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Working ‘from home’ in Thailand

I currently work at an international school in Thailand, and we have been working from home for the last 2 weeks. Although it has been an interesting new challenge and one that has brought our team closer, it has been challenging in a range of ways. Firstly, our children and parents mostly have English as an Additional Language. We have catered for this in every way possible, by uploading different guidelines and tips in Thai, Mandarin and Russian, but whether our children are accessing it or not is another issue. Some of the parents are thoroughly engaged and using the material we have uploaded (different videos, sheets that have instructions on how to make funky finger gloop, playdough etc.), and some of the parents have not acknowledged their use of this at all.

Due to the nature of the Early Years Foundation Stage, we cannot make any of the parents or children engage in the material if they do not want to, but there is also pressure from above that all the parents should be engaging with the materials and that can get us down sometimes.

Furthermore, we live in a place where, although the sense of community is strong, there are teachers from EYFS all the way through to Secondary. Our workload is different (and always has been), and challenges us in different ways, but this has come with negative connotations now that we can visibly see what each one of us are doing. I have heard lots of comments like ‘Your work is so easy’ and ‘You don’t have to do as much as us’. I understand that yes, the content of my work may be ‘easier’, but in times like this when solidarity is important I do feel that people have been upset personally and taken it out on others, rather than reflecting upon themselves.

But, with all this being said, I need to reflect upon the positives and thank everyone who has been so kind and supportive towards us! A lot of my parents are reaching out and saying thank you for all the hard work, I have been reconnecting with many people that I have not had the chance to speak to in months/years, and I am grateful that we have educators, people in the medical profession, food and service industry people that help keep us fed everyday, and so on and so forth. We are all working together to fight this, and for that I am eternally grateful!

New challenges for us as EYE practitioners

Working through this uncertain, crazy, cruel Coronavirus pandemic has been a roller coaster of emotions for the practitioners and the families that attend our setting and has set new challenges and rewards along the way!  Life has gone in a new direction and we feel passionate about reducing the stress and anxiety around children, so practitioners are conscious about being calm whilst also highlighting the necessity of hygiene such as an increased need for hand washing.  We do this in a fun way, making up new words to songs that children love such as Baby Shark.  This, along with role modelling, keeps the children engaged.

Monday 23rd March was when we were no longer available to offer childcare to most families, only to vulnerable children, any that had educational healthcare plans or children whose parents fell into the Key Worker category.  This meant a big drop in how many children attended.  It also presented itself with a few changes to practice.  Although I understood the importance of these changes to keep all safe, I found some challenging.  One of these was that parents were asked not to come into the setting, handing their children over to us at the main door and then collecting them from there at the end of their session with limited feedback from practitioners as a social distancing measure.  I pride myself in how I work in partnership with parents and see it as a massive part of my job role.   Although we have digital communications with families through our online learning app, speaking to parents and carers at the end of sessions is a valuable time to chat and build trusting relationships.  This includes what their child has been learning and noticing any links to what they may have been doing in their own environments then agreeing next steps.  Or discussing any concerns that may have risen from home or setting.  Building these relationships are vital to help children develop better outcomes in many, many ways and it seemed a shame that these had been lost temporarily.

The children that attend now ask us constantly where their little friends are which is really emotional for us all as we all miss our little people enormously.  Again, we understand the importance of why children could not attend settings, but we are all wondering when, or if, we would see them again.  However, due to quieter spaces and reduced distractions, the children now have an opportunity to extend friendships with other children that they did not necessarily mix with before.  These new friendships have been blossoming!  They have been introducing each other to new ways of learning, listening to each other and making compromises and challenging different ways of thinking.

As practitioners we want to ensure that we keep in touch with the children and families so we are using our closed social media platforms such as Facebook to set learning challenges.  This includes singing and dancing with us through videos, posting links to Yoga activities, through well-loved stories or going on stick hunts in their local communities.  We also asked the children to create rainbows and put them in their windows.  The response we have had from this has been incredible!!  We have had daily messages, photos and videos back to us that show how families are engaging in these challenges.

We wanted to make sure the oldest children that are about to leave us to attend new school settings would get smooth transitions, and this is something we are still trying to work out how to do for the best.   The future is so uncertain at this time but we are assuring all concerned with the setting that we can get through this crisis with lessons learnt about friendships, wider communities, kindness and love.

 

Sharing our experiences of Covid 19 in EYFS

I was so scared. At the beginning the social distancing guidelines were misunderstood in our setting and management suggested that if the school was closed we could all come in and hang displays and tidy cupboards. As some of  the lowest status staff we usually do exactly what we are told. But I unexpectedly found my voice in front of everyone at a staff meeting. Perhaps this was a result of suddenly being recognised as a “key worker’. The words came tripping out before I could stop them; although I was willing to help with essential work I would not be taking a risk by doing any non essential work, and that I would be following the WHO guidelines which I believed trumped theirs. It didn’t even sound like me, I don’t usually feel able to speak up, but as the virus grows, so has my confidence.  Management took on board what I said and have worked out systems to reduce the risk of our exposure, such as rotas with the same team working together every seven days.

Another problem at the beginning was checking if parents really were key workers who had no other parent to provide care. Now the school is much more careful and requires proof, which has brought our numbers down which in turn means we can stretch our rota so that we only work every 14 days and allows us to increase the hours of childcare on offer.   However, there are still issues that could be worked out if providers worked together, for example we were providing care for three children because their mum was a T.A in another school. It is a childcare loop: in order to have one T.A in one school another school potentially exposes three children to the virus. However, I suspect the academy system means that the connections between local schools aren’t as strong as they used to be.

So unfortunately the way our school has tried to close the loop it is to say that we will provide childcare for our own staff members. One of our staff members has a 2 year old and a 3 year old. So in order to have her we have to look after another two (small) children. I feel that this is not fair especially as the children cannot give their consent to this possible exposure.

I feel like I can’t keep complaining but in my experience management are finding it hard to step away from the mantra that school is the best place for children. Unfortunately that no longer seems to be the case.  Even our children that are vulnerable are at risk at school. I can see there are no easy answers. I just wish we and social services could do home visits. There are families who could really benefit from a friendly and supportive home visit.

Now we are taking turns to look after a child with brain injuries which usually makes his behaviour hard work for us all and especially for his fantastic adoptive parents. It is respite care and it feels like essential work so I am happy to do it.  He is 9 so usually has to sit in a mainstream classroom. I took him down to the empty reception classroom and played all week with him and managed to get some great learning in. In the middle of all this upheaval it struck us all how much calmer he was and how positively he responded to the EYFS curriculum than to the mainstream programme school usually struggles to deliver. I will dig deep and find more confidence to speak up about this.  Maybe the glimmer of hope in this horrible situation is that, for that one little boy, we have found what works.

A special set of circumstances due to Covid 19

A Special Set of Circumstances

Last week, our school closed our doors to all children except those of critical workers. We were advised that the safest place for our students was at home and so that was where we sent them; our Principal turning taxis away at the gates on Tuesday morning, imploring parents not to send children to school – for the first time, school was not safe. As a Special Educational Needs and Disabilities setting all our students have an EHC Plan and so could have been in school but we didn’t have the staff to remain open, nor the means to prevent the spread of the virus if we had.

Currently our stoic skeleton crew stands as two teams of three adults alternating each week to supervise and support four children of varying ages and needs. However, the recovery of some self-isolating colleagues and the rising boredom of others means that our rota and plans are now updated each day – the cause of many frustrated headaches. Those of us isolated by living alone are prioritised to be in to protect our well-being and reduce those potentially exposed such as whole families at home, we are lucky to have a leadership team that cares enough to consider these factors. On top of this and all other current sources of anxiety, the school feels sinister…

For years I have walked the empty corridors of schools in the mornings and evenings, on training days, strike days, and similar occasions. For years I have done this and felt the lingering sense of anticipation held within, contained in quiet classrooms and harnessed by skilled practitioners to become excitement for all the journeys and discoveries yet to be made. The learning that we look forward to. But now these silent hallways feel wrong, uncomfortable, as though the school itself is uncertain. I call my family in the evenings and tell them about my day “on the alien planet”.

And yet we are presented with a special set of circumstances. Based in our Early Years cabin we find ourselves experimenting with learning and activities; guided by the children, their curiosity and needs. As a school we aspire to implementing an Early Years format throughout the primary department and here we find ourselves doing so, in practice. Each day we explore our world through play and learn continuously as we do, even the eldest of our children (year 5). Is this a silver lining to the Covid Cloud, seeing the future of our learning style? The flexibility enabled by learning through play is allowing us to imagine new ways of learning at home for those staying away to stay safe, without piling pressure onto parents and carers. In our own way we are fighting against the virus, with play and positivity.

I hope to find excitement in seeing the success of this new teaching style, so that we may look forward to returning our school community to its home – to once again explore and learn together.

Some reflections on living through a pandemic in EYE ….

‘Living through a pandemic’

Saying goodbye to a class you love is never easy, saying goodbye to your class and not knowing when you will see them again is even harder. On Friday 20th March 2020 our school gates were locked, not for a pleasant Easter break, but as a matter of life and death. Coronavirus is currently threatening our existence, crippling the NHS and rendering many of us isolated in our own homes. Many schools and nurseries were shut in a bid to limit the spread of this fatal disease which has left many of us pining for the times when we used to moan about having to get up early. My school has remained open for a relative few, children of key workers and those children who thrive from the familiarity of routine. At first when our head teacher asked if anyone would like to volunteer to work during the Easter holidays, I selfishly grimaced at the thought of giving up my 2 weeks off to come into school, however as time went on it became apparent that this would be a selfless act I could do in order to be of some assistance during this helpless time.

I cannot praise my head teacher enough for the stability and support he has provided for not only the staff but the families and children who we so dearly miss spending time with. Every day the children who are still in school take part in Joe Wicks P.E lesson in the hall, sit down with a familiar face for breakfast and enjoy the freedom of having picnics outdoors for lunch. These are the children who need supporting the most and it is a pleasure to look after them in this time of need. One of my 3 year old boys speaks confidently about his mummy ‘helping to make those poorly people feel better’. He enjoys role playing as a nurse, walking around with his Drs kit and asking to take my temperature. Social distancing is hard with 3 year olds and sometimes I think a cuddle with a small child is a human right. I hope when he’s old enough to understand, he appreciates the role his mum has played in helping to rewrite history in the face of adversity.

The teachers in my school have gone above and beyond in suggesting ideas to remain connected with families. One teacher has sent a personal postcard to all his students, another is encouraging her students to write a journal of this time to share with their grandchildren when they are older and we have all been encouraged to telephone the families whose children aren’t in school just to have a chat. These are the foundations upon which our school is built upon and I am proud to be a part of it.

Dear Members,

Over the past few months TACTYC trustees have been posting blogs onto the website in relation to issues in the early years which they have concerns about. However in these very recent days as a committee we are aware that many practitioners are working in challenging circumstances and we would like to hear from you those challenges.

If you feel able to write a blog about the big issues / challenges / celebrations that you are facing during these unsettling times please do so. Ideally they should be between 500 and 750 words and must not include any names or clues to where in the country you are. If at the end they could include a couple of discussion questions this may support yourself and others to respond and to think or do things differently as a result of the blog.

In addition to supporting practitioners at this challenging time they may also become an opportunity for the organisation to really see the needs of all kinds of settings during this time in history.

Please send all blogs to Penny Borkett (Trustee) on Pennyb41@aol.com who will check for editing before they become live.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Inclusion and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND): Is this an education system in crisis?

 

As someone who has worked in SEND for twenty five years as a teaching assistant (TA) in both mainstream and special education, as Portage worker, Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator and  having recently authored a book relating to SEND, I have found myself becoming increasingly alarmed by the many media articles over the past few months (House of Commons: 2019, Guardian; 12/2019, Nursery World: 2019) relating to the breakdown of SEND provision for some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

In 1978 Mary Warnock was charged with reviewing the education of children with SEN who at the time were being educated in institutions away from their home. I was fortunate to be working as a Portage worker when the first SEN Code of Practice was commissioned by the Department for Education in 2001.  The code very much supported the role of Portage. A Portage worker visits very young children (0 – 3) who have either been diagnosed with SEN at birth or subsequently. They carry out developmental programmes through play, set out by alongside the child’s parents to support their holistic development. They also support parents with the emotional challenges of having a child with SEN as well as with appointments with a range of multi agency professionals.

My own experience was that the service became a lifeline for many parents who were getting over the diagnosis of a SEN for their child and who were bewildered by the education system, and the new push for children with SEN wherever possible to be educated in their local mainstream schools.  However as time has moved on these services have been diminished.

In 2014 the Code was redrafted jointly by the Department of Health and Department for Education and the name changed to the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Code of Practice (SEND). This new piece of legislation was seen by many as being positive, and indeed a leading charity working with educators of children with SEND claimed that the new code represented ‘a transformation in the way support is provided for children and young people with SEND up to the age of 25’ (NASEN).

However five years on, it would seem that the revised code is proving difficult to administer and I wonder whether it is indeed fit for purpose?  Announcing a new major funding bid of (£700m) for children with complex needs,  the Education minister has called for yet another review of provision – maybe this suggests that the system of inclusion is failing large groups of children and I wonder why this may be.

A recent review carried out by the Educational Select Committee (2019) discovered that the

  • the new code is still too bureaucratic
  • parents trying to get Education Health Care plans (EHCP), (the documentation that replaced Statements of  Special Educational  Needs) are still finding the process cumbersome and time consuming and too focused on what the child cannot do rather than what they can do
  • parents are still expected to ‘know the system’ and receive limited support from professionals when deciding which school to send their child to
  • parents are being left ‘exhausted’ by a system that is not yet efficient enough to support children and their families.

Alongside this Local Authorities (LA’s) budgets are being cutback, which inevitably has an impact on their ability to implement a range of services for children and families as effectively as they should.  At the same time the country has been through / is currently going through a period of austerity which means that local authority budgets are cut back drastically and this has an impact both on the services which they can offer and on all school budgets.

These budgets affect not just mainstream provision but also special schools. It has a further impact on the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) that teachers and teaching assistants receive. One practitioner told me recently that the only training offered at the moment through local authorities is safeguarding because this is legislative. Yet many teachers and teaching assistants require more extensive training in order to work with children with specific developmental and health needs. To say nothing of the fact that many children with SEND also have medical issues which require staff to be fully trained to support children with feeding, respiratory issues and to administer life saving treatments.

It seems to me that teachers are becoming overwhelmed with the requirements of a ‘standards driven curriculum’ which might  suggest that children with SEND do not receive the level of support they require as they struggle to make the progress that other children do. It would appear that the system is indeed in crisis and that more funding and support from local authorities is required if true inclusion is to be available for children with SEND.

In my view it is vital that all children should grow up to accept difference and diversity.  The inclusion of children with SEND into mainstream schools is an essential part of children growing up to accept difference and diversity and should continue wherever possible..

  • What are the major challenges you face when supporting children with SEND in 2020?
  • How do you think the system could be improved?
  • How effective do you think inclusion is for children with SEND?

Penny Borkett                                                                                  

February 2020

 

 

We told you so – but are we being heard?

We told you so… but are we being heard?

With the recent election bringing a hefty government majority for the foreseeable future, it’s time to ask ourselves what this may mean for young children and those who work with them.  TACTYC has been campaigning vigorously in opposition to some of the policies of the Conservative government, so it can be discouraging to wonder whether some of these may be steamrollered ahead in spite of informed, evidenced objections from the profession

There is one government policy I fear will now go ahead, regardless of all our efforts to the contrary.  I expect that when September rolls around, hundreds of thousands of 4-year-olds spending their fledgling weeks in reception will be taken aside and tested in English and maths, for the sole purpose of providing data points used to judge schools 7 years later.  Conservative ministers have been adamant that it will go ahead.

We know it won’t work.

When a description of the test design was published, TACTYC published a critique pointing out concerns about how it would work in practice (http://imx07wlgmj301rre1jepv8h0-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Young-children-as-guinea-pigs-TACTYC_.pdf)   We said the baseline design failed to address the substantive problems with baseline assessment that have been repeatedly identified by education experts, teachers and parents.

We said it would take valuable time away from the important settling in period of building relationships.  Teachers said:

  • The tests themselves take 10 minutes each (20 minutes in total in theory) but the admin involved in setting-up, taking the child out of the classroom and inputting the results doubles that time at least.
  • And worst of all, we’re pretty much having to ignore the whole class! I couldn’t tell you much about the children, who they play with and how they approach things. We have also noticed a dip in their behaviour as we aren’t there to model everything for them. Awful, awful, awful.

We explained that children would need to fail at some questions before moving to another area.  Teachers said:

  • The structure of the questions was not useful. If a child could not count with any 1:1 correspondence, they were still asked about ‘how many altogether?’ If children did not know the initial letter sounds, they still had to try to read the word ‘sun’. Ridiculous!
  • Children feel in their first experiences of school that they can’t do something. How does this promote resilience?
  • One child became upset and said “But I can’t read” when faced with the word recognition.

We said it would not be a reliable guide, since young children’s learning is embedded in real experience, not demonstrated in response to yes/no abstract test items.  Teachers said:

  • Not set up to tell you anything worth measuring. “Point something out in a picture” is supposed to measure language skills. “Recognise four numbers out of 20” = can recognise numbers.
  • One child could not name a nest, but when I told him it was a nest he then told me all about nests, baby birds, mothers who go and collect worms for them to feed them and how they learn to fly. But he couldn’t say ‘nest’ so that was a NO.
  • The test was inaccessible to many EAL pupils. For example, one child did not understand ‘show me the grass, point to the grass’. Outside in the garden I said to the child ‘what is this’ whilst touching the ground; there was an instant response ‘grass’.

 We said its coverage was too narrow, ignoring crucial areas such as personal emotional well-being, self-regulation curiosity and creativity.   Teachers said:

  • It’s not a baseline. Call it what it is: a maths and English test.
  • Good way of seeing how children perform in formal situations (and the answer was not that well. Children were overwhelmed but now we ‘formally’ know that).
  • We felt that the Characteristics of Effective Learning are the best indicators, and these are not explored through the baseline at all.
  • It also contains a bizarre section where children are asked to create an ending for a story and then not allowed points if their ending deviates from a very dull and uninspired sequence. Why would we want to promote a lack of imagination? Ridiculous!

Where does this leave us?  When reasoned, evidenced argument, a colourful march to Downing Street, and a petition with over 76,000 signatures makes no impression on government policy, how do we see our function as advocates for young children and the professional role of early years educators?

We are currently being consulted on the government’s proposed changes to the EYFS, particularly focussed on the Early Learning Goals and EYFS Profile, but with profound implications for the whole of the EYFS.  We can and should respond to this (https://consult.education.gov.uk/early-years-quality-outcomes/early-years-foundation-stage-reforms/). TACTYC’s response is available here  and you have until the 31 of January to send in your own version.  Let us hope this consultation will involve real listening.

Big questions are circling in my mind about our role in advocacy:

With the government supposedly committed to developing evidence-based policies, why do we so often find that our input seems to be discounted when decisions are made?

How can we enhance the status of early years professional expertise, in order to be taken seriously in policy discussions?

How can we stop early years education being used as a political football and, instead, move towards development of joined-up, long-term goals and policies which will benefit young children and their families?

Shared identity, shared vision, shared voice

For 40 years TACTYC has advocated and lobbied for professional development in order to ensure the educational wellbeing of young children. During that time, there have been countless policies and initiatives that have directly impacted professional practice for those working in early years. While many of these have claimed to be ‘evidence informed’, the evidence that has informed them has often been generated outside the sector in service of policy makers rather than the children who, as Bridgett Plowden so eloquently said, are at the heart of the education system.

As we celebrated our 40th anniversary last year at our ‘Back to the Future’ conference, we heard from many of the founding members of our organisation. The passion, commitment and determination of these in dominatable activists was truly inspiring. Those of us who heard them speak found ourselves lifted beyond the daily drudgery of ensuring that we are compliant with the latest directives.

The conversations that followed helped us find a renewed sense of identity, a new courage and commitment to work together for change and to help others to develop their professional identity too. We felt ourselves to belong to a powerful community, committed to empowering others and challenging the status quo.

Professionalism extends beyond compliance with performance indicators. Sadly, not all those working in early years have the confidence to speak out. This confidence comes from being part of a community, from finding like-minded individuals who share your vision and affirm your views and values.

TACTYC continues to advocate and lobby for professional development in order to ensure the educational wellbeing of young children. We have expanded to include those working and studying and providing training throughout the early years sector because it is the voice of those within the sector that must be prioritised in decisions about it.

Our new blog is your invitation to join the conversation, to speak out and be heard so that, together, we can work to shape our sector and prioritise the voice of the early years professional in political discourse.

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