greenworld_eye
The 'Open EYE' campaign was formed last November by a group of educationalists, practitioners and academics gravely concerned about the new legally compulsory Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which will apply to all of England's early-childhood settings from September. The campaign has attracted major national and regional media coverage in Britain, as well as precipitating a recent special meeting of the Parliamentary Committee for Children, Schools and Families. Richard House reports on the concerns about this 'Educational Monoculture'

To help contextualise this article on the impending Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) legislation, due to take effect in all English early-childhood care and educational settings from September 2008, my 'Open EYE' colleagues offered ideas on poignant ecological parallels which might illuminate the experience of what is, and what is not, helpful in children's early learning. Steiner teacher-trainer Graham Kennish replied with this brilliant gem of a lyrical 'stream of consciousness':

"Monoculture of children's minds. Strip mining of children's imaginative forces for short-term aims. The deep ploughing which destroys the soil and crushes individuality with heavy machinery. The application of fertiliser which turns childhood aspirations to dust which then blows away, leaving the barrenness of violence in adolescence. .... Education as the cultivation of inner resources for which an inner ecology is needed."

Another colleague wrote: "All good gardeners know that you don't put your seedlings out too early. You cocoon them in a nice protective atmosphere. Or as childcare authority Steve Biddulph has put it, you don't rip a rose's petals apart to bring it into flower. Prematurely forcing infants into their heads is just as counter-productive." All, indeed, presciently graphic metaphors for the subtly sensitive time that is early childhood.

Certainly, the argument currently raging in English early-years education about the definition of 'developmentally appropriate' learning for young children has many illuminating parallels with ecological themes, which should resonate deeply with both foundational ecological thinking and Green Party principles.

Although Open EYE has a number of major concerns about the framework (see box, right), perhaps the most contentious are around the compulsory 'learning and development' requirements, and the imposition of ICT experience on very young children. In the case of early literacy learning, for example, there is widespread agreement across the early years field that the compulsory goals are simply inappropriate for many children aged 4-5, and are virtually guaranteed to set up an early experience of failure for many of those children. In our view, for example, many of the literacy targets are highly likely to cause anxiety and stress in both children and practitioners. EYFS literacy goals for 5 years olds include (quoting from the EYFS documentation) 'use(s) phonic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words' and 'begin(s) to form captions and simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation'. And as we all know, 'drilling' in order to attain these goals will begin well before children are 5.

For some, the situation with ICT is even worse. It simply beggars belief that the EYFS guidance states that children between 22 and 36 months of age should:

Seek to acquire basic skills in turning on and
using some ICT equipment

Note how children use the control technology
of toys, for example, a toy electronic keyboard

Talk about ICT apparatus, what it does, what
they can do with it and how to use it safely

Let children use the photocopier to copy
their own pictures

Provide safe equipment to play with, such as
torches, transistor radios or karaoke machines

Open EYE's Concerns about EYFS

1. TOO EARLY LITERACY
The EYFS literacy goals are both compulsory and developmentally inappropriate, including the compulsion to use a particular reading and writing scheme. The government's approach to supporting disadvantaged children is misguided - for these are the very children who need a solid foundation in socialisation, listening and speaking skills, and fine motor skills, before proceeding to the demands of reading and writing.

2. A PLAY-BASED EXPERIENCE?
The rhetoric claims EYFS to be a "play-based" framework. However, the notion of play adopted is narrowly "adult-centric", and seriously neglects the subtleties of truly authentic imaginative play. For many holistic educators, to speak of "directed" or "structured and purposeful" play is to negate the whole concept of play.

3. AN "AUDIT CULTURE" IN THE EARLY YEARS?
Early-childhood experience is the very last place where "audit culture" practices should hold sway, with their distracting bureaucratisation and anxiety-generating procedures.

4. ASSESSMENT-MINDEDNESS AFFECTING THE UNDER 5s
A mindset of observation and assessment saturates the new framework. An assessment apparatus at a given age inevitably leads settings to "drill" or prepare their children for that assessment procedure. The consequent "filtering down" of assessment pressures always occurs, and will most surely happen with the EYFS profiling process.

5. THE EFFECTS OF THE EYFS ON EARLY-YEARS PRACTITIONERS
A utilitarian approach dominates the EYFS guidance, verging on a kind of "developmental-obsessiveness", and which is anti-time, and quite contrary to any reverential or spiritual dimension to early-childhood experience.

6. STATE-DEFINED "NORMALITY" IN CHILD DEVELOPMENT
The state has defined its own paradigm for what is "normal" child development, and then compulsorily enshrined its model in law - a quite unprecedented development in modern political life, raising grave concerns about the boundary between public and private spheres.

7. HUMAN/PARENTAL RIGHTS
The legislation directly compromises parents' rights to choose the pre-school, pre-compulsory school-age environments they want for their children, which, under European law, constitutes a major infringement of human rights.


Acknowledgement:
Thanks to Graham Kennish, Richard Masters, Gabriel Millar and Kim Simpson for the ecological metaphors.


In view of these concerns, Open EYE commissioned a special 30-page research report on ICT in early childhood from psychologist Dr Aric Sigman (see http://openeyecampaign.files.wordpress.com/2008/02/doesnotcompute.pdf); and his conclusions are devastating: 'In the light of accumulating evidence that a) Exposure to screen technology during key stages of child development may have counterproductive effects on cognitive processes and learning. b) Learning through watching screens neither rivals nor exceeds early years learning through more traditional 'non-virtual' means. c) These salient issues occur in the context of screen viewing in early life leading to higher levels of screen viewing later on. d) Even moderate levels of screen viewing are increasingly associated with a wide range of health risks. Education authorities should reconsider the role of screen technologies in schools.' On this informed view, then, the universal imposition of these practices on to young children is tantamount to state-sanctioned child abuse.

To widen the discussion, it is important to locate the controversy over EYFS in the wider context of a core ideological tension between equality and freedom that is arguably intrinsic to a left/green world-view, and which is also replicated in the paradigmatic conflict that is currently unfolding in England's early-years sphere. In the realpolitik of policy-making praxis, subtly difficult decisions have to be made around the equality/freedom trade-off. 'Open EYE' certainly cares passionately about inequality and disadvantage; but it may care even more about young children's delicately formative experiences of freedom and age-appropriate development - and the grave dangers of a normalising, state-defined early-years regime which, when compulsorily generalised to all young children (as with EYFS), could well have quite untold negative effects on the development of a generation of children. One poignant question might be to ask whether the imposing of a normalising developmental regime on all children is a risk worth taking, when that very regime is assumed to be improving the life chances of a relatively small minority of children from exceptionally disadvantaged backgrounds. Is not there some more efficient, discriminating means for government to help the disadvantaged, beyond this blunderbuss approach?

No doubt this is the kind of utilitarian calculus that government ministers are embracing in their policy-making. Yet even on their own terms, there are very strong reasons to believe that the regime which they believe will help to level out inequality will have precisely the opposite effect, with some young children being introduced to the experience of failure even earlier, with children from deprived backgrounds being precisely the ones who most need nourishing socio-emotional foundation-laying, before the demands of more formal cognitive/literacy learning are foisted upon them.

To pick up on just one area of concern, take the issue of early literacy learning. For many, the unbalanced, over-intellectualising culture of 'modernity' is perhaps the chief culprit underpinning our educational malaise - or as Rudolf Meyer once put it, 'mankind's powers of reason [will] not alone be able to find contact again with the creative spirit. What [is] needed is child-like qualities to rejuvenate and permeate our whole being' (my emphasis). It is worth remembering here that the last century's greatest scientist, Albert Einstein, didn't learn to read and write until into his early teens, and seems to have spent much of his early childhood in an unawakened, unintruded-upon 'dream-consciousness'. Writers like psychologist Professor Guy Claxton have pointed out how, paradoxically, too much thinking actually reduces intelligence. And only last week new research from the University of Stirling corroborated what educationalist Rudolf Steiner said almost a century ago; that daydreaming pupils who stare into space in class are actually the most intelligent.

All this is highly relevant to the way in which the EYFS, the practitioner 'guidance' accompanying it, and the 'adultifying' world-view in which it is uncritically embedded risk dragging young children into a prematurely adult-like consciousness which is developmentally inappropriate, unnecessary, and ultimately harmful. Professor David Elkind, among many others, has pointed out that children are not 'mini-adults', and are positively harmed through having to cope with age-inappropriate demands. Open EYE is therefore challenging head-on the ideology that treats children as 'mini-adults', and encourages cognitively biased early learning at the expense of the kind of unintruded-upon holistic development and learning which is essential in early childhood.

Thankfully, a major shift in the Zeitgeist may be afoot. The recent UNICEF report placing Britain's children last in a league table of Western nations' children's well-being has caused alarm at the highest political levels; and Tim Kasser's important recent book, The High Price of Materialism (see also Oliver James' book Affluenza), highlights empirical research showing quite conclusively that material wealth and happiness/fulfilment are at best only very poorly correlated. Taken together, this kind of evidence is thankfully beginning to precipitate what Jürgen Habermas calls a 'legitimation crisis' in modern technological and materialist culture, one aspect of which is the ascendancy of an urgent and long-overdue investigation into children's well-being at the beginning of the new millennium.

What the extraordinary success to date of 'Open EYE' illustrates is how a well-organised campaign which stays true to core principles and argues for them fearlessly and untrimmingly within the political realm can carry with it a substantial tranche of public and media opinion. Can I close by urging all Green Party members to engage with this critical issue - as the way in which it ultimately resolves could have a major impact on the well-being of a generation of children. Research simply does not exist to support in any way early literacy or statutory goals for 5 years olds, nor does it support the early introduction of ICT to young children - indeed, quite the reverse. As usual, a highly politicised manipulation of 'evidence' is the order of the day, with what evidence does exist being selectively quoted and expediently distorted in order to pursue a pre-decided political goal.

You can begin by visiting our website at www.savechildhood.org and signing our Downing Street petition at
http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/OpenEYE/ The petition urges the Prime Minister to commission an urgent independent review of the compulsory EYFS policy framework, and to reduce the status of its learning and development requirements to 'professional guidelines'.

Richard House is Senior Lecturer in Psychotherapy and Counselling in the Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, Roehampton University, London. He has been a member of the Green Party for many years and welcomes correspondence to: r.house@roehampton.ac.uk
http://www.letsengage.co.uk/