challenging premature targets in early learning
by Pam Jarvis, Leeds Trinity University
Compulsory mass state schooling was enshrined in legislation in 1880 to meet the requirements of the industrial revolution. The starting age of five was arbitrarily fixed by the government of the time, even though many experts in education and psychology then and since argued that the ‘nursery’ or ‘kindergarten’ stage should extend to the age of seven. Young children learn most effectively through a range of discovery and independent play-based activities in which they interact with others, learning about ways in which they can manipulate the physical world, share and collaborate. This prepares them cognitively, socially and emotionally for more formal education in the later stages of development.
In the early twentieth century, Maria Montessori created a developmental model that proposed ‘planes’ of development in which children’s abilities to learn and theorise become progressively more sophisticated, while Jean Piaget specified four distinct stages, involving gradual development towards more abstract thought. Contemporary cognitive psychologist Professor Alison Gopnik presents copious empirical data to support her view that formal instruction in early childhood ‘leads children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present children look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options’. Stage-based theories of human cognition have also received support through recent neuropsychological discoveries.
Despite a century of empirical and theoretical advances however, the state education system has never become sufficiently informed about the human developmental process. Additionally, the school starting age has effectively become earlier since children are now expected to enter school at the beginning of the school year when they become 5, meaning that inevitably some have only just turned 4. Children are also immediately subject to statutory assessment, which means that formal teaching, particularly in literacy and numeracy, often begins during the pre-school period. The Early Years Foundation Stage (from birth to five) has 17 goals against which a summative assessment must be made at five and the phonics check at six creates severe downward pressure.
The unremitting schedule of tests puts children and teachers under considerable stress, since data from these tests forms the basis for evaluation of schools and potentially for them to be forcibly turned into academies.
So how has this happened? Since the early 1990s, the Secretary of State for Education has exerted far-reaching powers and successive postholders, regardless of political orientation, have refused to engage in productive discussion with teachers or child development experts. The ongoing strategy of the Department for Education has been a simplistic insistence that the earlier children enter education and the faster they are expected to learn, the better the outcome will be.
In effect, education is viewed as a ‘data dump’, based on an analogy which sees teachers as memory sticks and children as computers; there is no attempt to understand the psychology and biology of human development and learning. Indeed, former journalist Michael Gove (Minister for Education 2010- 2014) announced his entrenched opinion: that the nation ‘had had enough of experts’. This philosophy underpinned his four years at the helm of English education. For example, he commented in 2013 that those who opposed his ‘reforms’ were simply making excuses for ‘not teaching poor children to add up’. His successor, corporate lawyer Nicky Morgan, respected professional knowledge so little that she proposed to scrap Qualified Teacher Status altogether.
So what has the effect of such mismanagement been upon the process of education and upon the children themselves? England’s ongoing education policy has created a situation between teachers and pupils which can most accurately be described as one of mutually assured destruction; impossible targets are set with teachers’ and head teachers’ future employment prospects and salary depending upon pupils’ performance against these . Teachers are therefore put into a position where they feel compelled to drive children through a ‘too much, too soon’ curriculum, inevitably based largely in highly pressurised rote learning, or quit the profession. Not surprisingly, many take the latter option in order to protect their own mental health and integrity.
Children, however, cannot escape. The result is a tsunami of mental health problems: a doubling of juvenile depression between the 1980s and 2000s, and an explosion of self harmers, an increasing number of whom have to be hospitalised. Self-harming is a reaction to being placed under impossible mental pressure, as physical injury releases endorphins that counteract the stress response. A growing number of young people develop eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, with a doubling of numbers presenting to Accident and Emergency departments with psychiatric problems. Two successive UNICEF reports on children’s well-being in 2007 and 2013 indicated that English children have a very low sense of well-being.
In conclusion, the ‘too much, too soon’ approach and exposure to overwhelming competition puts children at severe risk of psychological harm. The entire system must be radically reconsidered, including a proposal for nursery education to age 7, firmly based upon independent and collaborative discovery, to provide a strong foundation for later, more formal modes of learning and for mental health within a socially functional society.