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An early years practitioner in the Millennium: Challenges of technology, austerity, accountability, and globalisation. One practitioner’s perspective.

I was always a dedicated professional who ensured all boxes were ticked and then probably ticked again. As I became more experienced, I sometimes felt uneasy with my developing practice.  I have come to realise that child centred approaches were sometimes tolerated rather than welcomed and facilitated in schools.  The structured session’s existence was beginning to be accorded a higher status to ensure positive outcomes and life chances for children. The practice of using hand bells and stopwatches in nursery at predetermined points in the day so that curriculum sessions could begin promptly and continue efficiently was not unheard of.  Literacy sessions that lasted for over forty-five minutes in reception classes were sneaking back in reminding me of the literacy hour. These events did not rest easy with me and I remember an image that would pop into my mind.  I likened the brain to a fluffy cloud that would grow and expand when children were engaged and challenged creatively.  This image would change significantly with the brain shrinking, turning grey and heavy when being the child was being instructed in a didactic manner. I questioned what would best enable children to be successful and happy adults and what was my role in this?

How do children in your provision know when an activity or session is due to begin or end?

How flexible are your routines in response to children’s interests and motivation? Where is there flexibility and what routines are fixed?

My experiences in early years settings exposed me to divergent philosophies and practice. This led me to believe that practitioners spoke different and sometimes contradictory languages of which opposing proponents could not and possibly would not understand. On one occasion, I was reproved, as ‘my worksheets were not ready on time.’  I was left with a feeling of consternation and did not point out that I had never used them in the nursery.   I found it more straightforward to debate to better effect structural issues rather than philosophical and theoretical tensions.   In one particular instance, I was involved in a long drawn out process with the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted to ensure that ‘rising threes’ would get their legislative entitlement. I found myself repeatedly explaining that the legislation had not been amended regarding staffing ratios for children under three even though legislation had been altered to allow ‘rising threes’ to attend nursery classes within a primary school setting.  The lawyers in the DfE made the final decision. I believe the successful outcome here was in most part due to having tangible statute to base my line of reasoning.

Have there been any key influences or role models for you and your practice?

Play, interest led activities, secure base, time to explore are basic facets often evident in the EYFS.  I saw these key attributes being increasingly compromised in what I now believe is an accountability culture emanating from a neoliberal agenda.  Children were being squeezed from the centre of pedagogical intent.  I often questioned the usefulness of assessment practices but more significantly the negative effect that it has on the experiences of our youngest children. I remember my colleague in the adjacent Reception class and I, spending two full days during half-term organising profile evidence to ensure it could be found quickly during the external moderation process. Success in this process was very important to me. That said, I felt very frustrated about the amount of time spent on this administrative task especially having a young baby who had to be side-lined.  I was also aware that I was not as prepared as I would like to have been for my return to school due to administrative tasks.   I grew increasingly sceptical of current assessment practices and came to believe that once an outcome becomes a target it could no longer be an accurate assessment.

Why do you assess the children in your setting?

How do assessment practices influence the children’s overall experience?

I was startled the day I realised that I was seeing children and their play in terms of numbers. Assessment practices were ingrained in my psyche. When Baseline Assessment changed from being graded one to nine in thirteen areas, I found it very difficult to get out of the habit of reaching for a pen and post-it note when a child evidenced practice that was seen to match a certain profile point.  My reductionist practice took some time to whittle away and only then to see it merely changing to a different format. That said, the label outstanding was integral to my identity as an outstanding professional and did provide a basis for pedagogical choice.

What are your aims, long and short-term for the children you work with and how do you seek to meet them?

These frustrations continued to grow and I remember saying that it should not be so difficult to have discussions that contextualise and perhaps challenge existing practice. It was at this point that I decided to take some time to think about my next steps. This was exceptionally hard to do as I had always been securely employed and to change that would not only affect me but also my family. Additionally, teaching was very much part of my identity. I did however go on to spend ten months doing supply work in primary schools across all age ranges. As most of my experience in schools had been working with affluent families, I wanted more experience with children and families in more challenging circumstances and to see how my skills fared in such disparate contexts.   I really valued this time as it did allow me to witness varying contexts that differed to my previous experiences.  I was particularly keen to experience different leadership and management styles. This time gave me the confidence to apply to university to do my Masters in Education and at this point, I began doing some work for the university.

Are there any opportunities for continued professional development (CPD)?  What are they?

Are there avenues available to network and how can these be developed?

During my studies, my dissertation focused on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile investigating the intended purposes of the Early Years Foundation Stage profile and the actualities of it.  It transpired that my focus was naïve. In this small study, I found occasions when practitioners could be very accepting of policy particularly the accountability and testing culture.  Certainly, factors such as time constraints and performance management were restricting.  When discussing policy and practice with practitioners, the rationale for pedagogy would often be external to the children and their development. Rationale for pedagogy would include evidence being required for Ofsted or the Headteachers requests for an outcome emanating from a prescriptive process.  Children’s engagement, motivation and development were often not high on the list in the rationale for pedagogical choice.  The social complexities of learning, the democratic ability to respond at the most local level were not often cited.

What factors do you consider when formulating next steps for children and how are they prioritised? 

At university, I taught a popular unit, which encouraged the understanding and practice of reflexivity. The students were encouraged to question their developing philosophy of teaching and learning.  I was not surprised when one of the students said that she enjoyed the reflexive process but said ‘It’s not like this in school.’  This view of the teacher as a passive recipient of directives was in keeping with the passive view of the child.  I wonder then was this acquiescence contributing to the frustrations I had previously felt in schools.

In your setting, what forums are available to help you to understand and shape both you and your setting’s developing policy and practice?

How can these avenues be introduced and developed?

I became driven to understand such a system where the interest led, social context of learning is challenged and curtailed.  I can engage with a stepped pedagogical approach, as there are platforms where one can deliberate, negotiate and return. To simply define the English system as a stepped approach belies the overwhelming inhibitors for a child to step to one side or to take a step backwards. Not a stepped approach but a supersonic rocket may be a better analogy. 

Have you experienced barriers to your aspirations for both you and the children in your setting? 

Where did these barriers come from?

I now understand that I wanted to position children at the centre of my practice underpinned by sound theoretically, social, neurological and biological knowledge.   This I am coming to believe potentially caused a disconnect between me and the system that appears to put a predetermined set of knowledge at the heart of pedagogy. However, at the time I did not have the tangible knowledge to understand where the disconnect lay.

To help mould my developing philosophy, I travelled to New Zealand on a funded Fellowship awarded from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. My aim was to observe the potential of alternative perspectives with a practitioner lens as this is where the bulk of my experience lay. I resisted encouragement to focus my observations on a particular area such as learning stories and I am grateful that my focus continued to be open ended. I am thankful for the qualitative methodology that allowed for potentiality in my learning.  I did not want to limit my observations, as you do not know what you do not know!  I felt it important to take my learning from my own understanding, which gave me ownership of my development at a pace uniquely suited to my experience and knowledge. 

In your experience, have you found CPD effective?

Do you have opportunities to frame your own CPD?

What would a good model of CPD look like?

My time in New Zealand gave me the knowledge and experience to know that my uneasiness and tensions felt in an English early year’s classroom did indeed have a rational basis.  Different and yet successful models do exist in the industrial world. Practitioners and children can be viewed as competent and capable in their own right.  Practitioners can be equipped to navigate their own practice and philosophy.  Democratic structures appear to be effective when staff are well informed and accorded the professional autonomy required to be responsive to local circumstance. The notion of a reflective practitioner may be curtailed in England  in part due to incessant externally driven changes in curriculum and assessment practices, which was not the case in New Zealand.

The role of neuroscience in early childhood education has now become of interest to me.  I would like to develop my ‘fluffy cloud ‘image of the brain to a more sophisticated understanding. The great potential of this knowledge I feel is not being explored and I would like to see this area in initial teacher education (ITE). Perhaps there will be opportunities for this as the Carter review has called for ITE to be overhauled (Carter, 2015). The potential for merging disciplines does however currently appear to be anathema to the teaching profession.   A multidisciplinary, thorough understanding of child development is essential to enable teachers to respond effectively to local complexities. When practitioners are highly trained and knowledgeable in child development it its widest sense, then they will be equipped to navigate their individual professional journeys and the destiny of the team and settings that they work in.

I believe that multidisciplinary knowledge will empower practitioners to be more able to respond to the particular context that they are in. Pedagogy in the English education system is a tangled web, which is impossible to stand firmly on.  A better-defined understanding of my own teaching philosophy and child development would have enabled me to communicate to better effect at times of unease. A more sophisticated understanding of theory would have enabled me to contextualise my practice.  This has led me to conclude that the discipline and practice of early years teaching is far more complex than I had ever imagined. Being knowledgeable at government, corporate, community, setting and practitioner level accords authority for each stakeholder to respond effectively locally. This is key to enhancing the long-term life chances of all children wherever they may be. It is also a necessity for the future of teacher professionalism.

Taking the decision to change direction in my career was a very difficult one indeed.  That said I am delighted that I did, as I have been extremely fortunate with many exciting opportunities coming my way. Changing direction may not be desired or an option for every practitioner but I wholeheartedly encourage CPD in all the various guises that it can be presented.  This could include reading or organising discussion networks and may not be quite as radical as my journey. You never know though, some of you may apply to become Winston Churchill Fellows. I do hope so as it is an amazing opportunity, which I would encourage anybody to consider.  I also now know that my philosophy is a developing one and welcome opportunities to engage in professional discussion to help mould my continuing understanding and subsequent motivations.

  • Sir Andrew Carter OBE (2015) Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training. Viewed online 8th January 2017 
  • BrainU   http://brainu.org/
  • Chudler, E. H., & Bergsman, K. C. (2014). Explain the Brain: Websites to Help Scientists Teach Neuroscience to the General Public. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 577–583.
  • Nathan Makare Wallis X Factor Education   https://www.facebook.com/NathanMikaereWallis/
  • Winston Churchill Memorial Trust      http://www.wcmt.org.uk/



WChurchill, a tutor in Initial Teacher Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, was awarded a Travelling Fellowship for 2016 to visit Germany and New Zealand to researchbest practice in early years care and education.

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