Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-38)


21 MAY 2008

  Q20  Paul Holmes: Could I quickly ask another question? Ted and Sue, you were both saying that, within the first year or two, it was obvious that a lot of SureStart was not working. Head Start, which inspired SureStart, was evaluated over 10, 15 or 20 years. How could you decide after one or two years that SureStart was not working?

  Professor Melhuish: All that we could do is to look at the outcomes—for example, in our last report—for children aged three who have been born into a fully functioning SureStart programme, comparing the development of those children over their first three years with other children. That is how we can do it. You are right that we cannot tell the longer term consequences until the children are teenagers and beyond. To reiterate one point, Head Start, which is often put forward as the inspiration for Sure Start, is a totally different programme—utterly different. Head Start is a part-time, pre-school programme, along the lines of our nursery schools, delivered to disadvantaged children in the States. It is not from birth upwards. People often assume that there is a similarity; but in fact, it is a totally different programme altogether.

  Q21  Paul Holmes: Is not Head Start a bit more about the socialisation of children?

  Professor Melhuish: Head Start usually has an emphasis on both intellectual and social development. It offers learning experiences that might be called educational, as well as developing the social skills of the child. Equal weight is given to both of those in the best Head Start programmes. Often, they are based upon a High Scope curriculum, which is quite well known for pre-school provision.

  Chairman: This issue is going to come on, but we are time-limited. I ask my colleagues for quite short questions, and for quite short responses. This is a very valuable session, which we want to get the most out of, but we are time-limited. We are moving on to the statutory status of the EYFS. We have already started into that, helped by Sue.

  Q22  Annette Brooke: First, why should there not be a process of exemptions for settings that can put a good case to the local authority, the Government or whatever, not just a straightforward exception, so that anyone can opt out, but a route through which settings could exempt themselves? How would that undermine the advantages of having a framework? I shall start with Bernadette.

  Bernadette Duffy: I am not an expert on exemptions, and I have not given much thought to the particular criteria you would use if exempting a setting, rather than a parent saying—perhaps on religious grounds—that certain things were inappropriate. What one would need to be very careful about is how tightly drawn it was. One of your colleagues talked about the parents of some children wanting exemption from something that would actually be positive for them. You would need to think very carefully about how it was worded and how it was agreed, but I am not an expert on exemptions and how to define them tightly.

  Annette Brooke: Anna, I ask for brief comments on this.

  Anna Firth: I agree entirely with the thrust of your question. There would not be a problem if settings were allowed to exempt themselves on a principled basis, from an Open EYE perspective, because Open EYE has said very strongly that it is the learning development requirements that we are against. We are not against the welfare requirements, which a setting that exempted itself would still have to comply with. I cannot see a problem. What parents are concerned about is that their children are in a safe environment, in as rich an environment as possible, with qualified people who know about children and are doing appropriate things with their children.

  Professor Melhuish: If settings had the qualities that Anna described, I would have no worries at all, because, basically, well qualified staff effectively become self-regulating about the quality of the environments that they provide for children. I suspect that, if you were to have exemptions, that might affect children that, say, go to Montessori or Steiner schools and so on—less than 1% of the total population. Those children would do very well at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, because by and large, their parents are such that they provide all the sorts of experiences that they might otherwise miss out on through the exemption.

  Sue Palmer: We are talking as though the only settings are nursery schools. What I would choose for my child, if I were not looking after them myself, or what I would recommend anyone else to choose, certainly in the first two years, would actually be a childminder. I am afraid that childminders are on their own. Many of them do not want to work within the EYFS at the moment and do not see how they can get through legal exemptions and all the rest of it. It scares the living daylights out of them, so they are just stopping. We are losing childminders in droves at the moment. Many of the very best ones—the ones who really love being with children and who could not explain why they are good at it, because they are just good with children—do not like the bureaucratisation and the fact that they have to fill in a lot of forms. Again, Bernadette is quite right; in a wonderfully run setting such as Thomas Coram, of course you will be able to do it all according to the best childcare practice, because you are very experienced and very knowledgeable. However, many of these great childminders are not experienced or knowledgeable; they do it by instinct, because they are good with kids. Those childminders are the ones that I fear we are going to lose, and the ones that are left will feel that they have to fill in forms rather than look after children, because that is the impression that this sort of legal framework gives.

  Q23  Chairman: There are quite a lot of pretty desperate childminding settings, are there not?

  Sue Palmer: There may well be some pretty desperate ones. However, I think that a legal framework of this kind is more likely to damage the good childminders than to make the bad ones better.

  Q24  Annette Brooke: I have attended a meeting with the Minister for Children and, indeed, with Bernadette. The Minister said over and again that there were no incompatibilities with the Steiner schools. Anna was an independent witness. Equally, I asked a question about childminders on Monday, to which the Minister replied that the decline in their number has nothing to do with the EYFS. The Minister said that the EYFS is only what good childminders are doing already—a flexible, play-based approach to children's development. So what is the problem? Is there a communication gap, which could have very serious implications? On the one hand, it is said that this is just a play-based framework, which everyone is using; on the other hand, it is said that it is something that could take children down a route that some of you have suggested could have adverse consequences. So why have we got this big gap and how on earth can the arguments be put forward? I will start with Sue on that.

  Sue Palmer: We have seen exactly the same sort of thing happen in primary schools over the last 10 years, as the advice became more and more prescriptive. The more prescriptive you are, the more you are target-based and the more the practice gets skewed, albeit unintentionally. Nobody wanted us to have a narrowing of the curriculum and all the rest of it. However, it was because people interpret this sort of prescriptive information in ways that perhaps were not intended. That is why it seems to me so important that it is made very clear that these are guidelines and that they are not statutory, because once the advice becomes more prescriptive and more statutory, the more these misinterpretations happen, particularly with people who are not necessarily particularly highly professional or well trained.

  Q25  Chairman: Ted, does it have to be statutory?

  Professor Melhuish: I am not convinced that everything should be statutory, no. I feel that we need strong guidelines. Annette's summation of the situation is fairly accurate; the situation is not as arduous as we might think of it as being for practitioners. With regard to childminders, you really need to consult the National Childminding Association on that point. It is a point to bear in mind, because childminders are a very large part of the childcare workforce for the zero to threes. However, we need clear guidelines that lay out what is expected in provision. Ofsted has a role to play in seeing that those guidelines are fulfilled to some extent. The borderline is about how detailed the statutory requirement is; that is where the crunch comes.

  Q26  Annette Brooke: Can I specifically ask Anna a question? I will ask the question of another witness later. In your view, Anna, why is there an incompatibility between the Steiner philosophy and the EYFS? What is the difference between you and the Minister, when the Minister tells me that they are quite compatible?

  Anna Firth: It is very easy. There are 69 early goals. In a Steiner setting, children do not have to comply with any early learning goals until the age of seven. That is when formal learning begins. There are none of these goals and that is the difference.

  Q27  Chairman: Can I make it clear, Anna, that you are not speaking for Steiner, are you? You were not asked to be a Steiner witness; this is your opinion.

  Anna Firth: No, as Mrs Brooke said, she is asking my view and that is all I can give. I should like to mention childminders. Open EYE have been deluged with e-mails and calls from battered, disillusioned childminders. I want to bring that matter to the attention of the Committee, and I have three examples that you might be interested in. One lady, who has run a small, mornings-only nursery for 10 years, is feeling increasingly oppressed by Government interference and writes, "I will be giving up in September. Everything that I have come to understand about child development makes it impossible for me to carry on pretending to follow the EYFS." Another letter reads, "Childminders feel that they are losing their identity of a stable home environment. It also seems that play is not enough any more, and must be measured using observation and planning under the EYFS. We do not feel that we should quantify learning, as we are not teachers and we do not want to be mini-nurseries or classrooms." Finally, "I am a childminder who, like the childminder in the programme, will probably be giving up at the end of August, purely due to the introduction of the EYFS." And so it goes on. Observation is a big problem. I have listened to Bernadette saying that, in the settings that she has been involved with, observation is not a big issue. However, in every setting that I have spoken to—I have not done a huge survey, but I have been round the town where I live—the early years practitioners, many of whom are very good, say that you would not believe the paperwork. They showed me lever-arch files full of paperwork and I have also been told that the essential piece of equipment needed to be a nursery school teacher now is a portable digital camera.

  Chairman: Bernadette, do you want to come back on that?

  Bernadette Duffy: We work with childminders at the Thomas Coram Centre, and those who we work with welcome the EYFS. However, there is one proviso. Our childminders are an integral part of the children's centre. They are well supported and have opportunities to study and opportunities for reflection on a week-by-week basis. One of the reasons that a lot of childminders are leaving is that it is an isolated occupation. Unless we take the centre's obligation to support childminders seriously, we will lose even more—not through the EYFS, but because it is isolated. We know that, historically, people leave childminding because of the isolation or because their family circumstances change. Our childminders are pleased with the measure, but they are well supported. There is gap in perception. As Sue was saying kindly, we at Thomas Coram are very lucky. We have a well qualified staff group—people with expertise—and we have all had good training. Therefore, we read the EYFS in that context. The anxiety is that there are people who have not got that training, as Ted was saying. The issue in this country is not the EYFS; it is training. We think that it is fine for young people with no qualifications to come at the age of 16 and work with young children. If they were their own children, we would put them in a young parent programme, but there seems to be no conflict in public funding to say that it is fine for them to work with other people's children. The bigger issue is one of qualifications. There is a big issue about qualified teachers, and we must ensure that qualified teachers, such as myself and Sue, are placed in more earlier settings, so that there is that sort of expertise working alongside other colleagues.

  Q28  Chairman: Should it be statutory?

  Bernadette Duffy: Should the document be statutory? At the moment, given where we are, we probably need more in the statutory document than we would need if we had a well qualified workforce. I want to protect children, not those in Steiner and Montessori schools, but those who are sitting at desks aged three doing worksheets.

  Chairman: Sue, I have to move on. If we have time at the end, I will come back to you.

  Q29  Fiona Mactaggart: I am interested in whether the document helps and supports parents or undermines them. There seems to be a real difference between the witnesses. Anna feels that it undermines the parent—I think, I do not want to mischaracterise you. Bernadette, I heard what you said about the unique child, or someone who has suddenly realised the importance of praise for her child.

  Bernadette Duffy: Yes.

  Fiona Mactaggart: I am hearing two people who do not have great differences in terms of the ambitions that they have for children, but who regard the document as having a very different impact on empowering parents. I am trying to think why. Can either of you help me?

  Anna Firth: Can I come in? From a parental point of view, I do not see the document as something that undermines parents, but as something that undermines children. I am not aware of great parental involvement in the implementation of the document.

  Sue Palmer: I personally think that the more we prescribe, the more we de-professionalise people. We are saying that they cannot make decisions. That happened in teaching with over-prescription. People felt disempowered and deskilled, and that undermined their professionalism. The document is twofold. On the one hand, it is saying that skilled professionals do not make decisions, because it is all written down and matters are just ticked. On the other hand, it gives the impression that it is about bringing up children, and I think that it deskills parents. They think that it must be something that they do in the children's centre, not something that they can do. It undermines the feeling of what care has always meant throughout the ages, which is why childminders have suddenly thought that they cannot do it any more, because it is all about writing things down, targets and stuff that the professionals understand. There is a double whammy. On the one hand, it is as though people are being told exactly how to do it, because they have not been trained, while on the other hand, it is suggesting that younger children who really need care, which is given by love, attention and talk, need something that is a bit more professional. It is getting people on both sides and deskilling everybody who works with young kids. The big difference is for those at home in domestic circumstances. Their reaction to the child and how they are bringing up the child is personal. In a nursery, matters must be systemised in a sense. The problem is with the two things hitting: the personal and the systemised. In the countries where they seem to have got it best, the fact that formal education does not start until the age of seven means that personal and the systemised approaches can be made more of a gradation. The child can finally be moved into an entirely systemised process by the age of seven. But we are hitting the far too young—the children of only three or four-years-old. With the personal care coming up and the systemising coming down, we are getting a crunch at a far too young an age. If we have more time and are thinking of starting formal education at seven, it would be easier to make the transition between the personal eye contact and loving care of the home—or childminder who takes over the domestic role—and the systemised, "we shall sit down and be formal in school" process. We would have more time to develop children's attention skills, their personal and social skills and their language skills. All those skills have been found in Scandinavian countries to be really sound foundations for learning, rather than what is happening now, which concerns unqualified childminders who do not know a thing and who have to get writing the letters.

  Q30  Fiona Mactaggart: I understand that. As for what the document mostly says, let us be honest. Reasonable concern is expressed in about three lines. For example, almost any child—probably your son—can read the word "McDonald's" and knows that the word starts with a capital letter. He might not know that it is called a capital letter, but he knows that it starts with a big M. Some of the outcomes are just there in almost every child, and I fear that we are escalating them into something more than they are. However, I share the unease about some of the detail, but we have focused on three sentences in the whole document, most of which is about learning to wash hands after going to the loo. That is a basic early learning goal that we would all want every three and four-year-old child to have.

  Sue Palmer: That is the problem. You have to developmental milestones and early learning goals.

  Q31  Fiona Mactaggart: I understand that, but the point is that I frequently see the things that are set out not happening with childminders, in playgroups, and in nurseries—let us be clear about that. Let us not be romantic that the option is between sitting there, forming your letters in a laborious set of lines—I have no truck with that—or fantastic free play, where adults are scaffolding children's learning, really attracting them, saying to them, "Oh look!" Actually, most of what goes on is somewhere between those two things. As politicians, our job is to try to make most of what goes on as good as it can be. There are various ways of doing that, one of which involves training the workforce. Compared with countries that have much less direction in early years, we have a less well trained workforce, so we cannot currently take that route. The route that we are trying to take is that of guidance to encourage good practice. From what you have said, Sue, you think that large chunks of the guidance, although not all of it, reflect good practice. I am interested in whether through such guidance—I am not saying that it is perfect—we can help to deal with the gap that we see developing at 22 months between children in homes where the vocabulary is not highly developed and parents do not have much time, and children in homes where parents have more time, a better developed vocabulary and are using rich adjectives with their children and so on. I am passionate about how we bridge that inequality, and at the moment we are not doing it.

  Chairman: So what is the question?

  Fiona Mactaggart: The question is how we do it. Is this going to help at all?

  Bernadette Duffy: Yes, the guidance will help, because it puts in place what we know about how children learn—through play, active exploration and adult to child interactions that are sustained and shared—so it includes a lot of positive things to close the gap that you have identified. Certainly, our experience from Early Education and at Thomas Coram is that using that approach closes the gap between the children who come in at a disadvantage and those who do not. That is a strong recommendation for the approach.

  Professor Melhuish: I agree. The gap that you are talking about happens below 22 months of age; it basically starts as soon as there are environments where people just do not talk to the child and treat it as something to be fed and changed occasionally.

  Sue Palmer: I would say that as long as the flawed literacy goals are part of the guidance, we will not by any means close the gap, because even though those are only a few things, they have a profound effect in that they put the focus at the end on the goals of formal achievement, rather than the development of children's oral language skills, their ability to attend and their social skills. Up to the age of 6 or 7, the development of oral language, listening discriminatively, being able to get along with the other children in the room and paying attention and settling in class are key. As long as we are trying to get the formal skills achieved by the age of five, people will not attend to those key foundations.

  Q32  Chairman: Sue, there was quite an interchange going on earlier, but I heard you say emphatically, "Those three lines skew it all."

  Sue Palmer: They skew it all.

  Q33  Fiona Mactaggart: But do you think that the learning of numbers 1 to 9 does?

  Sue Palmer: No, I don't actually because numeracy is much more natural than literacy. Literacy is totally unnatural to people.

  Chairman: We are getting towards that time. Anna, I want to go to you.

  Anna Firth: I agree entirely with what Sue has said. The trouble is that if you have seven or six or however many excellent things that you should be concentrating on, but you have three difficult ones at the end, the inexperienced person thinks that they have got to get to those three difficult ones and forgets about the others—that is point No 1. Point No 2 is that although I am not an expert on disadvantaged children and would not pretend that I am, disadvantaged children probably do not need more programmable toys and ICT in the nursery; they need people talking to them. Take the computers out of the nursery.

  Professor Melhuish: I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with the comments around me. What you are saying about oral skills is very true in the sense that they are the foundation for lots of later things. However, the simple fact is that the child who is developed in those oral skills will be the same child who is showing good pre-literacy skills at five.

  Sue Palmer: No.

  Professor Melhuish: They will. That has been shown over and over again.

  Chairman: I want Sue to behave herself and Ted to finish his point.

  Professor Melhuish: My view is that, by and large, what is in the Early Years Foundation Stage is 95% or 96% welcome.

  Chairman: But Sue is saying that as well.

  Professor Melhuish: There are a few details that need to be tidied up.

  Chairman: Are you not saying that, Sue?

  Sue Palmer: Researchers have analysed foundation profiles recently and found that children's achievement in literacy at seven correlates not with their formal achievements, but with their personal, social, emotional and communication skills.

  Chairman: You are breaking up a bit. Ted, you come in.

  Professor Melhuish: What Sue suggests is wrong. There is a strong correlation between children's social and communicative skills early on and their later education, but the same children also show good pre-literacy skills.

  Sue Palmer: But the ones who show good pre-literacy skills and do not have the personal and social skills will not achieve at seven.

  Professor Melhuish: That is not true.

  Sue Palmer: That is the difference. The ones who are not socially, emotionally and communicatively doing well at five, but who have been trained to write letters and to bark at print do not do well at seven. Those tend to be the poor children in disadvantaged areas.

  Professor Melhuish: No. That is not true.

  Chairman: We have not had a suicide at Hansard before now, but I can see one coming on.

  Professor Melhuish: If you do not have social and communication skills you will suffer in all sorts of ways, but it is also the case that disadvantaged children do not get barked at to produce their letters. The primary problem for disadvantaged kids is that they have not developed oral and social skills early on and they have not been given the opportunity for pre-literacy and pre-numeracy experiences. They are missing out in all sorts of ways.

  Anna Firth: Can I add something?

  Chairman: If it is brief.

  Anna Firth: We have heard a lot of opinion, but we now have some data on this subject. I am sure that you know about this, but the National Assessment Agency Foundation Stage Profile research shows that the literacy goals that we are complaining about correlate with poor outcomes at Key Stage 1. The positive goals that we are talking about for socialisation and personal and emotional development correlate with very good outcomes at Key Stage 1 in reading, writing and maths.

  Chairman: Can you comment on that, Ted?

  Professor Melhuish: I would like to look at the detail of that evidence, because I have not seen it, but it conflicts with the EPPE evidence and with the National Child Development Survey.

  Chairman: I want to ask one last thing. Fiona, do you want to ask one last quick question?

  Fiona Mactaggart: I am okay.

  Q34  Chairman: When you said, "those three lines skew it all," which three lines did you mean?

  Sue Palmer: I meant the language and literacy goals, particularly those for writing. Being able to form letters is very different from recognising the "M" of McDonald's. It is a complex, small-scale motor task. Being able to write letters and sentences is asking very young children to do something awfully difficult. Practitioners are getting children started at three to achieve the goals. In most European countries, particularly the ones that do well in literacy, practitioners do not start children doing that until the children are seven. It is skewing it right out.

  Q35  Fiona Mactaggart: I am trying to work out where the lines are. I am looking at the bottom of page 13 where it says, "Read a range of familiar and common words and simple sentences independently." What is the other part?

  Anna Firth: The last three are, "Attempt writing for different purposes", "Write their own names and other things, such as labels and captions, and begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation" and "Use a pencil and hold it effectively to form recognisable letters, most of which are correctly formed."

  Q36  Chairman: Would you like to omit or change any of those goals?

  Bernadette Duffy: The view of the British Association of Early Childhood Education is that some of the CLL goals, particularly those referring to writing and punctuation, are probably pitched too high for this age group. Our concerns are not about the goals that relate to a love of reading or to children having an opportunity to have their favourite Brown Bear, Brown Bear book, but about the ones that relate to writing, because of the physical skills involved. I have just come back from China, where I saw very good handwriting, but that is because children use chopsticks. If we want to improve handwriting in this country, we would be better off introducing chopsticks as a strategy, rather than that goal.

  Q37  Chairman: Anna, are those the ones that you want to get rid of?

  Anna Firth: Yes, absolutely.

  Chairman: Do you agree?

  Anna Firth: The last three, on page 13, going up the page, including "Read a range of familiar and common words and simple sentences independently" and "Use their phonic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words." My son's teacher has told me that the one before that, "Link sounds to letters, naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet" is also quite big a step for this age group. The linking and the naming and sounding are two different things.

  Q38  Chairman: Ted, is there anything that you would like to take out or modify?

  Professor Melhuish: No. The last three are the ones that are causing the problem, so I suggest that we might offer them as options for parents' choice, so that they can choose if they want those for their children or not.

  Chairman: Sue?

  Sue Palmer: I agree with that. I am a great believer in phonics and am not knocking it, but if you think about the phonics requirement for 30 to 50 months, you will realise that that starts before children are three, which is far too advanced. They are asking children to look at the beginnings of words and emphasise the initial sounds, but we simply do not want parents to think that children should be starting on phonics when they are two, so that is seriously wrong.

  Chairman: Thank you all. This has been a fantastic session. You have been what I would describe as nicely anarchic, but very informative. Please stay in touch with the Committee, because we want the report to be as good as it possibly can be. If you think that we have not asked the right questions or have asked too few, feel free to contact us and remedy that. We have enjoyed your evidence, and it has been a lively session, so thank you.

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