This open letter, penned by Richard House to Sam Gyimah, caught our attention this week, not least because Richard House is one of our authors. Here is the letter in full: well said, Richard House!
Dear Sam Gyimah.
Starting a ministerial post such as yours must be exciting and daunting in about equal measure – and I’m sure that everyone in the early years field wishes you well in your new job. You’ll probably be aware that previous early years ministers (viz. Beverly Hughes, Sarah Teather and Liz Truss) have come in for no little ‘robust engagement’ from the sector, and what you will soon discover is a respectful sector that is, nonetheless, not afraid to speak its informed professional mind to government in a way that was unthinkable until quite recently.
In this short open letter, I want to mention seven core issues to which I hope you’ll be able to give concerted attention, as you find your feet in this vital new role.
1. Early experiental learning, not ‘teaching’ or ‘education’
Under the recent tenure of Elizabeth Truss, there has been a strongly discernible move away from early learning being based upon personal discovery and experience, and towards a more didactic, teacher-led approach. In the view of pretty much all professional and academic opinion in this field, this development is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of early child learning; and immense damage may well be perpetrated on the current generation of young children if this misguided, non-evidence-based approach is not reversed. And I think you need to know at the outset that you are going to have one almighty battle on your hands if it isn’t.
2. Too early quasi-formal cognitive learning, and ‘schoolification’
There has also been a recent trend towards ever-earlier cognitive learning, most notably in the literacy realm, and an associated drive to ‘schoolify’ early childhood experience – including encouraging two-year-olds into institutional school environments (which schoolifying trend, incidentally, EYFS-sceptic campaigners were predicting would happen back in 2007, before the EYFS was introduced). Not only is there no evidence base for this (it’s clearly driven far more by ‘the needs of the economy’ than by the developmental needs of young children), it threatens to collapse early childhood experience into a schooling milieu, when all informed opinion argues that early childhood needs to be treated as a quite distinct phase from that of institutional schooling. Again, I fear that you can expect battles galore if this pernicious and anti-child policy is maintained, and not reversed.
3. The central place of imaginative free play
Not unrelated to the above, under the Truss regime, free play was also subjected to a sustained attack, again presumably based on a misunderstanding of the nature of early learning, and that the young child’s ‘work’ is play (as the saying goes); and that to remove or compromise the central place of imaginative play in early development threatens to do untold damage to a generation of children – effects that can have lifelong negative health effects (our worst nightmare, perhaps, being a generation of future adults who are quite unable to play in a healthy way).
4. Disadvantaged children?
There is a highly damaging myth around that to be in favour of the kinds of policies described above is to be in support of disadvantaged children – but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, and with grotesque irony, it is precisely these children, about whom we all of course care passionately, who will suffer most under a regime that drives forward ever-earlier cognitive, quasi-formal learning before children’s essential social and emotional developmental capacities are in place. All the research evidence points to this conclusion, and it would be a great service to young children if the Department for Education would begin to start basing policy on such evidence, rather than seeming to wilfully ignore it.
5. Universal childcare?
This is another modern shibboleth that needs robustly challenging. In recent times there has been an unsavoury ‘Dutch auction’ as to which of the main political parties can make the best ‘childcare offer’. What is perhaps the most inexplicable to critics is that the Conservative Party has historically been a strong supporter of the quality of family life – yet it is family life that is being substantially eroded by successive governments encouraging parents to place their children in institutional childcare at ever younger ages (again, with the needs of the economy trumping children’s wellbeing), and with a tax regime that radically discriminates against the majority of parents (usually mothers) who, given the free choice, would far sooner spend at least the first 3-4 years at home with their young children. You would do a great service to young children if you could show a preparedness to think critically about this misguided trend, and encourage an open, wide-ranging public and governmental debate on the place of quality family relationships in modern Britain, and how institutionalising childcare for ever younger children might well be compromising these relationships.
6. ‘Less is more…’, and the ‘audit culture’
The age-old saying ‘Less is more’ operates at many levels in the early years sphere – from the level of young children’s early experience, and the importance of unhurried, unforced early learning with plenty of time for free play, unintruded-upon experiencing and reverie, to the level of the policy-making process itself. You’ll no doubt be aware of the many criticisms that have been levelled at the ‘initiative-itis‘ to which the education world has been subjected over many by both of the main political parties (both of whom promise when in opposition to reverse it, but then just ratchet it up still further when in government). In early childhood, not doing something (Keats’ ‘negative capability’) can often, paradoxically and counter-intuitively, be far more effective than ‘doing something’ – and it would be a tremendous step forward for education in general if we were to have a minister who genuinely understood this – and acted (not!) on it. There is also a strong argument that ‘audit culture’ practices, and the crude ‘proceduralist’ mentality that goes with them, can only ever be a crude bludgeon when applied to the delicate, complex world of early childhood. So you would only receive a warm response from right across the field if you were to reconsider the recent government decision to introduce baseline testing for Reception-class-four-year-olds – and this against virtually all informed professional and academic opinion right across the field. With some 90 per cent of the world’s countries having a school starting age of six or seven, it is quite inexplicable to many of us as to why England seems to be determinedly moving in precisely the opposite direction.
7.Listening to the ‘strident’ voices…
I am arguably one of those voices; and I know that at times, campaigners like myself can come across as strident and overly critical. Please know that this is not in any way because we enjoy being critical and oppositional, but rather, it is because we feel so passionately about the harm being perpetrated on young children by inappropriate policy-making. Your former leader Margaret Thatcher was well known for positively welcoming critics, and critiques of her policies, so as to help her think them through more fully; and it would be great if you could take a leaf out of her book, and start to listen and engage with those vastly experienced people in the field who are dissenting from current trajectories (for example, the Pre-School Learning Alliance and the ‘Too Much Too Soon’ campaign). The more you show a willingness to engage with, rather than ignore, these voices, the less shrill and the more constructive they will become – and the greater the possibility that your policy initiatives will become much more effectively grounded in the best thinking and research that exists in the field.
Sam, if you can respond genuinely and open-mindedly to at least some of the above concerns, your tenure in the post will not only be much smoother than that of your predecessors, but you could even go down in history as one of the most progressive and enlightened early years ministers ever. For all our young children’s sakes, I do hope that this will happen.
Yours in good faith and in hope,
Dr. Richard House, C,Psychol., Education Campaigner