Yet another baseline-bashing article appears in mainstream media and I wonder whether I’m the only person despairing over (what looks like) naivety of all these high-profile academics, consultants and experts. It’s as if they don’t have a handle on the reality of what children really need to have in place in order to access the wonders of a knowledge-rich curriculum, or even just have a happy life that includes being able to communicate (and play!) with all sorts of people – is it because most people who work in the early primary years tend not to have had experience with KS2, KS3 or beyond? Do they just see little children in a bubble of childhood, completely separate from the teenagers and then responsible adults that they will become?
I believe the government, policy makers and indeed everyone in this country has a right to know about the state of early childhood. Currently, we are mostly in the dark, save for emotional stories about a certain kind of material poverty, but what we have no public discourse on is something I call a poverty of aspiration. It is this kind of poverty that has the most far-reaching effects and I believe it is more endemic than material poverty. Put simply, a poverty of aspiration is what happens when parents are led to believe that parenting is something that happens, rather than something that one must do – the latter being about the goal of sending out in the world intelligent and caring adults into the world who will have an overall positive effect on society. The early years curriculum rhetoric reinforces this laid-back attitude of just letting everything unfold ‘naturally’ and the result is that children arrive at school without speech, without general knowledge, without stories, songs or nursery rhymes, even without those basic habits that make us different from animals (frankly).
This is not an OK situation.
The sheer extent of this issue is covered up by the fact that it is mostly the stalwart nursery and teaching assistants who have to roll their sleeves up and stoically get on with the job of dealing with all this evidence of benign neglect without making a fuss. In the meantime, people like me look at the EYFS data, the phonics data and see enormous numbers of children who are increasingly unable to access the academic aspects of the curriculum (the real purpose of schools might I add!). If we had a national picture of the real state of early childhood, then we’d be able to deploy those resources more effectively. We also might have a little more respect for those reception year teachers and teaching assistants who have to try to teach children who are relatively unteachable within a framework, moderation and inspection process that pretty much frowns on teaching in early years – the upshot of which is that disadvantaged children in particular are disadvantaged even further, and combined with the fact that there is no magical process that suddenly makes them ‘naturally’ catch up (like, in the 6 week holiday between reception year and Year 1, for example) as well as the fact that all children in later year groups sit the same tests, those disadvantaged children are looking at fewer choices in life when they become men and women.
(At this point, as usual, I have to put in the usual clause about how, yes, I agree that little children still need to have lots of play and fun.)
I think a baseline test would also wake parents up as to the minimum expectations for school preparedness and be made aware of what the consequences are for their own child if their child cannot access the learning or even play happily with their friends. This is about honesty, joined up thinking, working in partnership with parents and sometimes we need to have difficult conversations as part of that process. Of course, many might then look at this national picture of early childhood and surmise that perhaps we simply need to delay school entry, perhaps have children start school at 6 or 7 years of age – but imagine the word gap by then! I think we’d also end up with children still starting school without the basics, only this time the bad habits would be even more entrenched.
So, let’s have that national baseline test and brace ourselves for the massive wake-up call that it will bring.
Who’s with me?