Having recently retired from frontline teaching to give my full focus to several writing and research projects, I have had time to reflect on over thirty years of engagement with early years education and care, beginning in the mid-1980s as a parent-helper in my own children’s pre-school playgroup. This underpinned my decision to enrol for a BSc (Hons) in Psychology with a specialism in child development, which in turn set me on the pathway I eventually followed into a PhD focused on play-based learning in children aged four to six.
When I first began my studies, strange as it may seem nowadays, there was no early years framework. In fact at that time, the ink was only just drying on the very first iteration of the National Curriculum. And when I started teaching child development across community, further and higher education in the mid-1990s, every child-care and education programme routinely explored what was then dubbed ‘theory and practice in child development.’ Students were introduced to the ‘grand theorists’ of developmental psychology, for example Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner, alongside the pioneers of early years education such as Froebel, Montessori, Steiner, McMillan, Isaacs and Malaguzzi.
As time went by, it became clear that the incorporation of the youngest children in the National Curriculum was not working as well as the government had hoped; Reception teachers were experiencing difficulty in embedding the principles of early childhood education into their pedagogy. This heralded the development of the Desirable Learning Outcomes in 1996, followed by the removal of Reception from the National Curriculum and its reallocation to a discrete Foundation Stage, with the launch of the Curriculum Guide for the Foundation Stage in 2000. The Birth to Three Matters framework was subsequently inaugurated in 2003, underpinned by a comprehensive literature review which summarised key elements of child development theory. Salient points from this document were also helpfully summarised onto theory into practice cards.
In 2008 the first iteration of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for children from birth to five was introduced, up-dating and combining the material in The Curriculum Guide for the Foundation Stage and The Birth to Three Matters. The Birth to Three Matters cards were retained and other resources added, which made for a substantial set of documents.
Although the materials that had been used to create the EYFS had been thoroughly tried and tested in their previous incarnations, I was concerned that this policy change had the emergent effect of creating an overly long key stage that spanned five years of extensive physical and psychological development. And the equally dramatic changes of adolescence were allocated to two discrete Key Stages: Key Stage 3 for children between eleven and fourteen, and Key Stage 4 for children between fourteen and sixteen.
Given that National Curriculum outcomes, with their associated accountability implications inevitably create a top-down process, my principal concern was that the youngest children would be forgotten within what had effectively become one vast EYFS Key Stage. This fear was gradually realised as the EYFS was slimmed down in successive updates over the following twelve years. The most recent iteration was issued for ‘early adopters’ in July 2020. Very little remains within it that is directly relevant for children under three; it is focused upon a set of academic targets for children at the end of the Reception year, with a view to entering a highly didactic state education system. These require that children are trained to listen attentively to adults and obey them, to control impulses and closely follow instructions, to learn to sound letters and digraphs, to write simple words and phrases and to demonstrate a ‘deep understanding’ of number.
The document explicitly comments that its principal focus is to promote teaching and learning that will ensure children’s ‘school readiness.’ As such then, the elements of the framework relating to children under three, and to all aspects of early years development unrelated to formal schooling have been steadily removed from the documentation. However, over the same period, advances in neuropsychology have increasingly indicated the vital importance of social and emotional development, in particular during the first three years of life, a development I have detailed in a recent review of the relevant literature.
We therefore now need to urgently consider the reasons why children in most other nations of the world do not begin formal schooling until they are six or even seven. In fact, within our own history, the age at which children were traditionally proposed to be ‘school ready’ was at the so-called ‘age of reason’ which began on the seventh birthday. This was reflected in the school starting age for upper class boys in medieval England, and in the ancient English Common Law. It is also enshrined in Piagetian theory in the transition to the ‘concrete operational’ stage between six and seven, and in Montessori’s framework in which the child enters the ‘conscious imagination stage’ at six. Biopsychology has also begun to discover significant developmental changes at six due to the neuronal pruning process; for example in an emergent ability to process visual information at a deeper conceptual level. A school starting age of five is an echo from the Victorian industrial period, when it was determined in order to 'enable an early school leaving age to be established, so that children could enter the workforce’
The clear implication is that the current EYFS should be re-ordered into two discrete key stages, the first for children between birth and three (infants) and the second for children between three and six (pre-school). This would resolve the now twenty-year argument about the place of the Reception year, firmly assigning it to pre-school where an overwhelming amount of evidence from practice, psychology and biopsychology indicates that it should be. It would also create a key stage for infants in which their specific developmental needs are front and centre, rather than being overwhelmed by a school readiness focus which is grossly inappropriate for such young children.
Early childhood is not simply a journey to school, in the same sense that the years after the sixtieth birthday are not simply a journey to the grave. Human beings should have the natural right to fully experience each stage of life as it unfolds. We are not offering this level of respect to our youngest citizens at the moment, and this should be addressed forthwith, as a matter of urgency.
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