Every year I try and get LEYF staff to attend and present at the annual EECERA conference. I have been doing this since 2004 , although we have not attended every conference mostly because some places were a bit expensive for us and my conference savings pot wouldn’t stretch!
This year the conference was in Glasgow, and I was determined at least four of us would attend from LEYF, for two reasons, it was the first in-person conference since COViD-19. We had an online version last year, but it was just not impactful. The second reason is I love working in Scotland and have done lots of work there over the years and so returning is always a happy experience, which I wanted to share this with my colleagues who are all pedagogical heroes.
The EECERA conference is based on the principles of praxis, research, theory and practice all shaped into a triangle of enquiry; the brainchild of Professor Chris Pascal and Professor Tony Bertram. The intention was always to invite Early Years practitioners to attend EECERA, but for years it has only been LEYF and Pen Green and our colleagues from Tasmania at the conferences. However, this year I saw a handful of colleagues from one or two of the UK big nursery chains.
Why attend? Because allowing a disconnect between researchers and practice is bad for quality. The praxis triangle frames quality because research creates, refines and deepens theory which is then applied in practice. Some of the research feels disconnected from the reality of practice and the language of academics can be pompous and patronising but we benefit from understanding research, shared theoretical conversations and membership of a learning community.
I was joined by Mandy Cuttler who heads up the LEYF Learning and Development Academy and has contributed to two recent books on Social Leadership and Pedagogical Conversations. She also teaches on the LEYF degree and is very keen on praxis. Saudaa Nadat is a LEYF Area Manager, completing her LEYF degree and Sharon Dhand has recently moved from being a LEYF manager to being the Leadership for Excellence Coach across the organisation. Between the three of them, they have more than 60 years’ experience of practice and much of it with LEYF.
Our symposium was about our work on sustainability. I am also a PhD student and examining how our CPD programme can create sustainability informed teachers who can share the message of sustainability in their workplace and build a community of practice. It was an absolute honour to present with some of the great Swedish and Australian researchers in this field. I was also even more chuffed to see others quoting our work in their presentations. Another reason for more praxis!
My colleagues and I have written a full report from all the symposia and key notes we attended. Obviously, we spread ourselves widely to get best bang for our buck! At LEYF, we are busy re-writing our leadership programme in line with our theories of social leadership – so, we attended lots of sessions on leadership. Mandy leads on CPD as part of her role and was interested in the sessions on staff development and building staff professionalism. Saudaa is completing her degree and focusing on quality and action research so she attended those sessions; and I was keen to learn more about sustainability with regard to developing staff, new post-COVID thinking on partnering with parents and the politics of Early Years.
In 2019, there was quite a lot of concerns about the negative impact of neoliberalism with its focus on performance targets and measures on the education of small children. This year this concern was even stronger and included our Scandinavian colleagues who are feeling the pressure to embrace the neo liberal outsource and then measure everything approach. Anne Greve from Oslo Metropolitan University in Norway gave an excellent keynote where she said that the push to measure everything was damaging the freedom and openness of play and consequently the status of play was at risk. She noted that many teachers were colluding with this because they were ill at ease and slightly embarrassed playing. She said that for many teachers play is a foreign language. That was quite depressing because although I rail against being compared with the Scandinavian system because its like comparing apples with pears, I have always admired their integrating and strategic approach to Early Years Education and Care.
We all know that the pressure of having to assess and measure everything against a range of competences and targets has reduced play, which is so essential for children’s wellbeing. I was therefore delighted that Alison Clark’s inspiring keynote was all about time to play. She very eloquently took us into the “rush” and our continual focus on what’s next and begged us to consider the slow pedagogy, with real time to listen and children to play. She provided a vivid picture of the McDonald approach to education, where everything is abstracted and the focus is on uniformity, predictability, and measurability of education.
If I hark back to 2019, the keynote given by Samuel Meisels from the Buffett Institute at the University of Nebraska also reminded us that the focus on measures had caused play to be pushed out of the classroom and replaced by activities that can be managed. He said the best way to improve a child’s performance is to teach the child, not test the child and the lack of play is crushing children’s imagination and their willingness to learn.
Alison Clark made the same point three years later and told us that play and impatience don’t sit easily and we must not confuse play as a timeless concept versus play on a school timetable. We still hear about children being told they can play when they finish their work! So, there is a very pertinent link between the two and a key reminder that we don’t forget what we were concerned with before COVID.
There is much to learn by attending a Research Conference that welcomes those in practice. But here are my top three:
- It gives you time to reflect and reflective teachers are essential for quality. Just think about the richer conversations you can have at staff meetings.
- It encourages challenging conversations about practice designed to ensure that we know why we are doing what we do. Brilliant for developing yourself and your staff.
- It builds a Community of Practice across organisations, academia and countries which strengthens our voices. It is only with a strong and respected voice that we can truly influence politicians and policy makers and ensure that decisions are based on scientific research rather than political ideology.
Start by joining EECERA and building a stronger Community of Practice. It is a step towards becoming more confident to articulate the very essence of what we do through the Art Craft and Science of Early Years Teaching.