Emptying the bookshelves: uncovering policy legacies

Along with all my colleagues in the School of Education I have been emptying my office ready for our relocation. This has been an interesting and reflective process for me, not least because as I moved and packed shelf after shelf of books and papers accumulated over the whole of my career from nursery teacher to professor — I paused now and then to flick through some. In the pages of books, articles, policy documents and advice to successive governments I found some poignant and pertinent messages, and reminders of how early childhood education has both developed and unraveled over past decades.

“Wherever the education of the under fives takes place it should be informed by the essentials of good practice…It needs to take account of the different experiences which children have had prior to starting school, and be sufficiently differentiated to meet the needs of each child. The education that young children receive should not set up barriers to further achievement, nor should it be a hot-house forcing-ground….some children need much more practical activity and planned play than they now have in order to benefit from early education.”

HMI 1989 “The education of children under five” para 66

Written in the days when members of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools would arrive with little notice, and observe in classrooms for considerable lengths of time, this booklet shows good practice was witnessed and celebrated. Reporting thoughtful judgements about teaching and learning encounters, and placing the emphasis firmly on children’s play, the recommendations seek to support and enhance young children’s early educational experiences.

And this, from the same year:

“For the early years educator, the process of education — how children are encouraged to learn — is as important as, and inseparable from, the content — what they learn. We believe that this principle must underlie all curriculum planning for the under fives”

The 1989 Rumbold Report “Starting with Quality

These two policy advice documents, both issued in 1989, put young children and their families as central to holistic learning in the earliest years of their lives.

The process of learning including rich, playful learning opportunities, was key.

But what happened seven years later sounded warning shots across the bows of all who believed that play should be at the core of early childhood education. In 1996, the government published “Nursery Education: Desirable Outcomes for Children’s Learning on Entering Compulsory Education.” [what a title!], and this marked a distinct policy shift, stressing outcomes above process and experience. It was clear that the centrality of play was no more.

“Children’s progress will be at different rates and individual achievement will vary. However, all children should be able to follow a curriculum which enables them to make maximum progress towards the outcomes. Children’s whose achievements exceed the desirable outcomes should be provided with opportunities which extend their knowledge, understanding and skills. …Other children will require continued support for achieving all or some of the outcomes after entering compulsory education”

1996 “Nursery Education: Desirable Outcomes for Children’s Learning on Entering Compulsory Education.” p.1 tcomes

This heralded Baseline Assessment, of course, for it was now becoming clear in this altered policy environment that the prevailing view in government was that outcomes could only be determined by measurement. So in 1997 we saw the first government imposed assessment of four-year-old children, as they entered school. And the battle about assessing young children has raged ever since.

Baseline Assessment has two purposes: to provide information to help teachers plan effectively to meet children’s individual learning needs; to measure children’s attainment, using one or mote numerical outcomes which can be used in later value-added analyses of children’s progress.(p.2) All children aged 4 or 5, admitted to a primary school … should be assessed Assessment will be a requirement regardless of whether children attend full- or part-time, or whether they enter reception class or Year 1. (p.4) All schemes must include assessments of children’s speaking and listening, reading and writing (these are aspects of language and literacy specified in the Desirable Outcomes), mathematics, and personal and social development. (p.8)

1997 “The National Framework for Baseline Assessment: Criteria and procedures for the accreditation of Baseline Assessment schemes.”

This was a policy, flawed from the start, and abandoned in 2002, not before a huge amount of time, energy, and money was wasted. Baseline Assessment put many reception teachers at the time in a position where their practice ran counter to their better professional judgement in testing and reporting on their young pupils’ performances in the tests. Little did we know, when Baseline Assessment was withdrawn in 2002, that there would be an attempt to resurrect this misguided policy in 2015 — with similar flaws and controversies and (again) an attempt to make one instrument provide information for teaching and learning and hold schools accountable for the achievement of its pupils. I was prompted, last year to write in The Conversation[1]:

“Teachers in reception classes do not need a commercial assessment instrument to assess the learning of the children they work with. The “broader assessments of children’s development” that the government acknowledges teachers undertake are part of the business of daily teaching and learning in early childhood education. It’s what teachers do — not with tests or a commercial package — but based on their own sound knowledge of high quality early years teaching”

After government U-turn on tests for four-year-olds, it’s time to trust teachers

Cathy Nutbrown, The Conversation 2016,

The Better Without Baseline[1] campaign argued strongly and eloquently against this costly policy. Sadly, though paused, the policy drive towards Baseline Assessment is not over, a new consultation took place in March 2017, and the outcome has yet to be reported. The School of Education’s Centre for Research in Early Childhood Education added its response to the consultation putting forward the view that echoed that of many teachers — that one off assessments tell teachers nothing that they don’t already know through their ongoing learning and teaching encounters with them.


As I loaded my boxes of books into the car, some bound for Oxfam, others surviving the cull and coming home with me, I found myself wondering — how far have we come? Have we gone backwards into the future, or have we made any real progress in early childhood education? How many more generations will have to make the same arguments, and put hard effort into shifting policy in directions that enhance learning in meaningful ways, rather than seeking to measure the immeasurable depths of young children’s minds? Would Susan Isaacs and other early education pioneers be pleased with what has been achieved, or would they feel dismay at the lack of pace in positive change in early education for the benefit of young children? How would they react if they learned that the same arguments are being made, again, and again and again — wrapped in different covers, expressed in different terms — but essentially the same battles are still being fought.

The thought I am left with, after this foray into the policies of the past, as housed on my bookshelves, is this. Policy makers and their policies come and go — some come and go quite quickly in today’s unsettled Westminster. And though bookcases, filing cabinets and now our computers may be crammed with traces of their policies — born of financial constraint, political ideology and a range of moral and educational panics — children get one chance at childhood, and one chance at that rapid and vivacious time of learning. What has really been achieved for young children in the last three, four, five… decades of policy making? How has early childhood research impacted on policy change for the better, for children? How has the meagre share of research funding afforded to early childhood education (in comparison to funding for other sectors) contributed to improved early educational experiences? How can we take the legacies of the recent past and make good use of them as strong foundations for the future?

“At the heart of the educational process lies the child. No advances in policy, no acquisitions of new equipment have their desired effect unless they are in harmony with the nature of the child, unless they are fundamentally acceptable to him.” {sic.}

The Plowden Report 1967 ‘Children and their Primary Schools’

Part 2, Chapter 2 The Children: Their Growth and Development para 9

So, here it is, policies that do not hold children as central to their own learning will always fail. As we move forward, wouldn’t it be good if future governments heed Plowden’s call that policy should be in harmony with children’s natures? Now that would take us forward with new vigour and enthusiasm for positive change that really makes a difference to early childhood education. Harmony between early childhood education research and institutional, local and national policies, would make for early childhood education that puts children first, so that what we have learned over the decades, can bring about good change for young children in the future. Imagine the bookshelves of future teachers and academics, burgeoning under the weight of policy documents that value learning over measurement, and freedom to play and think and move over didactic narrow currucula. Imagine holistic early childhood education where well-educated educators work in harmony with young children and their families.


Department of Education and Science (1989) Her Majesty’s Inspectorate: Aspects of Primary Education — the education of children under five London: HMSO

Department of Education and Science (1989) Starting with Quality: The report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Quality of Educational Experiences offered to 3- and 4-year-olds, chaired by Mrs Angela Rumbold CBE MP London: HMSO

Nutbrown, C (2016) After government U-turn on tests for four-year-olds, it’s time to trust teachers The Conversation. April 11, 2016 https://theconversation.com/after-government-u-turn-on-tests-for-four-year-olds-its-time-to-trust-teachers-57498

School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (1996) Nursery Education: Desirable Outcomes for children’s learning on entering compulsory education London: SCAA

School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (1997) The National Framework for Baseline Assessment: Criteria and procedures for the accreditation of Baseline Assessment Schemes. London: SCAA

The Plowden Report (1967) Children and their Primary Schools: A Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 1967