Friday, 14 January 2011

Say no to more pressure on young children - petition

Sign it today!!

The UK government is proposing to introduce school league tables based on the achievement of 5-year-olds in their Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, which records progress against a set of early learning goals that 'most children' are expected to reach by the end of their reception year. The proposal shows a continuation of the previous government's lack of interest in the broad agreement among educational experts, teachers and early years practitioners that some of the goals are set way beyond the reach of most. Insisting on trying to hit them means that most young children are effectively 'failing' at the age of 5. Even those goals which are reasonable for the majority are out of reach for some, so that all young children are likely to be 'failing' in some capacity.

Given the desperation of the current and previous governments to have all children reading as soon as possible, and now no later than 6, it comes as little surprise that the most unreasonable expectations for 5-year-olds appear in the goals for literacy, and especially these two:
  • Attempt writing for different purposes, using features of different forms such as lists, stories and instructions.

  • Write their own names and other things such as labels and captions, and begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation.

In 2008 I asked Michael Gove whether targets in education create pressure on children. He said, 'The pressure is less on the children, I would think, than on the schools to ensure that children are taught properly' (Early Years Educator, Sept 08, p.15). But last year's t
eacher protests against the Key Stage 1 SATs stressed that the need to perform to standards put enormous pressure on children throughout their primary schooling as well as on their teachers. If the existence of targets is putting unacceptable pressure on 11-year-olds, how much greater will the pressure be on very young children?

It is not acceptable to fix poor attainment further up the school by piling pressure on the very youngest in the system. They require a flexible, exploratory and entirely enabling learning experience that feeds inquisitiveness and confidence. Let them learn how to learn.

Sign that petition!


  1. That sounds completely crazy - my 5 yr old started school last September and is really enjoying every minute of it. The emphasis at his school at this stage (we live in Ireland) is very much on social interaction, building confidence and independence and ultimately enjoying the school experience. I agree that there is time a-plenty for putting our children into 'achievement boxes' and piling the pressure on themselves, and us as parents, to reach the highest standards. Good luck with your campaign.

  2. I don't think I could disagree with this any more strongly.

    The benefits of setting ambitious targets at any level in any situation are well established. You seem to suggest that we should not strive for high achievement amongst our children.

    The pressure exerted need not be negative - it is the individual moral responsibility of the teachers and schools in question to ensure that children are supported and guided towards meeting these targets in a positive fashion. This does not always happen, I will agree, but that is not the fault of the targets themselves.

    Any government is right to be "desperate" to have children reading as quickly as possible. Is it possible to participate fully in our society without confident levels of literacy? I think not - and as someone qualified in childhood studies you know full well that the later literacy is left, the more difficult it becomes.

    I am a secondary school teacher and I can state categorically that the pupils arriving with us who do not have a confident grounding in literacy (and numeracy) are at a significant disadvantage for the remainder of their studies.

    Literacy (and numeracy) need to be done early, right, every time. So does citizenship and PSHE. The rest can wait.

  3. I am an American education student and I hope to teach children aged five. In my state, standardized tests are given at age nine. I visited a classroom at the start of the school year. On the wall were displayed each student's goal for the year. Half of the drawings had captions such as "I want to learn more about dinosaurs." However, half of these eight-year-olds had written, "I want to pass the FCAT." My heart ached for these children whose natural curiosity and drive to learn had been replaced by devotion to test scores. Standardized exams are not developmentally appropriate for this age group!

  4. Thank you for your comment, James. I absolutely agree that any government must be determined that children are literate, numerate and ready for more advanced study by the time they leave primary school. But I don't agree that it's beneficial for young children to be pressured towards learning in a formal way before they enter Key Stage 1, nor do I think that too much formality is right even then.

    There is a great deal of research evidence from Europe and elsewhere showing that children introduced to formal learning at 6 or even 7 achieve the same or better results at age 11 than those who begin earlier (Riggall, A. and Sharp, C. (2008). The Structure of Primary Education: England and Other Countries (Primary Review Research Survey 9/1). But there is no research evidence (really, none) showing that a formal approach early on actively improves long-term outcomes, although some has shown that it has a detrimental effect on dispositions to learning.

    Without research to support it, the drive to introduce formality and testing at age 5 is, quite simply, an approach that UK governments have just decided is the right way to go. And, in fact, it is now just the English government's view. England is now the only UK country that has hung on to SATs testing at any age. The Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly have introduced curriculums that respect the learning journey for children from birth to 7 (Scottish curric progresses seamlessy from 3 to 18), and Northern Ireland is currently considering a new direction.

    Waiting to introduce formal education doesn't mean that children aren't learning, just that they learn in a more suitable manner through what is called 'developmentally appropriate practice'. In this approach young children lead their learning by following their own interests, accompanied and assisted by quality early childhood educators who extend the children's learning in positive ways. In this way, young children can be exposed to all the early experiences that they need in order to be fluent, creative and successful readers, writers and mathematicians by age 11. These experiences include a lot of talking, listening, working within relationships, creating stories through play or developing mathematical understanding in lots of different contexts - indoors and out. And lots of physical play, which prepares small bodies for long periods of sitting later on, and also for the task of writing. For most children, their early learning will most certainly include early reading and writing experiences, but screeds of research shows that these develop most fluently when they grow out of the children's experiences rather than being directed towards measurable goals.

    The EYFS fully endorses developmentally appropriate practice - the framework is built around it, as is all the guidance. Unfortunately, the benefits of this approach can be fatally damaged by the push to show achievement of the early learning goals by age 5 - depending on the quality of teaching at this point.

    If the comparative research across Europe shows that starting formal learning at 6 or 7 does not have a detrimental effect on achievement further up the school, then there seems no reason to hurry formality at a very young age - especially as the same research also demonstrates that a more informal, playful and un-pressured approach to learning has an actively positive effect on the quality of younger children's learning and on their lived lives.