Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Question 40-59)


21 MAY 2008

  Q40  Mr Chaytor: I turn first to Morag. Children in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland start school at the age of seven. Are they all unable to read and write?

  Morag Stuart: I am not an expert in what children in those countries know when they start school. However, I know that one early study of the effects of phonological awareness on learning to read, which was carried out in Sweden, was criticised on the ground that many of the children had already learned to read before taking part in the study.

  Q41  Mr Chaytor: I wish to test the assertion made previously that there is a false dichotomy between those who think that there should be a more intensive use of formal language training in the Foundation Stage and those who think that the Foundation Stage should focus on social personal development and that formal training should start later. What is your view of that false dichotomy? Is it clear cut that children who have a greater emphasis placed on their social development in the earlier years learn to read and write better but later?

  Morag Stuart: From my point of view as a researcher into early reading development, the factors that influence the ease of acquisition of decoding skills—the ability to read the words on the page—are awareness of sounds in words and a knowledge of letters. Those two things make a crucial difference to the ease with which children master reading words.

  Q42  Mr Chaytor: To what extent is that a formal process? Is a formal process required, as against its emerging through structured play?

  Morag Stuart: I find the distinction between formal and structured learning very difficult. You can teach phonics to five-year-olds in playful, developmentally appropriate ways, but you must teach them.

  Mr Chaytor: It will not just happen by itself.

  Morag Stuart: No. Children get experiences in their families that lead them to discover things. Families do not formally teach them, and people in early years settings can teach them in playful ways.

  Q43  Mr Chaytor: Could I ask Graham for his observations on the same issue? What is the best way in the Steiner view?

  Graham Kennish: Sylvie can answer on the Steiner view.

  Sylvie Sklan: That is all right—Graham has taught in Steiner schools.

  Q44  Mr Chaytor: Graham, do you act as a consultant to schools in the USA as well?

  Graham Kennish: Yes, but not in early years. I represent Open EYE, and I have a Steiner background, but I would not wish to answer the question.

  Sylvie Sklan: In the Steiner early years curriculum, we do not introduce any formal learning at all. There is a long track record of international experience, and the outcomes are successful. We advocate later learning in our curriculum.  I am not here to comment on how any legislative framework or statutory requirements affect the standard model. Rather, I believe that there is a commitment to diversity, which implies a commitment to acknowledging that there is more than one valid way of doing things. Any requirement would therefore need to be considered in terms of whether it cuts across a different way of doing things. If it does, there would need to be a mechanism to allow exception. Our feeling about the framework is that it has not provided for exception for different models.

  Q45  Mr Chaytor: We were told in an earlier session that there are 5,000 places in Steiner settings, and 2.4 million childcare places in the country. Is the Steiner philosophy equally applicable to the 2,395,000 who are not currently in Steiner schools?

  Sylvie Sklan: The point is not only about Steiner, but about all other ways where there is a different approach to learning goals. If the requirements are statutory, I would ask you please to accept that there needs to be a mechanism to allow different approaches—not just the Steiner approach.

  Graham Kennish: I would like to add something to that. In David's two comments, I feel that he is seeking to see whether it is a minority viewpoint. As Anna mentioned, a huge number of parents and childminders who contacted Open EYE were looking for a second home that would give their child self-confidence, warmth and happiness, which is not a word that one finds in the early years documentation. Happiness, support, warmth, self-confidence and self-worth are perhaps the keys to helping disadvantaged children, who usually lack those things. We should not try to marginalise things—the net needs to be set much wider than specific philosophies such as Steiner, Montessori, Froebel or any others. There is a huge wish out there among parents for their children to be kept in a situation that is like being in a home, without goals.

  Q46  Mr Chaytor: The Early Years Foundation Stage is about learning goals, but that does not mean that it is the only guidance provided to early years settings. The Every Child Matters approach and the five outcomes were very clear on the importance of well-being and child safety.

  Graham Kennish: Absolutely—safety and welfare requirements are essential. However, if the approach—which it is perfectly pertinent to suggest—is fuelled and pressured with targets that are statutorily required, you set forth a whole system of processes and pressures that prevent real interaction and quality interaction between the carer and the child. That happens very strongly with an unskilled workforce who are unskilled because they follow the book. On the relationship with the children, even in the Government's DVDs—I do not know whether you have seen them all, but I have—one illustration of how to operate the early years programme includes a short scene in which the practitioners don small tiaras to show the children that they are now being assessed. The children then know that their carers will not come and interact with them and that they are expected to perform what they are doing under the eyes and the clipboards of their assessors, who now wear tiaras to show them that they are being assessed. On the question whether that is good or bad, I obviously have my views. If a parent does not wish such a travesty—sorry, I will share my views—of what the relationship will be, that makes the case completely for giving them freedom of choice within the necessary legal framework governing the welfare and safety of children.

  Q47  Mr Chaytor: You characterise the Foundation Stage requirements as targets, but they are described as goals. There is quite a fundamental distinction between a goal and a target.

  Graham Kennish: Yes. Is it all right for me to address that as well? I am rather taking up the space. That point highlights something that I could illustrate with 15 examples—obviously, I will not go through them—of how, within the early years literature and communications with Ministers, there is a huge gulf, which was illustrated last week in your session with Ofsted, between the rhetoric and the descriptions of what should happen on the one hand and the reality on the ground on the other. Let me give you one illustration. The Government's own literature says—letters come back to Ofsted all the time about this—that there is equal emphasis on all these different requirements. I am sorry, but there is not equal emphasis. If you do a little mathematical sum, you will find that 55% of the emphasis of the profiles is on literacy and numeracy, 8% is on emotional development, 8% is on physical development and 8% on social development—that is not equality. It is interesting that when the first results of the Foundation Stage came through from 2007—I could fish out the paper to show you—they proclaimed an advance of 1% in the profile scores for literacy and numeracy, with 4% for a little part of that. Wonderful! What is not mentioned is a 1% fall in the scores on emotional development. It fascinates me that the 1% score on emotional development is left aside, but the 1% score on numeracy and literacy is held up as progress.

  Q48  Fiona Mactaggart: Professor Stuart, you told us that you had done some research on phonics and how children learn. I saw a report on work that had been done on the differences between children from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more advantaged backgrounds in terms of progress in reading and phonological awareness. Could you tell us something about that?

  Morag Stuart: Probably not, actually. Which report are you referring to?

  Fiona Mactaggart: Dockrell, Stuart and King, "Supporting early oral language skills", in Literacy Today.

  Morag Stuart: That was not about phonics or phonological development; we were looking at oral language development in a deprived inner-city population. We did an intervention study that was designed to accelerate children's oral language—their vocabulary and their ability to construct sentences and narrate events. It was not to do with phonological awareness at all. We did that study as a consequence of the study that I did on introducing phonics to five-year-olds in the same London borough. I was shocked by the levels of language that children came into school with at the age of five, so we went back and tried to improve their language levels.

  Q49  Fiona Mactaggart: As I understood the first study, it suggested that children with stronger oral skills were much more able to develop—sorry, I took a short cut there, and you properly and professionally stopped me and said, "Actually, this is about oracy." However, as I understood the first study, it said that strong oracy enabled children to develop these reading-based skills. Will you tell me the whole story?

  Morag Stuart: That would take some time

  Fiona Mactaggart: In a nutshell.

  Morag Stuart: Okay. There is absolutely no doubt that oral language skills, such as vocabulary, an ability to construct sentences properly and an ability to retell narratives contribute hugely to reading and mostly to reading comprehension. Phonological skills and awareness, and letter knowledge, contribute to an ability to decode and read words on a page. Phonological awareness is thought by some to relate to the size of a child's vocabulary—so there is also a link between vocabulary and the likelihood that a child will become aware of sounds. The larger your vocabulary, the more similar words you have in it and the more finely grained your representation of sound patterns becomes. They are all interlinked. All aspects of oral language development contribute to literacy development. They are all important, which is why the Rose review suggests that phonics teaching should take place against the background of a broad and rich language curriculum.

  Q50  Fiona Mactaggart: Do you think that the Early Years Foundation Stage document does that?

  Morag Stuart: I think that there is lots of emphasis on oral language development, on communicating with babies from an early age and on the ways in which different ways of communicating facilitate language development.

  Q51  Fiona Mactaggart: Anne, we have not heard your point of view on phonics teaching and whether that bit of this Foundation Stage curriculum is right.

  Anne Nelson: I would like to set it in the context of this being the first time that we have had a curriculum starting from birth. As I know it, the curriculum in England was developed at secondary level and brought down to primary with the introduction of the National Curriculum. Reception was tacked on the end and early years was forgotten about. Then we got our curriculum guidance and so on. We are talking about something that comes between the two different systems that we have had before. The primary national literacy strategy did not cover speaking and listening when it was established. That came down into reception. No one was at all concerned about nursery—they should have been, but they were not. Those things have remained, which is the reason for these inappropriate goals. Instead, we should look again at the matter, coming up from birth. The development of oral skills is strong, but then we have these other goals, which we mentioned before, left over from the interlink with the literacy strategy. If we looked at it properly coming up, we would have the emphasis about which Morag has spoken.

  Q52  Fiona Mactaggart: There are real differences among all the witnesses we have heard from today. I have heard very strongly from all of them, however, that the emphasis on oracy, speaking and listening must be at the centre of early years education of quality. I think that everybody agrees with that. Let us look at one more thing. Would any of you say that there are circumstances in which letters and sounds can be introduced to four-year-olds in a way that is pleasurable and advances their learning?

  Morag Stuart: I think that the letter and sounds programme that has just been introduced in schools does it beautifully. The evidence that is accruing from early assessments of implementing the programme suggests that children are enjoying what they are learning and that they are achieving. The Ofsted and National Foundation for Educational Research reports both talk about the increase in teacher confidence; teachers know what they are supposed to be doing and why they are supposed to be doing it. The reports also talk about the delight and joy that children are having in their achievements and about how much they are enjoying the lessons. The programme does it beautifully. It does not start at two or three; it starts in what was traditionally the reception year—when children become four. It starts with a beautiful phase one, in which there is no mention whatever of letters and there are all sorts of rich activities around oral language, developing children's awareness of sounds in the environment, developing children's listening skills and all those things. Children are doing beautiful activities. It is not until the final term of the reception year that they start to learn to relate letters to sounds, and they do that through games. They are enjoying their games and they are learning. The evidence from the early reading project, which the communication, language and literacy development team have been putting into place, is that children who have taken part in the project are beginning to meet more of the Foundation Stage Profile targets for language and literacy.

  Q53  Fiona Mactaggart: You are telling us, Morag, that there are resources that can bridge the road into primary education. I have heard from others that there is too much of a risk that what goes on next will suck down into the early years curriculum. I do not think that anyone intends that. What could stop it?

  Morag Stuart: What could stop it sucking down?

  Fiona Mactaggart: Yes. I do not know if all of the panel would agree, but I think that what you describe sounds very attractive to those people who want education that starts with the child. From other witnesses, we have heard that the problem is not the well-designed things that, through games and poems, start introducing children to sounds and the letters connected with the sounds. The problem is more that what happens later on—formal handwriting, sentence construction and so on—gets sucked into the early years curriculum in an inappropriate and, some would suggest, damaging way. How can we stop that?

  Morag Stuart: By training staff. Staff have to understand the purpose and place of what they are required to do.

  Anne Nelson: I go around the country, talk with members and train practitioners in the EYFS, and there are two barriers. One is that reception has not been placed firmly in the EYFS. There are various factors. The ratios, for instance, are subject to another law and could not be changed. A reception class needs only be staffed by one teacher for 30 children. You cannot do the sort of work that we are talking about and match a curriculum to individual children's needs, if there is one person to 30 children. The Department say that there are usually other people there, but I met a reception teacher the other week who told me that their school has three reception classes with one teaching assistant between the three of them. That is not appropriate. The baseline is one to 30, and we hope that that will change, because it makes it more formal and does not help needs to be met.  The other issue is the outcomes duty, which takes us back to the Foundation Stage Profile again. When it was initiated, we were told that it would never be used for national data. Local authorities are now required to have targets. They are targets for the local authority, not the school or the children, but, of course, pressure comes down on the children, which militates against the best practice that the EYFS promotes.

  Sylvie Sklan: That is interesting to hear, and we acknowledge that there are learned views about how things could be improved in the EYFS in terms of curriculum—I must say that I have never understood it to be a curriculum. However, that still brings me back to the same point. We acknowledge that there is a discussion that will perhaps review some of the difficulties in the framework—it is otherwise an excellent framework—but it has not addressed my point. I know that minority interest provision is only small, but it is still a very big principle that any statutory framework must allow for difference.

  Q54  Chairman: I thought Steiner had already come to an accommodation with the Department.

  Sylvie Sklan: It has been very difficult. We have a letter from the Minister that relates to an interim arrangement whereby it is acknowledged that the learning and development goals that cut across our curriculum will not be counted against us. At the end of the day, there are statutory requirements and we believe it should be possible to disapply, or there should be an exemption for whole settings. I acknowledge and respect what you are saying, but it does not relate to our point, which is please allow for difference.

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

  Graham Kennish: Yes. I agree with more or less everything that has been said, but because I do not have the same early years experience as a practitioner, I come at it from a completely different viewpoint, which is perhaps more in keeping with that of politicians who do not have direct experience. It is vital to understand the nature of a target. At your meeting with the Chief Inspector of schools last week, she said, almost in an aside, "I am a passionate believer in... targets". That has two possible connotations that are completely different. A target that is imposed on somebody—particularly, of course, on a child, although we are talking about the workforce—is completely different from the other kind of target. We know that a target that is imposed on us impacts enormously on our whole value system of self-confidence, self-evaluation and everything else. A target that is an inner goal, an aspiration or something we strive towards can be inspiring. When Morag was answering the question, I was saying to myself, "Well, yes, in the hands of a good practitioner, an aspiration can become something that fulfils the child and that the child grows towards with love and enthusiasm." However, if it has to be imposed as a target that they must push towards through an unskilled workforce, it becomes a totally different thing, so the word "target" has completely different meanings according to who is hearing it.

  Chairman: Thank you, Graham.

  Graham Kennish: May I add something? Once the target is legislated for, that imposes a certain meaning that infects everybody, and only the best professional with the most experience can possibly withstand the impact of what that legality imposes on them.

  Chairman: Graham, we take that point.

  Q55  Annette Brooke: In a lot of the debate that has been going on in the various specialist journals, there have been accusations that Open EYE has confused what is statutory—the learning roles—and what is guidance. I would like clarification on that. Presumably there is no objection to the guidance per se, so where has the perception come from that Open EYE has got it all wrong?

  Graham Kennish: Open EYE certainly wishes to change the statutory learning and development requirements into guidance. That is one of the key points of Open EYE. If there were guidance but no legislation to impose it, it would be possible for professionals to inspire their practitioners and share the kinds of difference that have emerged before you in this Committee. Sharing would be possible, if the legislation were not there.  In relation to confusing terms or issues, one of the frustrations for Open EYE and for people who have written to Open EYE—we have received an endless number of communications—is the complete confusion among people in the Department. They talk about play, when they do not actually mean play. They will talk about targets, when they are actually talking about well-being, or the other way round. They will talk about the unique child, when they are actually talking about developmental milestones, goals and targets. They will talk about professional judgment, when in fact that professional judgment is being taken away and the professions are being disempowered.

  Annette Brooke: I think that you are straying from my question.

  Graham Kennish: I am sorry if I am straying, but there are so many confusions that allow one to interpret the situation in two different ways.

  Q56  Annette Brooke: I just wanted to be absolutely clear that Open EYE's main objections were to the statutory elements.

  Graham Kennish: Our main objections are to the statutory learning and development requirements, but not to the statutory elements of welfare and all the other essential things. Open EYE feels that the recent ICT guidance is hugely important for this Committee to consider, perhaps in a separate investigation, in the light of Susan Greenfield's and Aric Sigman's research, which shows that screen and ICT requirements are affecting brain development. We did not know about passive smoking 10 years ago, but we are in a similar situation. We must research the matter, and we hope that the Committee will do that.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that. We move to assessment and inspection, led by Paul.

  Q57  Paul Holmes: Only a few days ago, the Committee published a report on testing and assessment from five to 19 that was very critical of the combined impact of high-stakes testing, league tables and Ofsted inspections on five to 19 education. From September, Ofsted will inspect nought to five under the new framework of 69 learning outcomes. How can we prevent those Ofsted inspections from being as negative in the nought to five range as our report said they are in the five to 19 range? Anne, you were an Ofsted inspector; perhaps we can start with you.

  Anne Nelson: I am not an active Ofsted inspector. I have been one, and I trained quite a few of the Ofsted childcare inspectors on EYFS, so I have an insight into their views. Obviously, we do not know how it is going to be, because we have not seen the framework yet. Pilots have been taking place, but the framework is not there.  From Early Education, we welcome the use of the same approach for all settings and a shared framework. Previously, we have had different frameworks, different outcomes, a different emphasis for the actual inspection and, of course, different inspectors. It looks as though we are moving towards something—that is the Government's wish—that will take away the difference in criteria and grades. "Outstanding" in a school has been very different from "outstanding" in a setting, which is not helpful to parents. I think that there will be a lot of challenges to the PVI sector and childminders, because from what I understand, the approach will be very much on the basis of self-evaluation, which is the same as school inspections. Previously, the private and voluntary sector have had self-evaluations just one page long. The pilot version that I have seen is a lot longer than that, so self-evaluation skills will need to be supported for them to achieve within that inspection. My feedback from people who do training is that that is presenting enormous challenges to childminders. It is that bit about "fit for everybody". For someone sitting at home working on their own, whatever their intentions about what they provide for children, doing a self-evaluation is difficult. Bernadette's discussion on the role of children's centres in supporting childminders is absolutely crucial. Otherwise, we will lose them, and the choice will not be there for parents.  We are concerned that all inspectors should be trained in EYFS. We know that that has happened with the childcare inspectors. They must also have the pedagogical background and knowledge to make the judgments that they will need to make, and they should spend time not just on the data, but on seeing the relationships with children and all the things that EYFS suggests. Certainly in schools, the length of inspection time has become shorter and shorter, and that is the bit that has lost out.

  Q58  Paul Holmes: One of the criticisms of Ofsted across the board is that it has a lot of non-specialist inspectors who go into schools not knowing enough about what they are inspecting. You are saying that it is absolutely essential that at that level they should all be trained and have that background?

  Anne Nelson: They need to be trained and experienced. It is one of the most difficult areas. When I have inspected a primary school, the most difficult area is the early years. That is common knowledge. In the shorter inspections in schools in which you have only one or two inspectors, it is quite likely that there will be no-one with experience in early years.

  Q59  Paul Holmes: The DCSF has said that an Ofsted inspection will not have a negative impact on the way in which people work in the early years. When we did our report on five to 19, it told us that there was not a negative impact. However, we said that there was. Therefore, how do we avoid the Ofsted inspections having a negative impact? We heard in an earlier session that the inspectors are looking at three key things, such as writing sentences, punctuation and so on. How do we stop the inspections from distorting everything because they are focusing on those things?

  Sylvie Sklan: Certainly, where you have a different model, it presents problems that we have to tackle in a very practical way. The criteria by which they will be inspecting an early years centre does not apply to the learning and development requirements, because the setting, on principle, is not involved in that. We are concerned that we get that right, otherwise we will have a whole series of settings that are teaching a different curriculum and so failing on quite a range of outcomes. If a proper mechanism were in place, it would not just be left to our ability to find a way through; the system would clearly be in place. As it is at the moment, we will have to work with the inspectors, and those discussions have started. In that way, they will know what to expect in a different setting.

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