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Minds Matter 2018 Conference (1st June 2018)


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With a generous invitation from the Pre-school Learning Alliance Helen and I set off for London last Friday 1st June. 

Working at The Foundation Stage Forum, we are constantly reminded of the pressures that exist for those working in early years. Our forums resonate with questions: ‘How are you going to make this (30 hours) work?’, ‘What would you do if this happened to you (behaviour issues / staff issues)?’, ‘Is anyone else struggling to recruit staff?’, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do’. These are themes that recur and we never underestimate the value of our supportive network of members who listen without judgement, help without hesitation and support without question. We, at the FSF, value so much this professional friendship given so willingly. However, over recent years, relentless policy changes, changes of focus and personnel make for an unsettled sector. The desire to do the absolute best for children means that early years professionals consistently battle and feel the tensions created between doing what is right (and will result in the best outcomes for children) and what is possible (given the availability of suitably qualified staff and an ever-shrinking purse). This seemingly never-ending dichotomy unsurprisingly creates anxieties and tensions which ripple through personal lives and professional responsibilities. 

It was not surprising therefore, that the PLA’s conference focus this year was the well-being and mental health of both the adults and the children in the early years sector. The conference was titled ‘Minds Matter: protecting the wellbeing of children and practitioners in the early years’ and each key note speaker Alastair Campbell, Amanda Spielman and Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes addressed aspects of the #MindsMatter2018 agenda pertinent to their own speciality. 

The conference was opened by Jenni Trent Hughes who reminded us that despite the difficulties the sector faces we are all united in our desire to get the best for the children entrusted to our care. She acknowledged the shared understanding amongst early years professionals that ‘the more effort that is put in in the beginning for children, the larger the benefits in the end’. Jenni reminded us that we were aiming to develop children who had confidence in themselves, a confidence that would carry them successfully through the next stages of their learning. 
This focus on supporting, nurturing and developing children’s confidence was understood and appreciated across the conference floor. The first speaker asked us to consider the impact of this child-centred focus on the workforce. Neil Leitch PLA.JPG
Neil Leitch, the PLA’s the chief executive, spoke passionately about the results of the recent PLA survey. The survey results formed the basis of the PLA report published to coincide with the conference. The data collected in their ‘Minds Matter’ survey proved stark reading. In his speech, Neil reminded us of the issues currently facing the sector: the questions surrounding sustainability such as “How can providers afford to deliver what they set out to do?” and “How can providers do what is best for children?” He pointed out that these issues are only going to get worse as we are seeing ‘more children with more issues earlier and earlier in their lives’. That over half of survey respondents “say that financial resources have been a source of stress ‘fairly’ or ‘very often’ over the past month” is concerning. There is little ‘good news’ on the horizon as we were reminded that the current direction of travel for UK education did not offer any hope for those working in early years. 

The survey results show that the ongoing datafication of education and the associated recording of points against which key stage progress can be measured, is demotivating the workforce and creating a mental health timebomb in the sector.
To try and defuse this mental health timebomb Neil announced that the PLA would be working with both Ofsted and DfE on a workload and paperwork review. The appreciation of the conference floor was palpable and we, at the FSF, look forward to working with PLA through our forums and through our shared work on the APPG Childcare and Early Education. Neil closed by thanking the early years sector and reminded us all of the very crucial work we do in making a real different to the lives of the youngest members of our society. 
The next speaker, Alastair Campbell, drew attention away from the children in early years and focused instead on workforce well-being. Alastair began by reminding us that we are who we are because of the things that happen to us, not despite them.

Alistair Campbell.JPG He emphasised that the things that happen to us shape us, build our character and make us stronger. This resilience then impacts across our lives, into our relationships, our work place and into society. In our role in early years, Alastair implored us to recognise our own ability to support and shape future generations. We should never underestimate the impact we have as teachers and our responsibility is to help the next generation to take us forward with positivity and hope. There was acknowledgement that mental health is more freely spoken about now that it ever has been previously. However, although it is easier now to discuss mental health issues there remains much to be done regarding the general availability of treatment and support opportunities. This means that employers have a great responsibility to ‘lead the charge’ and take care of their existing workforce and welcome honesty and openness concerning mental health when recruiting. Alastair said “You can wait for a long time for the Government to come and help you … make the best of what you have and never forget that “the greatest wonder of the world is the mind of a child” and we, in our varied roles within education, have a great opportunity to make a difference.  
Following on from Alastair Campbell was Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector. There had been that morning a front page ‘splash’ in the Daily Mail concerning the speech that was to be made at the conference. 

The full transcript of the speech is here. Unfortunately, because the speech was entirely scripted and read verbatim it came across as somewhat stiff and stilted. Daily Mail front page.jpg
The Chief Inspector again sought to allay the fears of the sector regarding the Bold Beginnings report. We were reminded that it was with the 0-5 age group that we had the greatest opportunity to make a difference to children’s lives.  We were told that early literacy was a “lynch pin of education” without which failure at every future stage was a very real possibility. “When you make a reader you give them the world” was the emotive point to take away. We were reminded of the key findings and recommendations from the report and reassured that the report was aimed at the Reception year, not pre-school. We were to feel reassured also that Ofsted were not calling for play to be removed from the Reception year. It seemed odd that this reiteration of intention was presented at a pre-school event with an ongoing message of ’It’s not about you, you don’t need to worry’ – there seemed to be little recognition or realisation that the sector moves seamlessly from one age and stage to another and there is much overlapping of provision and practise – consequently, something that affects Reception teachers will affect the early years providers in time as Reception teachers will be needing different things from us.     
Moving on from the Bold Beginnings aspect the Chief inspector announced a new focus for Ofsted on children’s physical development skills. These skills, both gross and fine motor, impact hugely on a child’s school readiness and can have negative effects on a child’s future achievement if they fail to take every learning opportunity available to them in their Reception class. The Daily Mail headline concerning toilet training was particularly stark with Ms Spielman referring to an ATL survey:

“Reluctant as I am to go down this route, one important basic skill for 4-year-olds is being able to use a toilet. This is a simple, but necessary, expectation.

So it is alarming that more and more schools report children turning up on their first day of Reception unable to do this. Indeed, there have been recent news stories about children being sent to school in nappies! A recent ATL survey found that some 70% of schools were finding more children were starting school without being toilet trained, compared with 5 years ago. And just this week there was another survey highlighting the amount of time early years teachers spend cleaning up after children having accidents.”

In early years we recognise this is an important part of our contribution to getting children ‘school ready’ and it was impressed upon us how much we should be doing to work with parents and carers to help ensure that all children are appropriately prepared. Given that this was a speech made at an early years conference to delegates who by their attendance demonstrated their understanding of the crucial nature of the early years profession this was somewhat ‘preaching to the converted’. It is important to note though that this emphasis on school readiness, physical development skills and literacy is sure to come through strongly in the next statutory framework (it is currently being reviewed) and therefore will be a key feature of the next inspection cycle. Ms Spielman was eager to press the point that Ofsted were listening to the sector and wanted to make clear how important it was to have an open and honest dialogue. Examples cited of times when Ofsted had worked to support the sector included the Ofsted’s Big Conversation, the mythbusting guide and the managing risks advice*:

“take risk seriously and to supervise children properly. But equally, don’t take away the climbing frame in case someone falls or avoid journeys to the park for fear of crossing the road. Some level of risk is part of a proper childhood. And without it, we stifle children’s natural inquisitiveness and their opportunities to learn.

*Read Gill Jones’ article for The Foundation Stage Forum which clearly explains Ofsted’s view of risk and safety culture in the early years.
The final speaker, Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes, presented some stark facts in relation to the ‘datafication’ of our education system. The facts presented created a sombre mood as conference attendees considered the impact these had on the mental health of very young children. We were reminded that if, at the end of Year 1, a child had not reached the required standard in the ‘Phonics test’ a letter was sent to parents telling them that their child had ‘failed’ the test – these children are 6!

Dr Roberts-Holmes railed on the proposed baseline assessment of children in Reception pointing out that the results of the test would be used to measure those children for the next 7 years. Reducing everything to a competition, where there are winners and losers will affect children throughout their school lives, and thereby potentially negatively affect their mental health throughout school. His point was that the insistence on making everything quantifiable so that it could be measured, tracked and reported on is solely for the benefit of decision makers – it has no positive impact on children. Indeed, quite the reverse, it creates anxieties and problems for children. It was explained that the current situation is ‘gaming’ with children’s school lives - Funding is targeted  at the lower achievers in an effort to get them to reach expected levels of development. However, because this is a competitive model it is not possible to have ‘more winners’ it is only possible to have the same number of winners, so the goalposts are moved and higher expectations are demanded. 

Dr Roberts-Holmes spoke at length about the damaging consequences of ‘ability grouping’ for children. He compared our apparent insistence on ability grouping to the Scandinavian model where ability grouping is illegal in Sweden, due to the negative effects it has on children. As Dr Roberts-Holmes said, children know which group they are in and “write themselves off before they’ve even started”. Ability grouping damages self-esteem and consequently stores up problems for the future.

In the Scandinavian system the professionalism of educators is trusted, quantifying testing is limited, results for children are better and levels of self-esteem are higher than in UK. Dr Roberts-Holmes suggests that we rethink how we measure and test children and proposes that we look to the Scandinavian model for the way forward in order to protect the mental health and well-being of the children in our care and education system.
Certainly food for thought in this conference – I took away the following message; look out for yourself, look out for your colleagues but most of all look out for the children entrusted to you because #MindsMatter2018.

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14 hours ago, Rebecca said:

A recent ATL survey found that some 70% of schools were finding more children were starting school without being toilet trained, compared with 5 years ago.

Interestingly I have just read a post on Twitter referring to this statistic. The ATL survey has 700 respondents, it was 70% of those schools, which is not the same as 70% of all schools.

Twitter piece.png

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I am one of the forum 'lurkers' as in I read a lot but don't always post but I feel quite strongly about this subject as my own daughter suffered mental health issues many of which were triggered by events through her schooling, bullying and pressures of targets and outcomes.

It is so important to be on the look out and I really enjoyed the article you posted before about well being, this one 

Thanks for raising the issue and making us take a moment to think about ourselves as well as the children in our care.


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