I’ve worked in three schools that had a Nursery as part of its early years setting. Two out of three of them were, in my opinion, outstanding examples of what provision at that age should be. They were lovely and fun places to be; the children expressed themselves and enjoyed all manner of child initiated learning; the adults did more monitoring and assessment in one day than a SATS marker would do in a lifetime and, most importantly, there was rigorous literacy and numeracy teaching every day.
Occasionally, especially if talking to certain Early Years experts, you had to keep that last bit quiet. If you told them that you had just seen a great maths lesson in a nursery class where the children sat in a circle for about twenty minutes whilst being taught number bonds (sometimes up to 20) followed up by some investigative practical maths activities, well first you would have to help them back onto their feet after they had fainted from the shock and then you would have to suffer a telling off that would go on for so long you couldn’t help but think it contradicted their own advice about inputs being very short.
Their argument: ‘You’re not meant to teach them, they’re not at school, they need to be nurtured, they need to explore the world, they need to be led by their own curiosity not by formal lesson structures…you evil, evil man.’
My response: ‘You see that child there? He’s just made a hat out of leaves and that one has just learnt paint isn’t tasty. Pretty sure they’re being led by their own curiosity thanks. And as a bonus they’re learning loads about maths because they can do it and they seem to enjoy it.’
I was often never more impressed at what schools can achieve than when I visited Nursery classrooms. When the teachers and support staff refused to adhere to a glass ceiling of what the youngest children in our system could learn and how far you could stretch their understanding. None of this ‘but they only need to count objects up to 10’ nonsense. They’ve done that, they did it really easily; imagine if you put two more counting bears on the carpet? All of that PLUS more creative and child centred learning than you could shake a bead bar at. All that PLUS a level of assessment that is thorough to the point of lunacy.
I do think the aforementioned Early Years Specialist is a now a rather dated gross stereotype-but I have met those ‘types’ in my career. And I normally ended such a meeting with a swift word in the nursery teacher’s ear to say ‘yeah, ignore what they said, keep doing what you’re doing.’
So, imagine my delight when I heard that Sir Michael Wilshaw was suggesting that children should be taught more and taught earlier. Bring it on, I thought. At last someone understands. The ‘gap’ that develops between many of our disadvantaged children and their peers is often there at the very start. It should be our job to give them a leg up before we’re even aware they need it. Don’t wait until you know they’ve fallen behind. Crack on and teach them how to enjoy stories, make them love putting crayon to paper, get them counting, adding, taking away, grouping anything that can be grouped. In short, exploit the time you have with them to the max. They’ll enjoy it, they’ll associate school with learning which will fuel their curiosity and they’ll have a better chance of succeeding later on. Good on you Sir Michael, you’re a star.
What about that checklist though? How’s that going to work? Is he saying that children won’t be able to attend full time school until they can successfully hold a knife and fork, ask to go to the toilet in a complete sentence and then sort themselves out after they’ve done a poo? Are nurseries now going to have less time to teach all the stuff I went on about because they’re going to be modelling the sentence ‘Please Miss, may I nip to the loo as I really need a wee?’ on flashcards to a distressed child who is now bent double from trying to keep the wolf from the door (as it were)?
What if they can’t do it? When they join Reception are we going to have to split the class into two groups: those that can eat spaghetti correctly using the fork and spoon method and those that consider cutlery to be a distraction that they have neither the time nor the inclination for? Are we going to lose half a year of potential literacy, numeracy and wider curriculum progress because the autumn topic is now ‘putting on a coat and asking for things nicely’?
Why is it now the school’s job to teach children how to put on outer layers of clothing and using a type of knife that isn’t preceded by ‘craft’ or ‘stanley’? Forgive me, Sir Michael, but it feels like you’re dumping society’s failings onto us again and expecting us to fix it. Responding to the challenges of a changing society is one thing but I know how this works; you’ve put it out there now. You’ve released this concept that schools should teach this rubbish so pretty soon every parent up and down the land is going to expect it. Mums and dads across the country will gradually absolve their parental responsibility as it will be deemed the school’s job to sort it.
Call me a weak minded, moaning quitter if you will, but we can’t have complete responsibility for the holistic development of every child…that ain’t fair!