Last week, Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said that nurseries are failing to ensure children are ready to learn when they get to primary school. Apparently children are arriving for their first day at school unable to hold a pen, unable to recognise numbers or to use the toilet independently. In the poorest communities, as many as eight in ten children fall into this “unprepared” category.
I was a “people’s panel” guest on BBC Wiltshire last week discussing this. You can listen here (the discussion is at about 01:27)
I went to a Montessori nursery school, where I learned basic letters and numbers before starting school. When I got to school though, I was in a minority – a lot of children had never attended any sort of educational institution before that point, and were all taught the alphabet at the age of 5. Granted, my first school was exceptional in that it had only 30 pupils in the whole building (years 1-4), so we all got an arguably higher standard of education any way, but still – not until we were 5. Very few of us had attended nurseries or pre-schools. Many of the children from that school have gone on to great things, despite not beginning their education until they were 5. They have not been blighted by this terrible neglect faced by most children of the 1980s.
What is this rush with having children in a structured learning environment at younger and younger ages?
And is it really the responsibility of nurseries to teach children these things?
My daughter goes to an absolutely fantastic nursery. The staff are all lovely, the building is lovely, they do such a vast range of activities I can’t keep up with it all. She wanders off happy in the mornings, and chatters all the way home. For World Book Day they had a whole week of activities, including a day where they re-enacted Oh Dear complete with toy animals and hay everywhere.
Last week, I went to parents’ evening, where her keyworker talked through with me how she was getting on, and we discussed her moving downstairs to the next room when she’s two. She showed me S’s Learning Journey, which I assume is something they have to do for each child. It was lovely to see photos of S playing with her friends, feeding herself, etc. It was nice to see photos of us together from the times I’ve been into nursery for things. It was nice to read little notes from her keyworker saying “S picked up this and played with this and I said this…” What bothered me about it was that this wasn’t just something they’d done as a keepsake for S’s time in nursery; beneath every photo and observational note, there was a list of the observational points the activity covered.
S was on her way outside to the playground. An adult held on to her hand and began to walk down the stairs. S held on to the banister as well as the adult’s hand and walked all the way down the stairs, two feet to a step.
– physical development; moving & handling; 22-36 months; Walks up or down stairs holding on to a rail two feet to a step.
Am I the only one who thinks this sort of thing is turning my daughter’s childhood into some sort of clinical experiment?
Staff in nurseries have a tough job; they have to be there before the children arrive, setting up for the day; they have to be chirpy and happy and endlessly patient with a marauding gang of snotty toddlers, to think up endlessly fun activities, to field queries and complaints from over-protective parents. I’ve never asked S’s keyworker how much the average nursery worker gets, but I’m pretty sure they’re not paid the big bucks. Why should they then be pressured to also do mountains of paperwork on top of looking after the children all day?
Don’t get me wrong; it’s nice to look at her Learning Journey and see that she’s had fun, but if I though the nursery weren’t looking after my daughter well, if I thought she wasn’t happy there, no amount of paperwork with EYFS key stages carefully noted down would stop me from removing her.
I judge how good S’s day has been by the smile on her face, the number of bags of dirty clothes I’m handed at home time, and the amount of pen/paint/sand/glitter smeared across her face and into her hair. I can tell she loves it there; I know she’s having a good time. The other day I arrived to pick her up to find one member of staff on the floor with a child on each knee having cuddles, another reading stories, and another watching several children playing in a tent. I couldn’t see S until one of them called her name, and she emerged from a tunnel with a massive grin plastered across her face. That is what I pay nursery fees for; that is how I know my child is well cared for and having a good time.
The staff would tell me if she had any sort of problem with socialising or joining in with activities. They shouldn’t have to try and fit her play into a specific framework set out by a government who really should be looking at those much larger fish they should be frying.
It seems to me that on the one hand, the government are trying to increase class sizes and change the law regarding ratios in nurseries and classrooms; but on the other hand, they’re piling more and more responsibility onto these nurseries.
Furthermore, should it really be the job of the nursery staff to teach my child to use the toilet independently? Is it their responsibility to teach her the alphabet or how to hold a pen? I would count all of those things as my job, and while staff in nurseries help parents with all of these things, it’s not their responsibility. If S leaves nursery to start school unable to use the toilet by herself, it will be me who has failed more than any nursery staff.
What is this fascination with having children shoved into school-like settings at younger ages?
If you look back at the great people of our history, how many of those started school aged 4? And in countries where children generally achieve higher levels of literacy and numeracy, they tend to start school later. What’s so wrong with letting our children play?
What does government think will happen, if my daughter just gets to play and spend time with her friends until she is 5?
I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from friends who are primary school teachers of parents depositing their beloved child in the playground at the start of Reception year, still in a nappy. Or at a point where they probably should still be in a nappy. Whether they’ve attended nurseries or not up to that point, it was the responsibility of the parent to toilet train the child. Perhaps if it was obvious they weren’t succeeding – for whatever reason – more help should have been offered before September rolled around and the poor child had to sit in a classroom of peers who were all perfectly able to go to the toilet without assistance?
Perhaps, in those “poor” areas where children are arriving at schools without basic capabilities, more support should be given to parents early on. Rather than lumber nursery staff with the job of preparing a child for school, why do we not look to the parents to take an active role in teaching their child? Perhaps more funding should be put into the provision of health visitors and suchlike so that children can be visited in the home to see how they get on, and help given to parents to improve where skills are lacking. There are relatively few parents out there who genuinely do not want to help their child to succeed. Many may need extra help with it – but they need help, not someone to do it for them, surely!