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
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
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
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
Cazden C (1992) Whole Language Plus Teachers
Press, Columbia University, New York.
DfEE (1998) National Literacy Framework London
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
Wood E and Attfield J (1996) Play, Learning
and the Early Childhood Curriculum London Paul Chapman Publishing.