A victory for maths teachers and young mathematicians

The title makes it sounds like there has been some kind of battle for children’s education, specifically, the right of all children to receive a knowledge-rich education – amidst the melee of anti-knowledge and anti-testing comments that have spewed forth after the DfE announced a new times tables check in year 4, we should be buoyed by this latest announcement because, despite what all those influential consultants, advisers, union chiefs, celebrities and MPs have been writing and saying, it is clear that the DfE has taken the better approach by looking carefully at the research and taking into account the voice of actual teachers, rather than those who make a living out of perpetuating the status quo.

When I got wind of this new check, I smiled to myself – I remember writing about this a while ago, calling for an online check at around year 4 . I think it’s going to be great for so many reasons:

  • Ensuring that children have their maths facts in long term memory, ready for instant recall and deployment in large, multi-step calculations, reasoning, problem solving and, par example, fraction prowess!
  • Children love doing regular tests and they also love computers and computer games – and now the two will be combined? What more does a school boy or girl want?

Much of the opinion against this new check uses the following arguments:

  • Conceptual understanding is ‘more important’
  • Testing causes long-term mental health issues
  • People do fine without maths facts
  • It’s better to learn maths facts through problem solving
  • ‘Testing culture’ is all pervasive

I’ve tackled most of the above points through my analysis of an article by a prominent professor of mathematics education, but will also add that I don’t support this view that children are constantly being forced to undergo high-stakes testing – the SATs total a mere few hours of tests and the phonics check takes about 5 minutes. Against a backdrop of thousands of hours of school time, a good chunk of which is spent gadding about outside playing ‘It’, you can’t argue that children are being ‘constantly’ subjected to high stakes testing. The primary school experience of most, in not all, children is an overwhelmingly happy one, not least because all primary teachers really do care about the long-term happiness and success of the children they teach – I’ve never met a teacher who does not express anguish when one of their charges turns up to school hungry, tired or unloved, for example.

Over the last couple of days I have felt, at times, that there is no point in my blogging, tweeting or trying to action what I believe in, simply because of the sheer power of those who seek to co-opt popular opinion and brow-beat policy makers into downgrading the curriculum. The fact that the DfE has stood firm and continued to prioritise rigour, knowledge and academic achievement for all, including disadvantaged children, gives me great strength to continue to do my bit.

Who’s with me?


What fierce competition did to me

I was one of very few non-Catholics at my convent school. Somehow, a place had come up and I passed the interview which meant I spent the next 7 years trying to blag my way through mass! What went down well at the interview was the fact that I told them I loved reading and maths, had taught myself music and was a self-identified perfectionist – I was let into a rare world of high expectations both academic and behavioural in a very, very disadvantaged inner city area and competition was a key part of that world.

My entire year group was streamed and I was in the top form. The forms were given names of EU countries and even though we weren’t supposed to know the form rankings, we all knew where each class was in the academic hierarchy (partly because the classes were in order down the form corridor and the further down the corridor you went, the worse the behaviour got). Girls frequently moved between classes after the end of year subject tests and if you moved up to our class then you knew you were going places. Despite our distinctly non-middle-class backgrounds, we were high achieving. We were also fiercely competitive.

Looking back, I realise I was incredibly lucky because not only did this environment help propel me to academic success (although my A levels went a bit Pete Tong due the need, at one point, to work endless hours to pay rent!), but I also believe that it imbued me with the kind of resilience to weather the storm that shattered my life and then go on to drag myself up, still aiming high, never giving up (I am still trying to repair the damage). How do I know it was the school and not my upbringing? Well, I did have a lot of religion in my life and there’s nothing like the threat of Hell to keep you on the straight and narrow, but in terms of academic focus, it was the constant competition that helped most of all. Plus the strict nuns, obviously, and the lack of good lookin’ boys to distract us (I was at an all girls school).

What was I focused on? Was I focused on the ever impending homelessness and the fact that I was one of the very few girls to have seriously unfashionable trainers? No. I was focused on getting the top percentage marks, particularly in the science and maths exams, and beating some other people in my class. The top classes in our year group also subtly competed against each other. It wasn’t a mean thing and nobody ever rubbed their 97% pass mark in anyone else’s faces, but we girls would be asking each other what we got when the end of year tests were handed back and there was this acceptance and acknowledgement that low marks were due to lack of effort and practice (it should be noted there were no children with SEN in these classes); those girls who got the highest marks were the ones who were doing 3 hours of homework a night and we all knew this and then gave them a hearty slap on the back when they ended up with the top results. It’s amazing how mature teenage girls can be, actually. All our essays were graded too – we were all competing for an A+ and I remember helping disorganised friends put together their essays and projects at the last minute! The shadow of competition hung over my academic life, this sense of always preparing for the end of year test and it made me work very hard indeed. I didn’t want to let myself, my family, my teachers or my school down. It should also be noted that my mum, who is wonderful and a hippy through and through, was never bothered about my grades (although she was proud of me) and didn’t put any pressure on me at all; in fact, she did tell me that if I ever wanted to just opt out and be a beach bum, she’d still love and be proud of me – so, pretty much zero pressure to achieve coming from home then.

Many, if not most, educators (even the traditional ones) would recoil at the above homage to competition. They would say that we should not ever allow children to feel the emotional pain of not doing well relative to others, and that we also shouldn’t allow the high achievers to think too much of themselves or be allowed to advertise their prowess – it is far better to encourage children to only compete against themselves.

I’d like to challenge that, even though I accept that as a pretty much lone voice on this.

Firstly, as I have stated above, I’m pretty sure that this competition helped us all to develop some resilience and don’t forget we were all from disadvantaged, working class and/or immigrant backgrounds. So many went on to university and their later achievements and successes, despite poverty or the need to look after relatives, were and still are amazing. Being able to cope with intermittent stress and not completely losing the plot when the going gets tough is an important life lesson we should all learn; I often wonder if the current dominance in education of relatively wealthy, middle class people might mean that this wisdom is ignored simply because many teachers have never had to deal with (and will never deal with) the kind of stress that disadvantaged children have to deal with. Nothing screams ‘out of touch’ more than hearing a fellow educator bewail the fact that without her unearned share income from her daddy’s company, she wouldn’t be able to afford a lovely holiday in the Bahamas*.

Secondly, I think competition gives you something better to focus on during those teenage years – something that is powerful enough to override the peer pressure, the mighty urges to experiment and rebel with drink, drugs or sex. This kind of goal-oriented focus is the reason why adults are more successful in developing an exercise habit if there is a marathon that must be run, or losing weight if there is a size 10 wedding dress that must be worn in 6 months. Simply saying to young people ‘aim high’ is just like saying ‘be healthy’; it’s just too woolly and not enough to counter the urge to procrastinate or put immediate gratification first.

Thirdly, I also disagree with this tacit rule that those who ace the tests should not be allowed any airtime, just in case someone else feels bad about it. But what if acing a test is all a child has to feel good about themselves? It’s all I had at school, frankly: I was shy, socially inadequate, bespectacled, unfashionable, poor, terribly unfit, a bit fat and covered in acne. We allow the school sportsmen to have their trophies and airtime at the front of the school in assemblies, why not the mathematicians? Based on the underlying thinking of this tacit ‘no airtime’ rule, we should ban sports competition just in case the lanky nerds feel upset.

Finally, there is the reality that life really is one big competition. Maybe not for middle class educator who had their path in life prepared for them by parents with the time, money and effort to put their children before themselves and the privilege of a job for life with pension provided by the public sector, but definitely for the ordinary Jo. Even for those who end up in call centres and supermarket checkouts, there will always be competition although not in terms of ‘effort’ as is celebrated in many schools – implying that those who churn out the goods and results should accept that they will always need to do more than and support (the lack of productivity of) others – but in terms of productivity, efficiency and efficacy. ‘Just compete against yourself’ might not be enough for a disadvantaged child to develop the kind of work ethic that would inoculate themselves against the brutal reality of scarce jobs and incredibly expensive housing that awaits them. Even those who dream of a life in academia face a pretty rough ride that only the most intense competitive focus and hard work will overcome.

I guess that the main difference between now and then was that back then everybody just accepted the status quo: if you worked hard you got the top grades, but if you were a bit of a slacker you would get your comeuppance at the end of the year (and possibly be relegated to a different class). Everyone got stressed during exam week, and there was a fair bit of frantic last minute revision going on, but no one was having to see the school therapist about it all – it was just how it was and we all just had to get on with it, rather than take to emoting all over each other. Besides, exams really were a walk in the park compared to living in a rough neighbourhood (where, ironically, a walk in the park was somewhat stressful).

I know that despite my reasoning above, we, as a profession, would never willingly introduce the school culture I experienced above (except in the top private schools), but it would be great to know that somebody, somewhere, reads this and thinks ‘Do you know, real competition might not be as terrible as they say!’

Who’s with me?



The real way to improve children’s mental health

I’d like to challenge our collective assumption that a significant proportion of parents are completely incapable of meeting the basic needs of their own offspring – including mental health. I have yet to see edu-twitter properly question this assumption and we seem to be more likely to see evidence of our collective low expectations of parents. For example, take this latest business of free school meals – ‘children will end up not eating all day long!’ and ‘we need to feed these children!’ they cry. But, it costs pennies to make a ham sandwich for a child and bung it in a bag with a biscuit and an apple, and universal credit for a family on a low income would ensure that any mother or father were able to do this for their child. If we’ve got to the stage where we’re assuming that low income families don’t want, or can’t be bothered, to feed their own children, then we shouldn’t loudly proclaim that the responsibility automatically transfers to us – instead, we ought to be having the difficult conversations with parents. If parents still don’t want to feed their own children, then perhaps social services need to be involved (although we know they’re snowed under)- but I don’t think there are all these ‘millions’ of parents who would send their children to school with nothing to eat anyway. Instead, this insistence that there are these incompetent parents who need us to do their jobs for them really looks like institutional co-dependency played out on a national scale since we seem so keen to martyr ourselves and take on all these extra responsibilities; if we take a look at this document which describes how both people in a co-dependent relationship are equally responsible, and then swap ‘co-dependent people’ for ‘co-dependent institution’, it becomes apparent that we educators might also responsible for facilitating the neglect of children:

Characteristics of Co-dependent People Are:
• An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
• A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
• A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
• A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
• An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
• An extreme need for approval and recognition
• A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
• A compelling need to control others
• Lack of trust in self and/or others
• Fear of being abandoned or alone
• Difficulty identifying feelings
• Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
• Problems with intimacy/boundaries
Chronic anger
• Lying/dishonesty
• Poor communications
• Difficulty making decisions

Does any of the list above chime with how we behave as a profession? I’d say yes. Especially the angry bit.

As for the subject of mental health, I have already written about how I do not support a trend for easily-led and vulnerable children being encouraged to constantly naval gaze, develop victim mentalities or re-live traumatic experiences because schools have either taken it upon themselves, or been mandated by legislation, to train up an army of teachers to become amateur counselors and therapists. Therapy can be a really good thing, but it can also lead to further distress or dependence on others – the disadvantaged child who is dependent on the TA to do most of their thinking (and sometimes writing) for them in the classroom, could also become dependent on another adult to constantly buoy their spirits. We already know what happens when children who have had the TA sat at their table for the 7 years of primary school go up into year 7 – suddenly they’re not so good at reading, writing and adding up and the secondary teachers then question the year 6 ‘data’ – how can they all be as good as they say when a third of them can’t remember the basics, hmm? In the future, year 7 teachers might also be faced with a third of children who not only don’t remember the basics, but who are relentlessly miserable to boot unless someone else cheers them up.

Perhaps we are jointly responsible?

Just as with the example of free school meals above, perhaps parents need to be re-empowered with the knowledge that it is their job (and that they really are the best people to) love, care and provide for their own children, teach right from wrong so as to ensure safety and happiness, encourage children to aim high and have dreams, and take the time to listen to and comfort children when they are distressed. Surely the assumption that millions of parents can’t be bothered or don’t want to do this very basic and natural act of parenting is really just another manifestation of unchecked institutional co-dependency? I put forward the motion that we are martyrs because we want to be martyrs and I include myself in this category – sometimes I have to stop myself and think ‘Why am I assuming that parents can and should opt out here?’

I believe that until we own up to and tackle this institutional co-dependency, we will not see the academic achievement of disadvantaged children improve in a significant way. This is because educators will, in their minds, be likely thinking about whether a disadvantaged child has eaten breakfast, has a lunch or whether he is distressed in some way than the possibility of that child going to university. I reckon this is more likely to be the case in primary schools, where teachers are minded to educate the ‘Whole Child’ as well as build relationships with parents and wider families (primary educators will know all the brutal details about home lives and inevitably end up worrying about parents as well as the children), but the academic foundations, especially in the EYFS reception year, pretty much determine the educational (and mental health) outcome of children later in life – those children who were late to the literal and metaphorical reading table are more likely to be disadvantaged children, but how can a teacher prioritise that child’s reading ability when she is minded to sort out his rumbling stomach or his worries and fears?

What can schools really do to sort out ‘mental health’? I think the first step we can all agree with is not to automatically assume that everyday worries and stresses, or even bizarre behaviours that are really just bad habits gone wrong, are evidence of mental health issues and then send children down the cul-de-sac of victim-mentality and nightmare-inducing amateur therapy. Further, in addition to the happiness-inducing effect of clear boundaries, loving authority, routines, structure and purposeful calm that a school can easily provide, nothing beats the mental-health-improving effect of giving a child hopes and dreams that might provide them with the courage to relentlessly focus on their classwork instead of constantly thinking about how sad or angry they are. If a child has a shitty home life, I would rather encourage him to be a reader so that he can fly away into wonderful worlds in story books, than tacitly (whether consciously or subconsciously) encourage him to opt out of learning and indulge his internal misery forever and ever. If a little girl lives in poverty and her parents have no time for her, surely it would be better to give her the dream of being a wacky scientist one day, rather than make her miss her afternoon science lesson in order to attend Mrs Concerned’s office to talk about ‘letting out the steam on the angry train*’?

Let’s tackle institutional co-dependency

Who’s with me?


Too many problems, not enough collective vision

This is a difficult post to write because I can see no way out of this situation. This morning, I read this article and thought ‘Wow! China’s got one heck of a proactive plan there!’ and then, naturally, I looked at my own situation and each layer of organisation around me all the way to ‘national picture of education’ and all I could see were barriers, problems, sunk costs and squandered resources. Why is this? My interpretation is to do with the fundamental difference between Western and Eastern culture:

  • In the East, it is the individual’s responsibility to think about and promote the collective success of his society
  • In the West, it is ‘society’s’ responsibility to take care of and ensure the ‘success’ of the individual

As a result of the above, Westerners are mostly thinking about themselves, offloading their problems onto a faceless blob called ‘public services’. Whereas in the East, everyone’s dealing with their own problems so that they can then contribute in a positive way to their family, school, village, district and country. Yes, this is a very simple way of distilling and comparing highly complex cultural differences, but I believe that the above situation is the reason why people who work in the public sector in the UK, education in particular, end up dealing with constant problems washing up at their doorstep thanks to individuals thinking only of themselves, whereas in China for example, everyone working in education (including the parents) is thinking about and being part of a bigger picture of educational success that in turn is part of an even bigger picture of an entire country’s success! In China, everyone including the janitor is working together for a higher purpose.

How can we be like them if we’re constantly dealing with problems? While the DfE and various levels of organisations and individuals (including me) are beginning to come together with this collective vision of high expectations, evidence-based methods of teaching and learning, and knowledge-rich curricula – a higher purpose – at the same time we’re also continuing to allow individuals to think only of themselves (and their happiness in particular), offloading their problems onto us, the equivalent of allowing and in some cases legislating for the systematic throwing of spanners into this shiny new machine we’re trying to create.

Let me give you an example of some spanners I’m having to deal with. At the moment, one of my functions as a cog in the educational machine is to ensure that all the children in Year 1 can read. Since we live in a Western society that encourages the individual to think of himself (and his happiness), offloading problems onto the ‘public sector’ (which includes me), I’ve got to deal with the problem that many parents don’t hear their children read. In response to this, I’ve tried to accumulate resources to massively increase the amount of individual and group reading practice during the school day. As a result of this effort, my latest investigations now show that even more parents don’t hear their children read and this is just one example of how our Western culture promotes a process whereby the more you do for the individual, the less he does for himself – all because we encourage individuals to only think of themselves and not their part in contributing to a higher, collective purpose. The situation is so perverse that it even destroys the natural inclination for parents to sort their own problems out in order to then be able to focus on the success of their progeny. When I think about it, rather too much of my job is taken up with dealing with the problems that result from individuals thinking only of themselves, but it is not entirely their fault; in fact, much of the blame lays with us.

‘Character education’ is one example of a spanner in the works. Most teachers will say that the biggest factor affecting a child’s effort, focus and achievement in school is actually that child’s upbringing. Children of parents who ensure daily reading, music practice and homework supervision, and who ensure adequate sleep, nutrition, discipline, boundaries, guidance, respect for authority, moral education and love tend to work harder and achieve more in school. Is this rhetoric that commands schools to deal with the problem of parents not parenting through ‘character education’ yet another example of allowing individuals to offload their problems onto the faceless public sector? Likewise, if we look at this latest issue of the ‘mental health crisis’, instead of expecting individuals to take care of their own and their children’s mental health (routines, time with family, good nutrition, exercise, aspirations and goals etc), it looks like teachers might end up with the responsibility for children’s mental health – with all the assessment and reporting that goes with it.

If I’m brutally honest, the unfortunate extrapolation of all this allowing of individuals to think only of themselves and then simply offload their problems seems to point to our eventual downfall. I mean, just look at this situation of Brexit – how can we forge a great path as a nation if we’re having to sink nearly 10% of the nation’s GDP down the literal and metaphorical toilet that is the NHS? Where is the collective ‘Let’s get healthy as a nation so we’re not bankrupting future generations’? Instead, all we have is calls for yet more money and resources to be spent on dealing with problems, including everyone’s mental and physical health issues, leaving nothing for projects with a higher purpose of our future success as a nation. In fact, we can’t even talk about our success as a nation because, well, are we a nation? Are we even allowed to be proud?

Anyway, back to education. I’ve come to the weary realisation that my contribution to the higher cause is mostly scuppered because I and my colleagues are also required to deal with other people’s problems that result from our Western culture’s obsession with individual happiness, or just individualism in general. The only way to turn this situation around is to get parents on board with the higher purpose of education rather than viewing schools as state babysitters – not just for their own children’s sake, but for the sake of the nation.

Who’s with me?



When ‘observing’ crowds out teaching

Recently, I went to an EYFS reception year moderation meeting and it was good to hear the LA moderator speak about the Bold Beginnings report in a positive way. However, I couldn’t help thinking about what would happen if we just got rid of moderation altogether in reception year? Around the room there were hard-working and deeply caring reception year teachers sharing learning journeys with teachers from other schools and I could hear the following sorts of comments:

“Yes, poor thing has a very chaotic home life and this is probably why she’s not doing so well – she’s just not picking up number, but she does seem to be better with shapes. She’ll still be emerging for most of the ELGs at the end of this year, bless her.”

We also looked through some examples of record keeping – a page of prose for each ELG for each child. I calculated that roughly 300 words for each ELG for each child equated to 150,000 words for the class teacher to write on a regular basis, plus of course the need for endless photos to be included in order to prove that children were, for example, counting during continuous provision (play/self-directed) rather than with an adult (which is not good enough to meet the ELG, allegedly). To be fair, the moderator himself did say that some of the exemplification was over the top – the example of annotated photos of children putting their coats on was an utter waste of time and we were told that it was officially OK to include teacher opinion when moderated rather than only go with the mass of annotated photos on each child’s record. But what if we just cut out the whole moderation and evidence-gathering thing entirely?

pig in scales

The reason I would, if I could, get rid of reception year moderation and evidence-gathering via annotated photos is firstly because the requirements to build a mass of evidence for each and every child, ELG by ELG, swallows up potentially infinite amounts of taxpayer-funded man-hours with no return on that investment whatsoever; you can weigh that pig over and over, but it won’t put on weight as a result. A colleague recently told me about her frustration when having to simultaneously deal with behaviour issues at the same time as witnessing, out of the corner of her eye, a child do something great at one of the maths tables, thinking “I’ll just have to let that photo evidence opportunity go.” Most people reading this blog would home in on the behaviour issue that she may be dealing with, and say that if behaviour were better she could be freed up to interact in a more proactive, positive and learning-focused way (with the iPad at the ready) but when we consider the bigger picture, isn’t it awful that she has to constantly think about ‘opportunities’ to capture evidence against the ELGs for all 30 children in her class when she could be thinking ‘What do these children need to be taught?’ and ‘What do they need to practise?’ instead?

And this is the nub of the issue really – that reception year teachers and teaching assistants are not only spending inordinate amounts of time gathering evidence (while constantly feeling like they’re not gathering enough), but also in doing so they are co-opted into being observers/facilitators of learning rather than teachers because of the subtle yet comprehensive warping of their thinking that goes with the requirement to lay on activities and then be in (patiently) offering-and-waiting mode, wondering why that child isn’t ‘ready’ yet. This is why we end up with comments like the one above, an acceptance of the status quo which is that disadvantaged children fall behind relative to their advantaged peers. The other thought-warping process that happens is that when staff are in ‘photo opportunity’ mode, it means they’re mostly looking for evidence to prove an ELG has been met, whereas there might be more evidence that the ELG hasn’t been met going on too that isn’t being recorded (that really ought to be). It’s good to always be positive, but in doing so we risk losing sight of reality. This might explain why I receive such wonderfully positive Learning Journeys from nurseries where every child seems to be a smiling little professor, leader, collaborator, cook, musician and artist, but when you meet the child you discover his pencil hold is now decidedly ‘cave man’ and also that in being allowed to physically thrash out his tantrums in a special thrashing-out-of-tantrums area, he has developed a habit of defaulting to a mega-thrash-tantrum (not OK at two years old, and even less OK at 5 years old) whenever things don’t go his way. A lovely smiley photo album with copious post it notes attached to it is invariably put to one side because, let’s face it, who has time to indulge in fawning when there are children rocking up who can’t regulate their own emotions, go to the toilet or even speak?

In getting rid of it all, some may argue that reception year teachers would fall back on their laurels and not do much at all and I would tentatively agree that we still need some kind of (much more honest) report at the end of the academic year (as well as the beginning – I’m pro baseline check). However, given that pretty much all reception year teachers are decent, hard-working and caring individuals, I think they would welcome the opportunity to be trusted in the way that year 1 teachers are trusted to simply assess and make notes. Can you imagine if year 1 teachers had to lay on activities such that the children spontaneously wrote stories or basic equations and then were photographed for evidence? Their workbooks and regular test results are evidence – generated through adult led activities and yes, they were smiling and happy when all this happened. Further, I think it would be better to have a much more ordinary reception year curriculum that makes more sane demands of tiny little children – the expectation that songs are sung, stories and poems are heard and learned, number formation and graphemes are taught and practiced to automacity, sounds are blended frequently, beads are counted, cakes are baked, shoes and socks are put on in the right order, woods are explored, interesting words are introduced, seeds are sown and play equipment is played on at frequent intervals – all overseen by a teacher who is allowed to teach, rather than be expected to observe, observe, observe.

Who’s with me?



Formal teaching: not for the likes of you

I’ll let you into a secret: before my children started school, I sat them down pretty much every day, taught them how to hold a pencil and how to sound out individual letter-sounds. I also taught them how to form their letters and their numbers perfectly – while they were sitting down at a child’s table. Furthermore, I read to them and I talked to them (while expecting their full attention). I also expected them to stay quiet at the dinner table, while the adults talked, so that they would listen and learn the phrases of everyday conversation.

They went straight to the top tables in their classes and ten years later, they’re still there.

They’re not perfect and they are both such different children, very much their own characters, but mark my words, they have read more, heard more and written more than many of their peers over the years.

So, what would you call this? Was it formal teaching? But, I was ‘just’ a parent – so maybe this was something different? According to their teachers, they magically played their way to excellence! Sometimes, I think education is a feminist issue – why else would the ‘experts’ try to diminish the fact that they were taught, by me, their mother, just like all those other children who seemed to be magically thriving in reception year. Did all this teaching cause them mental distress? No. In fact, they were probably more robust in terms of mental health, simply because they felt good about themselves: they could cope in lessons, received lots of praise and of course could communicate with great articulation and fluency with both friends and adults (communication is excellent for mental wellbeing). Did this stop them from playing? No! In fact, their play was enhanced because all the reading, increased vocabulary and extra confidence added to their fantasy worlds that they created on a daily basis.

The thing is, most educated parents do this for their children before they start school and then throughout their school life. Yet, when the equivalent is attempted for a mere half hour in reception year, all of a sudden people (EYFS experts) are having a hissy fit because ‘formal learning’ is supposed to be a form of child cruelty.

Is it me, or are they trying to mug us off?


The EYFS butterfly and the hurricane in Year 10

In addition to learning how we learn, and linking this to my knowledge of the biology of the brain, neuroplasticity and memory formation, I have also had an increasing interest in Eastern philosophy because of my reading around mathematics education in China. In order to write this post, I must first attempt to give you what will inevitably be a very poor explanation of key difference between Western and Eastern thinking. We, in the West, tend towards taking a reductionist approach to various concepts and phenomena, whereas in the East, it is not just the individual concept or phenomenon that is looked at, but the links that connect to it. It actually blows my mind whenever I peer into the Chinese approach to mathematics education because all the possible links in all the possible dimensions that could be influential have been seen and then co-opted in a purposeful way – no one and nothing is a static individual, but ever changing and evolving as part of an ecosystem of learning (that is also set within an ecosystem embracing culture, language, history and oh so much more) with this purposeful evolution going back thousands of years. According to the Eastern mind, I am not the same person I was 20 years ago – this is wonderfully liberating and gives me continued hope, plus this thinking matches my love of ecology (and the maths that goes with it). I never see an individual, I see a web with that individual in it, and it looks a bit like the picture below.

No man [or educational setting] is an island*
Although I don’t have the words to explain to you properly (I recommend this book if you are curious), I would like to propose that our view of EYFS could benefit from a dose of Eastern thinking too.

Increasingly, a new, evidence-based way of thinking about children’s development has begun to influence our attitudes to EYFS and it is good to see that this is happening within the DfE. ‘Developmentalism’, which behoves us all to ‘wait’ until the child is ‘ready’, has been largely debunked, yet it still has a stranglehold on the collective minds of EYFS practitioners and I frequently get sent ‘evidence’ in support of the mainstream view that the brains of children under the age of 6 are somehow magically different, as if there is an arbitrary point where children’s DNA undergoes some kind of epigenetic switch between Year R and Year 1 (or later) and suddenly a child can be directed by an adult. Meanwhile, pretty much every other in-the-know educator has switched from automatically assuming children should be labelled as SEN or ‘not ready’ and instead employed the evidence-based thinking of  ‘Maybe this child is behind because he has gaps in his learning, hasn’t been explicitly taught the required knowledge and then hasn’t experienced enough practice or testing to the point of automacity?’ What would it take to win the hearts and minds of the big cheeses in EYFS such that they fully joined in with this conversation, instead of viewing the questioning of others as some kind of personal attack on them and their corner of the education world, or missing the point and then lashing out by saying that people like myself don’t think play is important?

The answer, I think, is to encourage us all to look at EYFS in terms of where it sits within the child’s wider life, his family, his community and the journey he is on that will culminate in independence, wisdom and responsibility when he is a man. In short, to have a truly holistic view of the child and his connections to the wider world – Eastern thinking (in 4D!). Many EYFS practitioners would immediately cry ‘But we do value the whole child’, yet I would argue that they don’t. Why? Because pretty much all of the ‘research’ and ‘evidence’ I get told to read (such as this – which puts forward a theory that Year 1, 2 and 3 education should be more play-based because some children, funnily enough the disadvantaged ones, might not be ‘ready’) seems to neglect the fact that children’s brains are also being influenced, ergo they are being educated, by experiences and people outside of the nursery or school. The fact that a child doesn’t seem to be able to sit down and concentrate, and tends towards flitting about, is viewed in by EYFS practitioners as ‘not ready [to sit down and listen]’ so an allowance is made for this based on the ‘needs of the child’.  However, the Eastern thought process would be ‘Let us look at the bigger picture’: being able to sit still and listen is a habit that needs to be taught and then practised to automacity. Who is the teacher in this process? It is normally the parent, usually the mother. Where does the practice take place? At home, at the dinner table, or when the parent takes the trouble to read to their child and expects a bit of polite listening. Nobody in EYFS seems to look at the inattentive and fidgety child and sees the bigger picture which is that they probably haven’t been explicitly taught or expected to practise the habit of sitting still and listening; it is as if the world outside of the nursery or reception year class doesn’t exist. To fully acknowledge this situation, this absence of teaching and enforced practice, would be to acknowledge that they, the EYFS practitioner, are not so influential or important after all which is quite bruising to the ego. Instead, in a situation akin to a doctor responding to a dehydrated patient’s plea ‘I have a headache’ with ‘Clearly you have a brain tumour’, the child eventually gets a pseudo diagnosis of ADHD because all this waiting around and allowing him to be more active than other children based on his ‘needs’ caused him to reinforce the habit of not sitting still and listening.

For the example of sitting still and listening, the EYFS practitioner might not even consider that sitting still and listening at the breakfast and dinner table would actually be influencing the child day after day after day. Since most educators come from middle class backgrounds, they might not have an understanding of the upbringing of children who grow up in overcrowded accommodation who never get to sit and eat quietly at a dinner table with the parents asking them how their day was, or whether they learned a new song or poem at school/nursery. Essentially, they have no frame of reference and never see the bigger picture (or, even worse, have chosen not to see this bigger picture). Another classic example is that of ‘ready to hold and use a pencil’ – aside from the obvious barrier which is that a child is too small and weak due to his age or lack of physical growth, nobody seems to consider that the child without the ability to hold and use a pencil might be that way because a parent hasn’t taught him to use his hands in a productive way: helping to wash dishes, folding clothes, pairing socks, turning the page of a book, putting cutlery away, picking out weeds in the garden are all adult-led and rather formal activities that are quite common in the life of the advantaged child (particularly the female child), yet the disadvantaged child who didn’t receive all this instruction and practice simply gets labelled ‘not ready [to hold a pencil]’ and therefore misses out on the advanced learning that the advantaged child then goes on to receive at school. If we extrapolate to a whole host of other aspects of children’s ‘education’ outside of the nursery and school and how this gives them the edge in the classroom, this situation looks like a conspiracy to give advantaged children the leg up while keeping disadvantaged children down. I go round and round writing blogposts that eventually arrive at this conclusion and everybody comes back to me with ‘Balance of play-based [discovery] and adult-led activities, dahling!’

So, let’s look at this so-called ‘balance’ then.

If we put our Eastern thinking hats on, we would look beyond the nursery or school hours. When we look at the balance of adult-led vs. child-led activities over a 24 hour period of a child’s life, the former involving some aspect of explicit teaching (yes, parents also do this) and an expectation of frequent practice (yes, parents also make sure this happens), with the latter being more about free-play, we would see that the disadvantaged child is experiencing an ‘education’ that is woefully short of adult direction. Further, in deciding to take a back seat and ‘waiting’ for children to naturally/miraculously be ready for more formal, adult-led education in the classroom, disadvantaged children who are evolving into people who ignore adults because their daily lives enforce this habit are in danger of just continuing the very same trajectory; the butterly flaps its wings in EYFS and causes that hurricane in Year 10.

Instead, we could be looking at the whole child and his place and education within the wider world, not just the EYFS setting.

Who’s with me?

*This pleasing diagram is taken from an equally pleasing web-based maths magazine