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?