Memorandum submitted by the Open EYE Foundation

 

Summary

In this submission of evidence on the EYFS, we briefly describe the genesis and aims of the 'Open EYE' early years campaign. Our <<Points of concern>> document forms the heart of this submission, and we also include three of the many articles that have been published in the professional literature about the campaign and its core concerns.1

 

1 A selection of relevant literature, including papers and published articles, can be read on our website at:

http://openeyecampaign.wordpress.com/research-and-supporting-literature/

 

 

 

Contextual introduction

 

The 'Open EYE' Campaign was launched last November with a lead front-page report in The Times and an Open Letter published in the Times Educational Supplement, signed by many prominent authorities on children and the early years, including Steve Biddulph, Penelope Leach, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Sue Palmer, Bel Mooney, Dorothy Rowe, and Professors Tim Brighouse, Del Loewenthal, Janet Moyles and Sami Timimi. 'Open EYE' is a body of concerned early-years professionals from a wide range of educational approaches and political affiliations who share a number of concerns about the EYFS framework which is due to become law in September.

 

It is excellent news for everyone who has the well-being of young children at heart that the Children, Schools and Families Committee is holding a special oral evidence session to inform their decision about whether a full Committee investigation into EYFS is needed. If indeed there are significant shortcomings in the new framework - which we sincerely believe there are - then it is far better that they are highlighted and rectified now, rather than waiting for several years, over which time a substantial amount of damage might have been done which could then take considerable time to undo.

 

The 'Open EYE' campaign has always been scrupulous in emphasising that we are not in principle 'anti-regulation', and have never been 'anti' EYFS in its entirety. Rather, we have always been careful to highlight certain aspects of the framework which we believe to be deeply problematic, particularly around the Learning and Development Requirements and its audit and assessment procedures - concerns which we have subsequently discovered are shared by many practitioners and parents throughout the country. We believe that it is important to distinguish clearly between uncritical support for the EYFS in its entirety, and our own position of significantly qualified, carefully discerning support for a framework that, while good in parts, has inappropriately overreached itself in some key respects.

 

We believe that this is a time for putting aside all vested interests and 'party-politicking', and for everyone involved in these deliberations, including ourselves, to be open to the possibility of being mistaken. We have faith in a politically non-partisan process whereby experienced MPs can objectively scrutinise the EYFS based on the available evidence, and recommend sensible and workable changes if they deem any to be necessary or advisable.

 

This following <<Points of Concern>> document was first written some months ago by the campaign's Steering Group, as a collective undertaking. Very little has happened since to allay any of our concerns as expressed in this document, and much has occurred to confirm them - not least, the news and experiences about which we are hearing from across the country from practitioners and trainers working at the coal-face in England's pre-school settings. No doubt at least some of these experiences will be communicated to the Committee next Wednesday, and not least by our own witnesses, Anna Firth and Graham Kennish.

 

Following our 'Points of Concern' document, there follows a brief commentary and conclusion.

 

<<Open EYE's Seven Points of Concern

 

Introduction

 

The seven points outlined below represent our principal concerns regarding the impending Early Years Foundation Stage (hereafter, EYFS) legislation.

We wish to emphasise that this is an entirely non-party-political campaign, and neither does it represent any particular educational philosophy. Our founding members and supporters come from a range of opinion across the political and educational spectrum, but we are united in our concerns about the EYFS framework.

 

(1) EARLY LITERACY

We are very concerned that the literacy goals are both compulsory and, we believe, developmentally inappropriate, including the compulsion to use a particular reading and writing scheme. It seems inevitable that these goals and practices will "filter down" to the under 5s - indeed, this is already happening in many settings. There are major concerns as to whether this kind of cognitive learning is developmentally appropriate for young children; and there exists convincing research which strongly suggests that it isn't (see our website at www.savechildhood.org - "Articles" section).

It is our opinion that the literacy goals represent an acceleration of reading and writing skills before a suitable foundation for these skills has been established. Most importantly, disadvantaged children are the most likely to benefit from an unhurried preparatory experience as a foundation for formal literacy learning. The way in which the well intentioned goal of supporting disadvantaged children is being pursued is therefore misguided - for these are the very children who need a solid foundation in socialisation, listening and speaking skills, and fine motor skills, before proceeding to the demands of reading and writing. Additionally, the research on boys, summer-term birthday children, and the increasing incidence of speech difficulties would support the need for an extensive and strong pre-literacy foundation

(2) A PLAY-BASED EXPERIENCE

Much has been made of the "play-based" nature of the EYFS framework. We believe that the notion of play used in EYFS is one that has lost its true meaning, being narrowly "adult-centric", and seriously neglecting the subtleties of truly authentic imaginative play with its attendant rewards. For many holistic educators, to speak of "directed" or "structured and purposeful" play is not to speak of play at all; rather, we believe that this is "playful teaching" with a specified learning objective, rather than true, imaginative, creative play. Authentic play typically reaches its peak between children's fourth and fifth birthdays, and we are concerned that this important characteristic of healthy early childhood development will be seriously hindered by the demands of the EYFS targets. We call for a dialogue and debate on the definition and benefits of play, its contribution to emotional and cognitive intelligence, and its rightful place in the pre-school experience.

 

(3) AN "AUDIT CULTURE"

The shortcomings of an "audit culture" mentality, with its attendant distracting bureaucratisation and anxiety-generating practices, are beginning to be exposed across the public sector. We further believe that the early years constitute a very delicate and sensitive period in which the values of simple care, quality attachment and non-possessive love should be paramount. It is a flawed framework that imposes an indiscriminating blanket provision across a whole field in order to help - we believe in a misguided way - a minority of children who are especially disadvantaged, when the majority of children will be unnecessarily caught and adversely affected by the new legislation.

 

It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to retain the simple 'relational' values of care, attachment, attentiveness and love as core underpinnings to early-years practice if the overweening bureaucratic demands of the new EYFS are not, at the very least, significantly trimmed back. We believe that early-childhood experience is the very last place where "audit culture" values and practices should hold sway.

 

(4) ASSESSMENT-MINDEDNESS AFFECTING THE UNDER 5s

A mindset of observation and assessment saturates the new framework. It is claimed that it is only 5 year olds who will be subject to the assessment process; yet we all know from experience elsewhere in the schooling system that the very existence of an assessment or testing apparatus at a given age has direct consequences for children significantly below that age, as settings "drill" or prepare their children for the assessment procedure. This "filtering down" of assessment pressures always occurs, and there is no reason to believe that it will not happen with the EYFS profiling process.

Thus, children under 5, who are particularly open and vulnerable to what exists in their environment, will be exposed to assessment anxieties. One consequence of this is the premature "waking-up" of children into adult-like consciousness well before it is appropriate; and this acceleration into needless awareness of adult expectation further generates anxiety. This will be particularly so in environments when imaginative, child-initiated play has been curtailed, with its constant opportunities for self-determined learning and the self-esteem which arises from discovering that "I can do it" rather than "I might fail".

 

(5) THE EFFECTS OF THE EYFS ON EARLY-YEARS PRACTITIONERS

Related to the preceding points, a utilitarian approach dominates the EYFS guidance throughout, which verges on a kind of "developmental-obsessiveness", and which is anti-time, and quite contrary to any reverential or spiritual dimension to early-childhood experience. The open, flexible attentiveness of the early-years practitioner is paramount, but there is a real danger that an awareness of the profile assessment and LEA targets will come to dominate and influence practice and the mood of practitioners, and actually undermine the principles of the Unique Child, Positive Relationships and Enabling Environments. Any resulting stress arising from the auditing culture about to be imposed on the early-years sector will inevitably transfer psychodynamically to the children, manifesting in the form of needless and corrosive anxiety at an age when children are not yet developmentally equipped to process and manage it.

 

(6) STATE-DEFINED 'NORMALITY' IN CHILD DEVELOPMENT

In the new EYFS framework, the state has defined its own paradigm for what is "normal" child development, and then compulsorily enshrined its model  in law - a quite unprecedented development in modern political life, and one which raises very grave concerns, not least about just where the boundary between the public and private spheres in education should appropriately be drawn. The question of the "undue authority" of the state in this act of legislation needs urgent attention.

 

(7) HUMAN/PARENTAL RIGHTS

The new EYFS legislation is arguably directly compromising of parents' rights to choose the pre-school, pre-compulsory school-age environments that they wish for their children, which, under European law, constitutes a major infringement of parental and, therefore, of human rights.

 

 

 

The Aims and Hopes of the Campaign

 

We wish to persuade the Government to look again at its early-years policy framework. Whilst there are many aspects of the framework which are universally welcomed and to be applauded, it is crucial that this fact is not used as an expedient pretext for "smuggling in" a number of quite new policy departures which we believe to be singularly inappropriate for a number of reasons (see above), and which could do significant net harm to this generation of young children. Specifically, we are calling on the Government to exercise mature discernment and discrimination in deciding just what aspects of EYFS are appropriate compulsorily to enshrine in law, and which aspects step over an important line regarding definitions of child development, and assumptions about, and approaches to, children's early learning..

 

 

Prepared by:

Margaret Edgington, Richard House and Lynne Oldfield, 'Open EYE' Campaign Steering Group; and Anna Firth, Campaign Co-ordinator.>>

 

 

 

Personal Commentary by Dr Richard House, Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, Roehampton University and 'Open EYE' Steering Group

The purpose of this forthcoming session of the Committee is to consider the EYFS framework and guidance in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment arrangements, the appropriateness of the EYFS's birth to 5 remit, its statutory status, its workforce implications and the role it sets out for parents. Most of these points are variously addressed in the document reproduced above.

What is perhaps most striking is that everything that has happened over the past few months has merely confirmed Open EYE's core concerns. Moreover, it is most telling that no serious or systematic attempt has been made by the supporters and proponents of EYFS, beyond bland and general reassurances, to respond to the substance and detail of our concerns. From a psychosocial perspective, what is happening with the implementation of EYFS is arguably symptomatic of anxiety-driven forces taking place in the wider society. The great enduring myth of 'modernity', and of technological thinking more generally, is that it is somehow possible and appropriate to measure everything and to control life in all its subtlety and complexity. Yet at the very moment when this 'modernist' world-view is being fundamentally challenged across diverse fields, it is policy-makers who seem to be most mesmerised by this chronically limited and limiting way of thinking.

 

More specifically, both the EYFS guidance and government ministers themselves routinely speak about children's play in a utilitarian, programmatic way that renders it essentially unrecognisable for those who see play as an intrinsically free, imaginative and (thankfully) uncontrollable experience. Moreover, through mandatory and hugely detailed EYFS assessment profiling, an auditing mentality is being introduced into early-years practice that threatens to be the death-knell of the kinds of values and ways-of-being with young children that are essential for their healthy all-round development.

 

There is also a major question about the specification of state-defined 'normality' in child development. History is littered with examples of scientific 'experts' and governments getting things completely wrong, and then standing on their heads as new knowledge is discovered. On this view, for the government to define what is 'normal' child development, and for practitioners to then be charged by law with making sure that children develop in the 'right' way, is arguably a major threat to children's experience of freedom and healthy, unintruded-upon development.

 

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the guidance on ICT in the EYFS guidance. The Times of 3 May 2008 printed a full-page report under the disturbing headline 'Technology for toddlers' scheme risks creating a screen-addict generation'. It reported on a recent research paper, 'Does Not Compute: Screen Technology in Early Years Education', specially commissioned by the 'Open EYE' campaign and written by psychologist Dr Aric Sigman. Sigman reviewed all the existing literature and research on the effects of televisual technologies on young children, concluding that: 'In the light of accumulating evidence that exposure to screen technology during key stages of child development may have counterproductive effects on cognitive processes and learning;... that screen viewing in early life lead[s] to higher levels of screen viewing later on; and that even moderate levels of screen viewing are increasingly associated with a wide range of health risks, education authorities should reconsider the role of screen technologies in schools' (italics added).

The Times report highlighted how the EYFS quite explicitly and unambiguously directs early-years practitioners to impose this technology on to very young children - for example, in the EYFS documentation, it states that between 40 and 60 months, children should: 'complete a simple computer program', and 'use a mouse and keyboard to interact with age-appropriate computer software'. If the state-sanctioned guidance that is given to a compliant and often poorly trained workforce is uncritically 'applied', which many believe it will be, then a generation of young and impressionable children is about to be exposed to a technology that is deeply harmful, and may have life-long negative health consequences. This is a scandalous situation, which we urge the Committee to give its most urgent attention.

Finally, in reality we actually know so little about the deep subtleties and mysteries of human development that we should exercise humility and a strict 'precautionary principle' in early-years work, such that (as the great paediatrician Donald Winnicott would have said), 'If in doubt, trust the children, leave them alone and don't intrude!' (and especially when any such intrusion is being unwittingly fuelled by adults' own unprocessed anxieties).

 

Conclusion

In our view, sensitive and effective early-years practitionership requires a subtlety and discerning maturity - unquantifiable qualities that a young, under-trained workforce simply cannot be expected to possess. One of the great threats to modern children's healthy development today is the extent to which they are being treated as 'mini-adults' in modern culture; and the hugely detailed EYFS guidance will very likely be treated in a quasi-utilitarian, 'tick-box' manner by an ill-trained workforce, which will in turn only serve to accelerate this insidious process of 'too much too soon'. Indeed, as our witnesses will attest on Wednesday, there is already extensive evidence that this is beginning to happen all over the country, well before the formal introduction of EYFS in September.

The following quotation which appeared in a recent issue of the Times Educational Supplement speaks for itself:

"One early-years teacher who wrote to the union [the NUT] said: 'Already in some settings, children as young as two are made to complete work-sheets to show parents that they are learning their letters and numbers; if they can't do them, they are 'helped' by poorly trained staff.' "

Certainly, we strongly believe that the forced imposition of adult-led literacy and numeracy education, and the guidance about ICT, seem guaranteed to accelerate children's development in a quite inappropriate and damaging way.

More generally, at the very moment when the auditing and assessment regime is being fundamentally questioned at all levels of the education system, it is a supreme irony that those same values and practices are being imported into the very last field - early childhood - where they belong.

If the Committee can open up these crucial issues for close and detailed investigation, we believe that a great service will have been done for the current generation of young children, and the importance of which we believe it is impossible to exaggerate.

 

 

Compiled by Dr Richard House

For the 'Open EYE' Campaign Steering Group

London, 14 May 2008