Tag Archives: Two Year-Olds

If we want to improve the lives of poor two year olds, we need to have an intelligent Ofsted conversation

‘More nursery education should be carried out in schools to prepare children better for later education and help bridge the gap between rich and poor’ the Chief Inspector of schools has said.

Sir Michael Wilshaw warned that ‘too many early years education providers are failing to teach youngsters social, emotional and learning skills and get them ready to start primary school.’9739511441_f1f00e4de8_z

‘Pupils from poorer backgrounds are also too often falling behind their more privileged peers by the time they reach school age, but bringing “structured” early years provision into a school setting would help put them on equal footing.’ His comments came ahead of Ofsted’s first Early Years Annual Report, which will call for a radical shake-up of early years education in England.

And so screamed the headlines…blood pressure raised, heads shook, teeth were kissed by many in the Early Years sector as they listened to this while stirring the porridge.

The trouble was that the speech confused many issues into a simplistic message which was a shame because the central tenet that There is nothing inevitable about the link between poverty and failure is something on which Sir Michael and I totally agree. It’s the principle on which we built LEYF.

However, his conclusion that all this would be solved if we put poor children into school earlier is simplistic, arrogant and dismisses the whole Early Years sector as either meddling middle class earth mothers, or useless Early Years practitioners. No doubt, there is some truth in this but it’s a rather Homer Simpson approach. Doh! homer-simpson-doh

Let’s probe some of the assumptions he makes:

  1. Ofsted figures show continual improvement in the standards of quality offered by PVI nurseries, so why is he blaming us for the fact the children age four are not school ready?
  2. Children aged three have been in school for the last 12 years and there is no research that shows that by being in school they have successfully helped children become school ready.
  3. There is no research that says two year olds from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to better success by attending a school environment. It hasn’t worked for three year olds.
  4. My experience of the two year olds on the two year old programme is that they have disproportionately higher levels of speech and communication problems, disorganised attachment, nutrition  issues and parents who are either unable or unwilling to be warm, authoritative parents which is, as we know, the most successful parenting style. How will schools cope with this?
  5. He says that because teachers are graduates then the quality of teaching will be higher. The research we did  shows quite clearly that the level of qualification could not be proven as key to quality for two year olds but the level of attunement, understanding of child development and the high ratios were the critical factors. Is he and Liz Truss in cahoots to get the ratios reduced?
  6. He wants us to ‘teach’ two year olds and provide more formalised learning. Well, we do teach two year olds using sensory and creative teaching, enabling environments, routine, small groups, outdoor play and continual conversation, language, singing stories and working with their parents. Two year olds are babies at 25 months, toddlers by thirty months and emerging small children by thirty six months.  They come sucking dummies, in nappies and hardly able to separate from their parents and become quite independent by three but the journey means we weave care, order and loving attachment into their learning.  Call that teaching if you want Sir Michael but it needs plenty of adults and home learning activities.
  7. Sir Michael, no one objects to children being able to know ‘how to hold a pen… the ability to count, to recognise words, to communicate well with each other and their teachers’ but we need to agree what your inspectors look for as we help children become skilled at such tasks.  We need to be able to do this in a paced way so we work in alignment with the child and not in some pressured race.  Perhaps you might rethink why we need to be able to do all this at four and five which is not even statutory school age.
  8. We agree we need to develop a shared baseline screening but the evidence so far is not hopeful that they help children progress. Let’s think of a better way to identify children’s starting points and track their progress.
  9. Sir Michael, we have for many, many years tried to engage with schools and it’s never been a coherent success. It very much depends of factors such as a willing Headteacher, locality, time, cover and Local Authority support.  Why do you think you can force a different course of action?
  10. With so many schools failing and in special measures and no Local Authority support how will deregulation ensure quality is assured in schools and guarantee children the best service.

Sir Michael, we are all on the side of children.  However, to succeed so everyone is life ready we need to have a coherent approach if we are to support children to succeed. You cannot do that by telling one element of the sector that it’s to blame for failing poor children in the face of contradictory evidence.  Why not use Ofsted’s role as an improvement catalyst and engage with the sector?  This is where we can all show real leadership. The issues are more complex than you acknowledge and we need a holistic approach.  Start by setting up a National Advisory Committee to tackle each element of the problem. Let’s begin by having a pedagogical conversation…


‘We worry so much about what a child will be tomorrow that we forget she is someone today.
Stacia Tauchser

#OfstedBigConversation: On your marks, get set…!

7772672352_b5afb592e1_kCharles Handy identified three attributes, ‘difference, dedication and doggedness’ as the mark of successful entrepreneurs. He quoted the poet Keats view on doggedness,

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Is the current Ofsted strategy masking something far more sinister?

Sir Michael Wilshaw was no doubt promoted to lead Ofsted because he successfully turned around a failing school.

It would seem he is taking the same approach to the Early Years sector except that we are a not a failing school. In fact year on year we have been improving. Ofsted’s own figures from their 2012 Report noted that 74% of early year’s provision is now good or better compared with 65% three years ago.

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More Great Childcare? Don’t think so…

The delayed response to More Great Childcare (or ‘More Great Childcages’ as coined by Penny Tassoni) filled me with dread. I looked and saw it was 52 pages and I groaned. Should I bother to colour it in with my highlighter? Will Liz Truss be our Minister for much longer? Is it worth the effort given the fact that she may be promoted in October, leaving us to start all over again with a new Minister? (Maybe third time lucky!?)

However, I decided to dive in and plough through, and eventually by page 27 I could really start using that highlighter…

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A Thank You Letter to Mr Clegg

Dear Mr Clegg,

Thank you for listening to us about the potential changes to the ratios.  I can honestly say we were genuinely delighted that you understood our perspective and agreed to drop the policy. What I hope you and your politician colleagues understand is that if the sector believed the policy would benefit children, the majority would support it and go out of our way to make it work. In this case however, except for those few happy to take the King’s Shilling (!), we as a group agreed and understood the negative impact it would have. The Early Years sector attracts a great many passionate and positive people who want to make a difference – not in a clichéd and trite way but in a pragmatic and constructive one. A good group of people to have on side, I would urge you to have more dialogue with them.

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The Power of Good Old Fashioned Care: Love, Chat and Adele

A few weeks ago Wave Trust in partnership with the DfE published its report Conception to Age 2 – The Age of Opportunity. I was part of the Special Interest Group that helped shape the report, along with an eclectic group of colleagues representing a variety of areas affecting babies – such as mental health, training, health visiting and psychology. I learned much from this group, chaired by the erudite and softly spoken George Hosking, CEO of Wave Trust. The full report is 135 pages long and a text book in its own right, but the shortened version designed for local busy commissioners is a useful summary with reference to all the relevant links.

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Can the Genie of the Lamp help us find the best staff in Early Years?

LEYF nursery staff trainingThere was a flurry of activity at our Central Office last week because we were interviewing for new staff. We need new staff because we have increased our capacity to accommodate more two-year-olds. The morning saw the arrival of the interview team of LEYF nursery managers and deputies expressing great hope and enthusiasm: new staff, new blood, more stability for teams and less dependence on agency staff. Hurrah!

As someone invited to sit on Professor Nutbrown’s Expert Panel, I supported the intention to have the best quality of staff in our settings. I am keen that the Level 3 is relevant and appropriate. By this I mean that anyone wanting to work with children are given a solid grounding in both child development and how children learn, so they know how to care for a child in a warm, empathetic and good-humoured way. We have long despaired about the qualification being watered down to the point where it has become too broad. As such, I welcome the opportunity to comment on the review of Level 3 qualifications.

Nonetheless, I am a pragmatic person and wondered how we would achieve this baseline quickly enough to meet the needs of the Two Year Old expansion. The outcome of our interviews last week was telling…

Three hundred hits on our advert results in 200 CVs being submitted. These are then followed up with instructions to download the information pack and complete an application form. At this point you see a big drop off: seemingly people just don’t want to write the letter (literacy, literacy, literacy). Those who do are invited to interview. Here at LEYF we call this an assessment centre, where potential staff complete a selection of activities and get to visit a nursery. The final interview pulls all this together to ensure we can both work together successfully.

The outcome is depressing and predictable. We had people who had managed to achieve their qualification within 10 weeks (and you could tell). We had recent college graduates who did not know what was meant by the EYFS. We had candidates who really struggled with spoken English. One manager said they had asked if candidates saw the position as a job or a career (don’t knows just don’t cut it). The enthusiasm began to wane throughout the day…

I chatted with our man from HR: is there not high unemployment he asked, scratching his head? There is, only the trouble with recessions is that staff sit tight, especially those in lower paid jobs (they cannot afford the risk of moving). According to the Office for National Statistics, 2012 saw a 42% drop in people leaving their jobs and the labour market at its least dynamic for 13 years.

So what shall we do? LEYF staff interviewing said they used courage (one of LEYF’s five core values) to help them in the selection process:

We will give one or two a chance for three months, during which time we will balance the risk, complete the induction and observe their impact on the children. (We think it’s a risk worth taking rather than continuing with agency staff.) We will then make a courageous choice to say ‘Goodbye’ if its not working.

Back in HR there is talk of reviewing the selection process. Maybe we will scrap the application form; does it tell us enough anyway? Yes, says Mr HR but we have to remember that any recruitment process must reassure Ofsted that it’s robust.

Does it feel like déjà vu? Remember 1997? The great ambition was to take on 100,000 new staff to expand childcare and enable people to work. Fantastic, if only it weren’t for the same problem we now face: getting enough of the right staff in place to turn the ambition into a reality. Without the power of the genie’s lamp, we can rub all we like, but we simply cannot ‘magic up’ enough good staff. As a result, twelve years later, and further stymied by a dogged recession, we appear to have made little progress.

So, here is a real task for our Minister: use the LEYF value of courage to get out there and talk the sector up!

  • Make schools understand the importance of childcare as a career option
  • Build childcare into the Career Guidance DNA
  • Make child development a key subject on the school curriculum
  • Get the Treasury to understand that Early Years training and learning needs continual funding just like that for school teachers
  • Get the sector in the press for the right reasons

Children are all our responsibility from conception. Invest in this at every level of the education system, starting right here and right now.

Conference talk: more courage and less cliché for two-year-old childcare please

The Conference season is upon us, and so the launch of ideas for manifestos rain down upon our ears. Clichés and soundbites abound as the Party Leaders try and outdo each other with their cleverness. The Press is having a field day comparing dull and duller (or as I would suggest Dumb and Dumber). The risk to the credibility of any leader is that he will be hoisted by his own petard of stupid announcements, impossible promises and incoherent policy.  This time, it seems the Early Years is first in the firing line.

The Lib Dems started the ball rolling by announcing £100m capital to spend on building more nurseries for two year olds. Do we really need more nurseries, or shall we just start by filling the ones that are empty from other bad policy decisions? Actually, what we really need is revenue to pay for the places. It was therefore somewhat of an irony when two days later the Government, including the Lib Dems, revealed that £158 million is to be taken from the Early Intervention Grant to fund about half the cost of the Two Year Old programme.

Here is another irony, when the last Government was in power, Local Authorities complained that their ability to spend their funds was far too stymied by ring-fencing.  The new Government came in and responded to the complaints by removing the ring fence and told them that they were all localists now.  Now with this new announcement, a hybrid has emerged with localism and ring-fencing all in the same shrinking pot, with local authorities instructed to spend a % of their Early Intervention Grant to pay for the cost of the Two Year olds. Graham Allen, who wrote two reports on the importance of Early Intervention, has written to the Prime Minister about the impact of reallocating the funds. He is arguing that there has already been a 23 percent reduction in the EIG 2010/2012. Top slicing it further (for example the proposed 17 percent cut in 2013/4) to cover the two year olds will make taking Early Intervention to scale – with evidence based programmes in every locality – much harder if not impossible.

I found all this out on my way to Coventry, where I had been asked to talk about two year olds.  I am not sure of the origin of the saying ‘sent to Coventry’, but it certainly felt a little bit of a punishment reading about these announcements on a two hour journey with London Midland. Frankly, I think the Government could do with spending a little time on the train thinking through a coherent plan before doing anything rash.

During my presentation, I avoided the issue of funding. I focused instead on how we get on with making it happen irrespective of Party Politics. When we get bogged down in a spending discussion, we inevitably get stuck and then any creativity and pragmatism gets lost.

The sad thing is that the policy to offer two year old children from poor families free childcare, although laudable, is a missed opportunity.  Instead, it is more just another bit of tinkering. Firstly, it reaffirms the split between childcare and education (a disaster in itself as it means we affirm said segregation).  The former is seen as a private service to parents who want to work and the latter not only a right for all, but in fact a public good (except it is poorly funded and not universal). This policy was a great opportunity to weave the two into one coherent approach, and do what the much lauded Scandinavians already have: a universal entitlement that complements family life. It could have been the perfect opportunity to stop confusing education with schooling.

So even if we get the £100m to spend in areas of need; if it’s well planned and provides appropriate settings for tiny children, it still won’t be enough. The reality is that some two year olds may end up in schools or hastily cobbled together spaces. What we need to do is take control of this by insisting and ensuring that wherever children are placed, the environment reflects an educational philosophy that provides the best pedagogical experience. The sector needs to avoid being swept up in pre-election manifesto canvassing and show some fortitude and tenacity. We need to take a handle on how we give children really good quality education, no matter where they are.  This means understanding the care element and being able to have pedagogical conversations that explain what we do, why we do it and what it looks like. Leaders must understand what two year olds need to develop, enjoy and succeed.

Let’s not forget the key message from the Olympics, and how it inspired children not just to achieve their potential but to surpass their ambitions. The good leaders of this country might do well to remember this when they are planning their Conference speeches. We know times are hard, but they will be a lot harder if they do not show some moral courage right now.

It’s time our politicians remembered the wise council of Confucius – that great leaders have the courage to do what is right. If they could only heed this, perhaps they would do a better job for our beautiful two year-olds.

Read your two year-old a bedtime story, and start to slowly peel off the label of disadvantage before it sticks

This week has just disappeared, and that is partly because I had meetings every evening.  I was flagging by Thursday and was keen to just go home, put my slippers on and watch The Only Way is Marbs.  Instead I went to the launch dinner of Social Business International, and talked about social finance, loans, debt and banks using their balance to leverage more money. It’s a very pertinent issue for anyone wanting to grow their business. Getting capital is not easy.

On the train home, I spotted an article by BookTrust which again points to the important cognitive benefits children gain if their parents read them a bedtime story. Supporting learning in the home is something I am very keen to help make happen.  At LEYF we are examining every step to this at the moment, so we can have a set of measurable inputs that will give us a set of equally measurable outcomes, and so show that by doing certain activities we will support the home learning bridge, to and from nursery.

Doing this is particularly important if we are to get value for money from the two year old programme. It is our tax after all, so we want it to be well used: every child who has the cosy experience of having a bedtime story, snuggled up with their Mum or Dad, instead of having a DVD stuck on the TV is a success. (When I babysit my nephew, we have to negotiate anything between 5 and 25 books; there is only so much Thomas the Tank Engine and the Fat Controller a girl can take!)

Finally, I was reminded how easily labels are applied, and so much harder to remove. (Just think about the dreadful term NEET.) So the Daily Mail surpassed itself this week when it asked you to check Is your child a psychopath?  The journalist had clearly been freaked out by Tilda Swinton in the film We Need To Talk About Kevin. So take heed and watch how we throw around the terms ‘2 year-olds from disadvantaged families'; we are already sticking a label on children who are little more than babies. No amount of soaking in hot water will remove that label if its stuck on at two.