GW77 Feature
Richard House and Grethe Hooper Hansen illustrate how a new campaign is challenging the increasingly restrictive and prescriptive curriculum for early years education
The news last Spring that the NUT was threatening to boycott the new 6-year-old phonics test if the results are used in league performance tables is one of several welcome signs that the teaching profession is stirring, and is increasingly prepared to take principled stands against overweening political power within education. A new organisation called Early Childhood Action (ECA) has been blazing a similar trail. Co-founded by us in February, ECA is offering a direct challenge to the government’s statutory Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum (sometimes irreverently dubbed ‘the nappy curriculum’), to which all English early years practitioners working with children aged 0–5 are legally subject.

The disreputable beginnings of England’s EYFS have, alas, been largely forgotten. In July 2008, before its official launch in September 2008, the Guardian revealed that research had been belatedly commissioned by the then Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) from London’s Institute of Education, in an attempt to justify the EYFS’ learning and development requirements. But little were they prepared for the unexpected research outcome, which not only failed to support the EYFS initiative, with early teaching having no effect on improving later literacy skills, but that the kinds of ‘soft’, non-cognitive experiences (whose importance EYFS’ critics were emphasising) were found to be more beneficial for children’s all-round development. The resulting (for the government!) highly inconvenient research report was promptly suppressed, and was only unearthed following a Parliamentary Freedom of Information request ordered by the then shadow minister, Annette Brooke.

This was just part of a wider cultural picture in education whereby previous governments have extended instruments of control (including the replacement of the highly regarded Inspectorate by Ofsted’s disciplinary regime), and resulted in England’s drop from third to nineteenth place in the Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS), as reported in the TES of 2 November 2007.

The EYFS was met by significant opposition from across the field (and also some welcoming from interests who carefully positioned themselves to exploit the opportunities afforded by the new EYFS ‘industry’), with 10,000 people signing a Downing Street website petition against key aspects of EYFS; and which the government proceeded to ignore. Within a few years, thousands of professional childminders had resigned, leaving a shortage of child carers, which the authorities sought to downplay and conceal through cynical statistical manipulation.

Principled widespread opposition to key aspects of the EYFS has been systematically ignored since that strong-arm inception, with Ofsted being used to bully practitioners into compliant acquiescence. When the new coalition government took office, there was, briefly, some hope for change. Yet the new government has, if anything, ratcheted up the politicised, ideologically-driven, pressure on the teaching profession and the education system. Today, independent childhood organisations such as the Open EYE campaign, the Alliance for Childhood, the Save Childhood Movement and ECA are voicing protest, which is, again, routinely ignored by government.

ECA was formed in exasperation at the government’s December 2012 response to its own consultation based on the Tickell Review of the EYFS commissioned by the Department For Education and Schools (DFES). Not only were the EYFS’ controversial ‘early learning goals’ retained, but in some cases they were made even more onerous; and a ‘schoolifying’ ideology pervaded documentation and ministerial statements. The many challenges to England’s wrong-headed early years curricular framework have thus been ignored, with policy-making becoming an ideological, non-evidence-based exercise.

In late March the government’s revised EYFS framework was published and was as bad as we’d feared. ECA’s response has been to set up a Drafting Committee of distinguished professionals, who are drawing upon progressive thinking from across the field to create an alternative early-years framework document, challenging the statutory EYFS. It will be formally published this autumn.

Our initiatives have drawn enthusiastic response from many hundreds of practitioners and parents, and we urge GP supporters to join with Caroline Lucas and Adrian Ramsay, who signed our press Open Letter last September challenging the ‘erosion of childhood’ and the ‘too much, too soon’ ideology that is adversely affecting England’s youngest children.
Major concerns with the EYFS are:
• Prematurely imposed, developmentally inappropriate cognitive learning
• the degradation of authentic free play;
• the statutory imposition of unrealistic ‘normalising’ developmental frameworks, including so-called ‘Early Learning Goals’, on to the rich diversity of early experience;

• the importing of a technocratic ‘audit culture’ and a near obsessive-compulsive assessment mentality into early childhood;
• the deprofessionalising of early years practitioners; and
• the infringement of the parental right to choose the kind of milieux which they wish their children to experience, with such rights being fatally compromised by the unwarranted imposition of a statutory framework on development and learning.
From September, long-standing GP member Dr Richard House will lecture in Education (Early Childhood) at the University of Winchester. Grethe Hooper Hansen is ex-president of SEAL.

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