a legitimate, economical and well thought out, way of working with children with previous schooling and whose learning strategies include reflection, and the ability to focus meaningfully on something outside their own experience. Children below their sixth year are rarely able to do this to any great degree. They learn quickly and well but only about things they choose to learn, and which relate to their individual experience of life. They can take the ball and run with it, but on the whole, they are still learning to be members of a team. They are, as several of our witnesses have pointed out, still learning the strategies of learning. What is wrong with the literacy hour for young children is not only that sixty minutes is too long for a young child to sit still. It is, rather, that group teaching is, by and large, an inefficient way of teaching young children whose major learning achievements come from an exploration of their own experience in largely individual teaching situations which arise incidentally in the course of ordinary class activities such as play.

  10.  What this means for Early Education is that, in addition to sharing the content of the curriculum with parents and carers, educators need also to value, learn about and actively support, families' commonplace ways of teaching their children, and children's commonplace ways of learning. Settings catering for young children also need to incorporate this pedagogy into their own, alongside more traditionally legitimised ways of teaching. This will involve developing both parents' and staffs' understanding of how to maximise one to one teaching situations arisings through play as well as how to develop the quality of play through their own modelling. Parents, almost unconsciously, use this model of teaching from birth but may not be aware of its significance to their children's education if it is not made explicit to them, and may frequently need support in exploring its curricular potential. Early Years staff will need to be reassured of the value of such one to one situations in the face of pressure to conform to primary school models of group teaching. Staff and training resources will need to be sufficient to meet the needs of well trained labour intensive teaching.

  11.  The role of the informed carer in this educational thinking is of particular interest in this model, especially, as in the current Early Years scene, where there is a need to achieve parity of esteem across a variety of settings. Classroom assistants and volunteer helpers are often given largely caring roles in Early Years settings and need to understand both the potential of these situations for individual teaching, and the value of the teaching strategy for children's educational development. These "incidental" teaching situations are not marginal to children's learning: for some children, especially the youngest and most vulnerable, they may be more important than what is learned in more explicitly "educational" contexts. Providers need both to recognize the valuable role which assistants and helpers can provide, and ensure that the educational potential of the role is maximised through training in the Early Years curriculum. The value of the outcomes will depend on the quality both of the training and of the "curriculum in the head" which is essential to teaching focused on play.

  12.  To sum up, recognizing that learning begins at birth, that parents really are their children's first teachers, and that home and group settings often have different pedagogies, means that everyone involved must work towards a shared curriculum, that parents and carers, including assistants, should have access to appropriate training which is often shared, and that different styles of teaching and learning must be identified and valued. In practical terms, this means:

    —  ensuring that all parents have access to parental partnership programmes which value the existing contribution of the family;

    —  identifying the strategies and contexts appropriate to individualised learning at home and school;

    —  providing high quality training for all parents and Early Years providers which is based on the values, knowledge and skills resulting from both the above.

  Learning in the Early Years is different from that in the years of statutory schooling, but the difference is neither inexplicable nor incapable of being bridged.


  Beverly, A; Cook, MA; Harrison, C (1995) Family literacy: ownership, evaluation and accountability in Raban-Bisby B (ed) Developing Language and Literacy Stoke-on-Trent Trentham Books.

  Cazden C (1992) Whole Language Plus Teachers Press, Columbia University, New York.

  DfEE (1998) National Literacy Framework London DfEE.

  Hall N (1998) Real literacy in a school setting; Five year olds take on the world The Reading Teacher Vol 52 No 1 pp 8-17.

  Hannon (1995) Literacy at Home and School: Research and Practice in Teaching Literacy with Parents London Falmer Press.

  Hemstedt A (1995) The ALBSU family literacy initiative. In Raban-Bisby B (ed) Developing Language and Literacy Stoke-on-Trent Trentham Books.

  Smilansky S (1990) Sociodramatic play: its relevance to behaviour and achievement in Klugman E and Smilansky S Children's Play and Learning Perspectives Teachers College Press, New York.

  Standard J (2000) So Far, So Good Language and Literacy News Royston UKRA.

  Morrow L et al (1995) a Survey of Family Literacy in the United States Newark, Delaware.

  Taylor D (1997) Many Families, Many Literacies Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

  Tizard B and Hughes M (1984) Young Children Learning: Talking and Thinking at Home and at School London Fontana.

  Weinberger J (1996) Literacy Goes to School The Parents' Role in Young Children's Literacy Learning London Paul Chapman Publishing.

  Wolfendale S and Topping K (1996) (eds) Family Involvement in Literacy: Effective Partnerships in Education London Cassell.

  Wood E and Attfield J (1996) Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum London Paul Chapman Publishing.

Margaret Cook

May 2000

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