Monday 19 March 2007


A tick-box attitude to toddlers

When even infants are expected to achieve ‘69 early learning goals’, you know that no area of life is free from New Labour’s tyranny of targets.

Last week the UK government published a new framework document titled Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). It aims to set the ‘standards for development, learning and care of all children from birth to the age of five’ (1). From September 2008, every registered early years provider and school will be required to follow the EYFS and monitor children’s progress according to 69 ‘early learning goals’.

According to the Department for Education and Skills (DfeS), EYFS ‘is underpinned by the key principles of treating every child as unique, creating loving and secure relationships and environments in which children can learn and develop at their own pace, and with enjoyment’.

Will the government ever learn? It seems that such is New Labour’s reliance on targets as the only measure of success that even children’s early lives and learning will now be measured by lists, tick-boxes and rigid expectations and outcomes. Yet such an intricate monitoring of children’s behaviour and abilities is an anathema to creating a ‘challenging and enjoyable’ learning environment. A ‘national curriculum for toddlers’, as the framework document has been labelled, will surely take all the fun out of pre-school care.

On top of outlining 69 learning goals – as if young children can be put on some kind of officially approved conveyor belt towards success – the framework document also outlines several hundred developmental milestones that children should be assessed against.

According to the document, children under the age of one should show an ability to communicate through ‘crying, gurgling, babbling and squealing’, and should be able to ‘play with their own fingers and toes’ and ‘focus on objects around them’. Toddlers up to two years of age should be interested in ‘putting objects in and out of containers’ and should ‘begin to move to music, [and] listen to or join in with rhymes or songs’.

There will be Ofsted inspections to measure childcarers’ performance against EYFS national standards. So we’re told, for instance, that infants get a lot of enjoyment from ‘finding their nose, eyes or tummy’ and therefore carers should monitor whether babies are showing an interest in such games. But what if some babies don’t? What conclusion should a carer draw if a child is not really interested in tummy-finding activities? No childcare professional or researcher could really answer that question with any degree of certainty.

There is no convincing case for implementing such a detailed monitoring of young children’s behaviour and their carers’ responses to that behaviour. Beverley Hughes, the UK minister of state for children, says: ‘This government is committed to giving every child the best start in life…. We know that good early-years provision leads to better outcomes in a young person’s future education and life chances.’

Well, no, we don’t know that, actually. No serious researcher would draw such a conclusion from the studies into early-years education carried out to date. Studies investigating the short-term effect of early-years programmes on cognitive and emotional development suggest the evidence that it provides future benefits is murky at best. And there is no clear evidence at all that early-years education has longer-term benefits in terms of educational achievement and positive life or career chances in the future.

The fact is that children are unpredictable and cannot be moulded to order from birth. According to Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at the George Washington University Medical School in the US, measurements of behaviour in young children are a poor predictor of later outcomes in terms of education, career or ‘life chances’.

Indeed, Jean Piaget, the late Swiss polymath and one of the most influential and prolific developmental psychologists, has been rightly criticised by researchers in the field (including many of his followers) for trying to apply overly rigid age ranges to his proposed stages of emotional, cognitive and moral development. A century of research has given us great insights into what children should be capable of at different stages of development – but it has also taught us that children vary greatly in the pace and nature of their development. It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from certain children’s developmental delay, and to make any grand assessment about their cognitive, emotional or linguistic futures.

The targets approach to everything from health and education to childcare captures the government’s suspicion towards carers and parents, who allegedly cannot be left to their own devices. Unable to articulate what a good education should consist of in terms of content and resources, the government instead sets a series of abstract hurdles for young people to leap over by a certain strict period in their lives. This transforms carers and teachers into managers who must prod children in the right direction rather than cater for their sometimes differing levels of interest and inquisitiveness. At the same time, the tyranny of targets shows that the government does not trust teachers or parents to raise their children in a good and proper fashion. Thus everything, even gurgling and pencil-gripping, must be measured by a centrally-set standard in order to ensure that no child is being left behind by the apparently unthinking and uncaring adults out there.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tick-box mentality that has been introduced into the education system by today’s overly prescriptive national curriculum has driven some very good teachers out of the profession. Those who love working with children and who have a passion for passing on knowledge and facts are being put off by the overly bureaucratic measures introduced by both Conservative and Labour governments.

Who is going to be attracted to working with pre-school children if this same bureaucratic approach is brought into early-years care, too? We should not be stressing out over whether young children are learning to hold a pencil in the right way or whether they can recognise numbers between 1 and 9. Young children should be given the space to play and to use their imaginations. They will have plenty of time to catch up if they haven’t learnt to write by the time they start school – all they need is a good teacher, not a framework document that treats them like robots.

(1) See the DfES website

First published by spiked