Early-years education series: Evidence-based policies

Published on Tuesday, 03 December 2013 12:48
Written by Wendy Ellyatt

In the first report from our Early-years education series, Wendy Ellyatt, Founding Director and CEO of the Save Childhood Movement tells us about the 'Too Much, Too Soon' campaign and why it is important to treat every child as an individual when it comes to health and emotional wellbeing. Have your say in the comments below and look out for the next article in the series, later this week. 

It was strange to be at the Early Intervention Conference a couple of weeks ago and to hear so many people talking about the vital importance of the first two years of a child's life, together with the need for policy to be based upon scientific understanding and expert global evidence, when a couple of years later the need for such rigor seems to be being ignored.

In September 2013 the Save Childhood Movement's Early Years Education Group launched the 'Too Much Too Soon' campaign with an open letter to the Telegraph signed by 127 eminent experts, academics and leading early years practitioners. The aim of the letter was to highlight the vital importance of development readiness for later learning and to show, with clear evidence, the potentially damaging aspects of current early years policy and its likely effect on child wellbeing and later attainment.

It was the first time that the UK's leading early years organisations had united as one voice to express their level of concern about the situation. A website was also launched to share the substantial body of global evidence that backed up the campaign's arguments. The letter achieved national and international media attention and on October 30th a further Day of Action and Parliamentary Lobby was held, with a petition delivered to Downing Street with an additional 7500 signatures.

The signatories argued that child wellbeing in the early years was too important to be compromised by any political agenda and asked that the government commence an open, balanced and fully informed debate that had the best interests of the child at heart. The leading Cambridge researcher Dr David Whitebread, who is internationally acclaimed for his work in the field, provided the core evidence for the group with numerous other leading academics supporting his arguments and data.

The members and supporters of the campaign argued that the early years of life are when children establish the values and mindsets that underpin their sense of self and attitude to later learning, together with their communicative skills and natural creativity. They also highlighted the vital importance of neuro-developmental maturity or 'developmental readiness' for successful learning and the dangers of normalizing attainment expectations when children had such varying ages and life experiences. This was a particular concern with Ofsted's suggestion that children should undergo baseline testing on entrance to reception classes, something that the campaigners argued would be both statistically invalid and potentially highly misleading.

Only 52% of four and five-year-olds assessed at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) were judged to have reached a 'Good Level of Development' as defined by the government. The campaign group maintains that this has nothing to do with children actually failing, but instead confirms that the assessment criteria are developmentally inappropriate and that subsequent interventions to improve 'poor performance' are potentially harmful to children's natural learning dispositions and wellbeing.

According to statistics reported in a recent book from the ARK Chain of Academies and the CentreForum think-tank, the number of children identified with learning difficulties in England is five times the European average which, if accurate, would confirm that young children in England are being inappropriately labeled as having learning difficulties and that this is particularly so for boys and the summer-born. The Institute of Fiscal Studies also issued its own alarming report on the impact of the school starting age on later attainment and how summer-born children were substantially disadvantaged.

88% of countries in the world have a school starting age of 6 or 7 and children in other high performing countries, who enter school after several years of high quality nursery education, consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of well-being. The campaign group argues that the success of Scandinavian systems in particular suggested that many intractable problems in British education, such as the widening gap in achievement between rich and poor, problems with boys' literacy, and the summer-born issue, could be addressed by reviewing our early years provision in light of current understanding and global evidence.

For the health and wellbeing of children in England and for English society as a whole, this is an issue that is simply too important to get wrong.

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