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Developmentally Informed Educational Excellence Everywhere?

Posted by. Dr Pam Jarvis
Posted on 21 April 2016


​Dr Pam Jarvis is a Chartered Psychologist specialising in human development between birth and 18, and a Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Childhood Education at Leeds Trinity University.

She shares her thoughts on the Government's recent decision to abolish 'Baseline Testing' for four year olds and reviews the recent Educational Excellence Everywhere Government White Paper.

At the beginning of April 2016, the British Government finally accepted the overwhelming evidence against 'baseline' testing young children directly following their admission to school Reception classes. Baseline Testing had been trialled and abandoned in 2002 by the New Labour Government; despite this background however, the curtailment of the current initiative followed only after a year-long Better Without Baseline (BWB) campaign organised by a coalition of organisations which between them, involved most of many of the nation's most published academics in the field of human development and the most respected national associations for professionals working with children aged between birth and seven years of age. Why it took the Government so long to listen to BWB's carefully evidenced case can only be explained by the Education Minister.

The main reason that I became involved in this campaign dates back fifteen years to the research I carried out for my PhD between 2001 and 2004, investigating children's play-based learning in the period between their last term in nursery and their first term in Year 1. My investigations focused upon their play in the outdoor areas of the school, particularly in what were termed 'playtimes' which, within the culture of English primary education, were constructed as periods during which children took a break from learning. My findings indicated that, to the contrary, some of the richest learning of all was taking place during such playtimes, as children collaborated with peers to construct complex narratives that made 'human sense' of their activities. There were football games where a rudimentary offside rule was constructed, children competed to 'be Beckham', and had discussions about team names where the category error of Manchester versus England was contemplated. There were chasing games where different roles for girls and boys were constructed by the players, and there were fantasy games where the children collaboratively constructed fast-moving narratives involving superheroes, witches, monsters and princesses, and where heroism, justice mediation and compassion were explored. (Jarvis 2007a[1] and Jarvis 2007b[2]).

At the same time that my research in primary school was ongoing, I was teaching 'A' level psychology and sociology in secondary school. Here, too, I found imaginative, sensitive young people, but later in the developmental process, on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Psychology and Drama were a common combination of 'A' levels at this time, and we had many discussions of the psychology of Shakespeare, how he used his depth of psychological knowledge in his plays. Their final performance that year was in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I still treasure the video of their performance, purchased for me by the students, along with my memories of their live performance as darkly traditional English fairies, a narrative that is in sharp contrast with the more familiar Disney 'sparkly magic' confection. They collaborated in their performance as did the younger children, but this time with the sophistication to give a compelling portrayal of the deeply mischievous, boarding-on-psychopaths that Shakespeare creates in his mythically derived constructions of Titania, Oberon and Puck.

Even at that time, however, there were ongoing changes in the way that 'A' levels were constructed, and it was becoming harder and harder to teach in such a broad-based, flexible manner.  The questioning on the exam papers narrowed year by year; students were no longer expected to demonstrate their broad knowledge of the subject; the emergent goal was to answer very specific questions to which they had been mechanically taught the answers. 

Between 2010 and 2014, having moved on to university teaching, I worked with two colleagues, one in the UK, one in the US to examine the evidence on recent changes in the construction of what serves as 'education' on each side of the Atlantic. We very quickly linked these changes to a contemporaneous increase in juvenile psychological problems in both nations. For example in the UK, the Children's Society and the University of York subsequently estimated that in 2012 about 'half a million children in the UK in the eight to 15 age range have low well-being at any point in time', and a 2013 Unicef report focusing upon the richer nations, found that, in the UK in particular, children experience a feeling of isolation which arises from situations in which they perceive themselves to be continually in competition with each other. Statistics indicate that around one in ten children in the UK will  have a clinically diagnosed mental disorder, although more recent research in the US suggests that this number may have risen in the second decade of the 21st century.

We found no evidence to suggest that 'transmit and test' education systems, and/ or early exposure to formal education had raised educational standards; in fact there was evidence to the contrary, in that nations in which children start formal education later (up to the age of seven) ultimately achieve better results  than those where they start formal education earlier. For example, Finland, where children start formal schooling at seven, are allocated a substantial amount of time for play, and not formally assessed at all throughout the entire early years and primary school period is ranked fourteen places higher than the United Kingdom in the most recent PISA comparisons.

We explored literature ranging across psychology, anthropology, education, sociology, marketing and philosophy to create a holistic picture of the situation. Our conclusion was that 'over the last few decades, Anglo-American society has increasingly placed children within highly artificial, adult-directed environments' and we identified a key issue within this as the 'experience of immersion within rushed transmit-and-test processes erroneously presented as '"teaching and learning"' (Jarvis et al 2014, p.63). The article, On 'becoming social': the importance of collaborative free play in childhood in the International Journal of Play, became one of the most downloaded from the journal website.

While the Government have now removed the prospect of Baseline Testing for four year olds, at least for the moment, their recently released White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere does not indicate that they have learned anything from the associated debate.  For example, they seem very confused about early reading. The majority of child development experts would agree with Dr Stephen Camarata[3], who makes the very reasonable proposition that '[Reading] involves not only showing [children] letters and introducing them to the sounds that go with these letters, but also learning the real-life meanings that the words represent.... reading comprehension involves engaging the mind by tapping reasoning ability...  learning phonics will not teach a child what he or she is reading' (2015, p.14). In this he echoes the theories of veteran developmental neurologist, Martha Bridge Denckla, who reflects that modern education policy makers 'ignore "readiness," a concept that brain studies show is much more various and discrete than parents and pedagogues appreciate'.

On the one hand, in Educational Excellence Everywhere, the Minister comments that 'attempts to teach skills without knowledge fail because they run counter to the way our brains work' (p.89), which would appear to demonstrate some grasp of the points made by experts such as Camarata and Bridge Denckla; however in another part of the report she claims that because there have been rises in 'performance' on the government's phonics check for Year 1 children (aged between 5 and 6) that she is convinced that there are 'more children on track to become excellent readers' (p.38). However as Camarata points out, there is much more to reading than phonics.

British experts also make very similar points. For example, the extensive and detailed Cambridge Review of Primary Education, undertaken in 2009 commented:

While phonics may develop the skills of reading, children may be disinclined to use them unless their reading experiences encourage autonomy, enthusiasm, achievement and a sense of enjoyment. UKLA [the UK Literacy Association] identified a 'simple' view of reading in official discourse that appears to decouple decoding from comprehension.... The method of teaching reading has been subject to increased control by government ... Teachers are required to adopt the 'synthetic phonics' approach to the teaching of reading, a recommendation which continues to be contentious and some argue is not supported by sufficient research evidence.(Cambridge Review 2009, p.24-25)[4]

Additionally, veteran British reading researcher Margaret Clark OBE (2015, p.9) reflects 'lacking so far is any assessment of the effects of these developments of young children's experiences of and attitudes towards literacy.' She also stringently questions the statistics the ministry use to make various claims relating to 'improvement'.

Teachers are already acutely aware of the 'chalkface' issues, as I was as a classroom teacher nine years ago. Here are some comments that they made to the researchers who published the report Exam Factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people:

  • It is heart-breaking to have a four-year-old approach me in tears because they 'are still in the bad group for reading' because they have already been streamed in phonics at age four!  Primary teacher 'outstanding' primary school, p.45
  • All the focus is on phonics, so children are not learning other key reading strategies. Often they don't even realise it is a story they are reading!  Primary teacher 'outstanding' primary school, p.46
  • EYFS/Year 1 children [children between 4 and 6, the same age as my research participants in the early 2000s] are suffering from night terrors, sleep walking and other sleep disorders. Parents confide that the children cry at the thought of coming to school and are often exhausted due to the stress of learning. Primary teacher, p.59

This leads on to yet another point made by the Minister in Educational Excellence Everywhere: 'poor behaviour may arise from an unmet mental health need' (p.37). As outlined above, Jarvis et al (2014) pinpointed the current process of schooling in England may however be a major contributing factor to such mental health issues; for example as Denckla comments 'the rush to instill reading and writing skills in the very young'. If children's first experiences of education are of failure to carry out operations that they find baffling and uninteresting, this will trigger a corrosive primacy effect leading to a poor relationship with schooling that may lay at the root of an ongoing cycle of  low self-esteem and hopelessness leading to poor attention, behaviour and attendance.

In the later pages of Educational Excellence Everywhere the Minister lays out an ambitious vision for the later stages of schooling, for example to reduce the rote teaching that so demoralised me in the later years of my school teaching career, to halt the emergent grade inflation (p.91) and to set out a 'knowledge based, ambitious academically rigorous education' (p.90). The Minister communicates a wish to support children to develop 'character and resilience', through engaging in such activities as 'debating' (p.20). These are of course, very worthy goals with which few teachers, parents or grandparents would disagree. But sadly, all these good intentions will crumble to dust if children's wonder in learning and consequently, the fun and enjoyment that this engenders is summarily crushed in the nursery years by putting children on a 'transmit and test' treadmill in an attempt to skip the 'learning to learn' stage to inculcate literacy and numeracy as simple, mechanical skills.

Many nations that already demonstrate 'Educational Excellence Everywhere' have higher school starting ages than England, and much slower trajectories into formal teaching and testing. As PISA point out in the title of this document, it is not simply what children 'know' that leads to success in later life, but what they can do with what they know. As I discovered many years ago in my own research, much of the ability to convert 'what you know' into 'what you can do' is underpinned by early experience in independent, social, play-based learning.

In conclusion, within the space of less than twenty years, two subsequent governments have introduced and then quickly abandoned 'Baseline Testing'. Hopefully this time, the Ministry will have finally learned its lesson. If we really are serious about "Educational Excellence Everywhere", we need to start at the beginning, creating an excellent play-based learning framework for children between three and seven, in which adults work to support their continued wonder and enjoyment of the world, nurturing their development as independent, self motivated learners, rather than crushing their spirits through rote instruction towards a monolithic regime of 'skills' transmission followed by mechanical testing that begins as soon as they enter the nursery door.  

[1] Jarvis P. (2007) Monsters, Magic and Mr. Psycho: Rough and Tumble Play in the Early Years of Primary School, a Biocultural Approach. Early Years, An International Journal of Research and Development, Vol 27 (2) 171-188

[2] Jarvis, P. (2007) Dangerous activities within an invisible playground: a study of emergent male football play and teachers' perspectives of outdoor free play in the early years of primary school. International Journal of Early Years Education, Vol 15 (3) pp.245-259

[3] Camarata, S. (2015) The Intuitive Parent. New York: Penguin

[4] Cambridge Primary Review (2009) Towards a New Primary Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press