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The Save Childhood Movement has rapidly become a powerful voice fighting to stop what it calls ‘developmentally inappropriate policy-making in the early years’.
This year has seen a whole host of proposals by the Government in a drive to reform the early years. Moves to change ratios in nurseries, introduce baseline testing for four-year-olds as soon as children start reception and the push to make children ‘school ready’ have got many in the sector up in arms.
The Government’s two new flagship qualifications due to be introduced in September 2014, Early Years Teachers and Early Years Educators, have also been criticised as there is no requirement for practitioners to have an understanding of play theory or practice. The emphasis is very much on ‘learning and teaching’ raising fears that formal learning is being prioritised over play.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance claims he has never seen so much “discontent and anger” in the sector, saying “so much harm has been done in the last 12 months that respect for policy makers has virtually all but vanished”.
His sentiments are echoed by Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY (the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years), which surveyed early years practitioners and found there is growing concern about the ‘schoolification’ of the early years. She says: “Whilst no one would deny that supporting all children to achieve their fully potential is critical, PACEY is concerned that educational attainment is becoming the dominant force in early years.”
With unease mounting over national policies on early education, it is not surprising that a campaign group such as the Save Childhood Movement's Early Years Education Group has managed to mobilise such support both within and outside the sector.
The campaign group, founded by Wendy Ellyatt and Kim Simpson, has garnered the support of the teaching unions, leading academics and writers such as Philip Pullman, Baroness Susan Greenfield of the University of Oxford, Lord Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics, Dr David Whitebread, senior lecturer in psychology of education at Cambridge University, and Catherine Prisk, director of Play England.
The Save Childhood Movement recently also gained the support of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
Last week, the Save Childhood Movement's held a day of action attended by parents, teachers, children and leading early years experts, where they lobbied Parliament to raise awareness of its Too Much Too Soon campaign. This campaign which was originally launched with an open letter to the Daily Telegraph in September, calls for a fundamental reassessment of national policies on early education.
In the letter, the group of academics, teachers, authors and charity leaders said that there is too much formal learning in the early years and not enough play.
However in reply to the letter, a spokesman for Education Minister Michael Gove said the signatories who included Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children’s Commissioner for England, were ‘misguided’ and were advocating a dumbing down approach.
In response, the Save Childhood Movement said it was “shocked” and “very concerned about the tone and dismissive nature of the Department for Education’s response to a body of experts that included eminent advisors, seventeen professors, numerous PhD academics and the leaders of most of our major early years organisations. Such responses are hardly conducive to the open, balanced and fully informed debate that is so clearly needed”.
The five objectives of the campaign are to re-establish the early years as a unique stage in its own right and not merely a preparation for school, protect young children's natural developmental right and prevent baseline testing.
It also wants to reinstate the vital role of play and calls for an English developmentally appropriate Foundation Stage for children between the ages of three and seven (until the end of Key Stage 1).
Founding director Wendy Ellyatt said: “The campaign held a highly successful day of action hosted by MP Annette Brooke in London on 30 October where it delivered a petition with a further 7,500 signatures and hosted a Parliamentary Lobby to present the evidence.”
The petition calls for the Government stop developmentally inappropriate policy-making in the early years and says ministers in England persist in seeing the early years as a preparation for school rather than a vitally important stage in its own right.
MP Annette Brooke is backing the Too Much Too Soon campaign because “children in the Scandinavian countries and in many countries in Europe, start formal school later than in England, and generally have much better outcomes. They do attend pre-schools which provide a curriculum allowing them to learn through structured play and activities at a level appropriate to their individual development.
She says: “I do feel that in this country we are ‘turning off’ some children by assessment and testing at a very early age and holding back others who would naturally progress at a faster rate if there was more flexibility in our system.”
In Ms Ellyatt’s speech on the day of action, she said: “Young children today are subject to a range of cultural pressures that were simply unknown to previous generations.
“Family life has significantly changed, they live in a rapidly advancing digital world, they are much less trusted and more controlled, they have fewer freedoms and significantly less access to nature, they are highly vulnerable to the dangers of commercialization and sexualisation and the quality and depth of their learning in the early years has moved from being intrinsically connected to family and community to become increasingly seen as primarily a preparation for later schooling.”
She claims that child wellbeing in the UK is the subject of increasing concern, saying one in 10 children are being diagnosed with a mental health disorder and children as young as five are suffering from depression.
Ms Ellyatt calls this “a deeply worrying situation that must be tackled head on”.
She says: “In recent years there have been great advances in the developmental sciences and, in particular, in our understanding of early brain neurology. This has revealed the enormous importance of neurodevelopmental maturity, or ‘developmental readiness’ for early learning and the great dangers that lie in exposing children to developmentally inappropriate pressures before their brain architecture has been fully established.”
The Save Childhood Movement is now hoping to work with the early years sector in devising an Early Years Manifesto to present to all the political parties.
Other members of Childhood Movement's Early Years Education Group include Dr Richard House, chair of Early Childhood Action (ECA), Wendy Scott, president of the Association for the Professional Development of Early Years Educators (TACTYC), Melian Mansfield, chair of Early Childhood Forum (ECF), Janni Nicol, UK representative of the International Association for Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood and Penny Webb, founder of the One Voice Site, Co-ordinator of the Save Childhood Movement's Childminders Group.
For more information on the Save Childhood Movement go to http://www.savechildhood.net/ To sign the petition go to http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/uk-department-of-education-stop-developmentally-inappropriate-policy-making-in-the-early-years-2