May the Force Be With You : The Rallying Cry in Dublin  at the 26th EECERA Conference

The EECERA Conference is an annual event and I always try and attend accompanied by LEYF staff where possible. It’s much better fun when we go as a group!  I remember our first EECERA conference in Malta.  We were so excited, gathered in Gatwick all ready to learn and have fun. I had been encouraged to attend  by Margy Whalley from Pen Green who regularly attends with a group of practitioners.  She convinced me of the importance of practitioners hearing about philosophy and research first hand so they could consider, challenge, copy, contest and generally help bridge the pure academic approach with practice.

When you are you philosophising you have to descend into primeval chaos

(Wittgenstein)

Chris Pascal along with Tony Bertram and Ferre Leavers set up EECERA 26 years ago. Chris is a great friend to LEYF and we have always tried to benefit from her work at CREC. Her observation that not involving practitioners in research is wasteful and is a mantra that has influenced the LEYF approach to action research which is a key driver for our quality stance. It is woven into the first element of the LEYF Pedagogy  (Leadership for Excellence).Therefore, anyone attending from LEYF has to present a paper about some aspect of our action research.

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons I attended the conference on my own. The conference was in Dublin organised by Early Childhood Ireland with which we have a very warm relationship. It was the largest conference ever but despite this I met many old friends from as far afield as Australia including our special friends from the social enterprise Goodstart and Stepping Stones in Tasmania.

The conference was called Happiness, Relationships, Emotions and Deep Level Learning but what is very noticeable is that the tone is set by the host country.  This was very evident from the opening addresses with references to the Irish poet Seamus Heeney and quoting the third verse of his poem Chorus from the Cure at Troy (1990)

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

Seamus Heeney 1937 – 2013

As well as asking Van Morrison’s question Why couldn’t it be like this all of the time? A celebration to the 920 Early Years people sitting in harmony in Dublin City University.

Aline-Wendy Dunlop gave a very engaging and warm tribute to Jerome Bruner (1915 – 2016) who died earlier this year. His work has been very influential in the second element of the LEYF pedagogy (The Spiral Curriculum). His book The Culture of Education which he wrote in West Cork is my favourite book as it connects the importance of culture and narrative.  He describes conversation as a great means of learning. This is something we are exploring in LEYF through the notion of the pedagogical conversation.  This was the basis of one of my presentations at the conference and is the LEYF hypothesis from which we are developing our Home Learning research. His other comments are about the community which we translate into our LEYF Multi-Generational Approach.  This was the second paper I delivered with colleagues from the US who are also advocating and showing the benefits of helping children reach out into the community in a way that enables the community to reach back in.

The opening speeches asked the question: why do governments think that early years can solve all of the challenges of society whether it is poverty or obesity, wellbeing to mental health?   Dr Anne Looney reminded us that since the 1970s governments have framed education as the problem which needs to be fixed as opposed to fixing social inequality.

Professor Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Professor of Globalisation and Education at New York University extended this question within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the move away from the child’s right to survive and towards the child’s right to thrive.  He particularly focused on targets 4.2 which require all girls and boys to have access to quality, organised Early Years pre-primary education designed to support their development and wellbeing. He asked what government expectations were for all these children given that quality is informed by high expectations. Interesting question in the light of the cost cutting approach we are trying to manage in the UK.

Dr Looney furthered challenged whether quality was at risk from Governments push in favour of

  • Increased standardisation
  • A narrowing curriculum
  • Low risk approach to learning
  • Test based accountability for teachers and schools
  • Corporate management models for schools and settings
  • Over emphasis on big data and insufficient small data that comes from the child and the teacher feedback

Is the Government over control of education going to drive adventurous teaching that enthuses children, she asked, or is it just about competence?  I was pleased that Professor Yoshiikawa reminded us that quality is more achievable within small group sizes with high adult child ratios  but the key quality driver was a culture of coaching and learning including open sourced sharing and networking which made me very happy to be a founding member of International Early Years.  Dr Looney asked us to be catalysts and counterpoints to the narrowing debate to avoid becoming casualties.  She reminded us that we must be a coherent, motivated, engaged and strategic group to become a force to be reckoned with.  She urged us to join Luke Skywalker in Skellig Rock in West Cork and left us with the Star Wars blessing,

May the force be with you