Back to Basics in Early Childhood

Children's Centre Leader
Jun 17 · 6 min read

Helen Moylett reminds early years workers to keep fighting for the well-evidenced benefits of play in early years as well as holistic development and learning.

I have been involved in early years for a long time and worked with many changes and shifts in policy direction. Some things have changed for the better, but we are still struggling with some political misconceptions about the nature of childhood. The biggest and most important one is around the fact that early years is still not seen as an important stage in its own right.
This misconception leads to government policy that sees young children primarily as dependents of their parents, in need of ‘childcare’ to enable their parents to work, and the crucial early years as some sort of waiting room for school when ‘children’ become ‘pupils’ and where they are not welcome if they are not ‘school ready’. It also opens the door to underfunding and cutting of services and the top down pressure on reception classes to become more like key stage 1 and 2 that we have recently seen expressed in the Teaching Schools Council report, Bold Beginnings, the revised EYFS early learning goals and the draft Ofsted inspection framework.

All of this is unacceptable and leads to what seems like a constant battle for the rights of all young children to quality early education based on sound principles. The principles on which the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and other UK and international early years frameworks are based are not new. They are the result of much practice, research and theory going back centuries.

One shared principle is the holistic nature of early years learning that occurs through the senses. Comenius was talking about this in the seventeenth century! The need for children to play has been observed across cultures and not just by educationalists. All mammals play and the more they have to develop and learn, the longer they spend playing. So, herbivores play for a shorter time than carnivores, who in turn play for a shorter time that primates and, as the most sophisticated primates, human beings play for longer than any other species on the planet. It’s this connection between play and learning that we forget at our peril. Adults of other species do not stop their youngsters playing — they know that is where important life skills are learned!

Many famous learning theorists such as Froebel, Dewey, the MacMillans, Susan Isaacs, Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky talked about the need for children to be active learners, playing, exploring and finding out for themselves as well as interacting with adults. Their theories have become mainstream and are widely taught on early years training courses. They, and others such as Freud and Bowlby, recognised the fundamental influence of our early relationships and experiences on our lifelong social and academic wellbeing and achievement.

In this history, and in more recent practice and research in neuro-science and child development, we have a rich cultural resource which deserves to be cited and called on when we are up against those who think that making young children engage in formal learning earlier and earlier will somehow make them better learners rather than disenfranchise them from their own learning power and the world of ideas and creativity.

The DfE and Ofsted have consistently badged all recent early years reports and initiatives as seeking to narrow the achievement gap or promote early language. However, behind the rhetoric there lies a desire to formalise early education as well as a refusal to listen to practitioners and parents. Baseline testing is being imposed despite the research evidence and huge opposition from practitioners and parents, the new Early Learning Goals are the result of a primary consultation in which nobody asked for a complete re-write and there is mounting pressure on reception teachers to get children ready for the National Curriculum. In the current climate of austerity parents are being told they are failing even though the services, such as children’s centres, they might have accessed for support have gone. The new Ofsted Inspection Framework fails to highlight the principles of the EYFS or the Characteristics of Effective Learning going instead for knowledge and a dubious version of ‘cultural capital’; which risks entrenching deficit models of children and families.

The EYFS grew out of Birth to Three Matters and the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage themselves both principled and well researched documents. It was developed over years and was the result of expert advice and collaboration with government and extensive consultation with the whole sector. To try and dismantle or change it radically without going through a similar process is ill-advised. Let’s take the revised early learning goals (ELGs) and educational programme for Communication and Language (CL) as an example.

Significantly (but unsurprisingly given governmental lack of understanding about how CL underpins literacy) the revised ELGs increase the number of Literacy ELGs, at the expense of Communication and Language. The existing ELG for “Listening and attention” has lost all reference to attention, and the ELG for Understanding has disappeared altogether. These are vital components to children’s development of language, and to practitioners’ understanding of how best to support language development.

There is significant evidence that the strongest support for development of language is serve-and-return conversation, following the child’s lead and interest. Reading to children which is heavily emphasised, although important, is less useful. There is also a dangerous stress on vocabulary.
Vocabulary is a strong marker of language development and plays a central role in helping children to be specific in their thoughts. But it is also an indicator of even more important aspects — the purposes to which children put their ability to communicate and use language. Researchers count the size of children’s vocabulary, but practitioners cannot — and what is a “new word” for one child may not be for others. In forming the current EYFS strand of Communication and Language, expert Speech and Language Therapists and the Royal College of SLT advised that it is more useful to describe the way children use language. The strength of vocabulary will be there if more complex use is growing, without the need to list or count words. Too much emphasis on “new words” could lead to very narrow planning of teaching discrete vocabulary lists, to the detriment of the well-tuned interactions and conversations which are the bedrock of strong language learning.

There are many more examples in the revised statutory framework and ELGs and across other policy documents of this ignoring of early years expertise. It is unacceptable and we have to fight back or the rights of all those unique children who can be confident, resilient and self-assured will continue to be undermined.

The true basics in early years are not literacy and mathematics but play and holistic development and learning. We must not be afraid to defend early childhood from those who do not understand its importance and want to make it ‘tidier’ and more like key stage 1 and 2. Early years organisations are all pushing back and trying to help civil servants get it right. Twelve organisations have formed a new coalition in response to concerns that early years experts were insufficiently involved in drafting revised ELGs. The coalition has launched a survey to better understand the sector’s opinion of and attitude towards the EYFS ahead of a government consultation later this year.

If you are not a member of an early years organisation, now is the time to join. Please get involved — together we are strong!

Further Information

Early Years Coalition
New early years coalition launches EYFS attitudes survey
New 2019 education inspection framework
Nursery World article on new inspection handbooks
Early Learning Goals
The EYFS Profile Pilot
Early Education response to Early Learning Goals
Four-year-olds don’t need exams petition

Helen Moylett is an independent early years consultant and writer. She was head teacher of an early years centre as well as working in schools and as a university lecturer. From 2004–2011 she worked for the National Strategies and was centrally involved in developing the EYFS and other national guidance. Helen was national lead for the Every Child a Talker programme. She co-authored ‘Development Matters’ with Nancy Stewart and has written and edited several early years books. She is a Vice President of Early Education and tutors at CREC in Birmingham.

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Children's Centre

Children's Centre Leader - thought, policy and practice for everyone in early help, children's centres and linked services. Download the pdf at: