An Open Eye on Early Education

Genius boy in red glasses near blackboard with formulas

Grethe highlights a disturbing development in educational policy.

You may not know that in 2007, private as well as state-funded nurseries, were made to apply an educational curriculum including reading, writing, numbers and basic computing, designed by the government (with minimal consultation) and enforced by Ofsted inspection.  In 2009, 4 year-olds entered formal education, following the same programme but in classes of up to 30; learning is disguised as ‘play’, but teacher led.  Practitioners are required to assess performance continuously, ticking boxes; results are fed into national computers to predict future competence and assign remedial measures.

Open Eye is a protest group of people directly or indirectly involved in early-years care (, calling for repeal of the statutory aspect of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which imposes 69 compulsory learning goals emphasising cognitive skills.  Launched in an open letter in the Times in December 2007, we presented a Downing Street petition with more than 10,000 signatories, followed in 2008 with an Early Day Motion in Parliament that attracted over 50 MP signatories and led to an investigatory sub-committee meeeting, which resulted in changes to EYFS and an exemptions procedure, albeit deliberately labyrinthine to deter applicants.

Our major concern is that when practitioners are forced into ‘delivery’ of material and compulsory on-going assessment, their minds are in the wrong place, narrowly focussed, anxious, directive, looking for evidence of the 69 learning goals; they cannot at the same time be open, receptive, and deeply sensitive to individual children’s needs (Iain McGilchrist might see this in terms of hemispheric dominance).   While reading and maths are vital skills, forcing them at this early age is counterproductive. Small children naturally learn in an unselfconscious, unreflective way, through the whole organism; to ‘wake them up’ into self-conscious cognitive awareness of their learning experience is developmentally inappropriate and potentially harmful.

The new government has announced a review.  But although thousands of carers resigned in protest to EYFS, and many newspapers, authors and academics have added their voice to ours, 70% of the profession are now said to be in favour of the status quo.   How can that be?   While some will be concerned about status or job, 70% is a lot of people.  The real problem would seem to be that of paradigm shift: how people think.  Many of you will remember the S&MN conference on education in 2000 with Chris Clarke’s chart showing the intellectual shift that is in progress, every point of which neatly fits this situation (see below).  Bureaucrats may be doing their best, but still thinking in exclusively material terms of  filling blank slates, ‘the earlier the better’, goals and targets, concrete results, on-going assessment.

The carers who resigned were used to working in tune with a multi-dimensional universe in which organic life is driven from within, and is in constant fluid, reciprocal relationship with everything else, adapting to a myriad subtle influences.  New-paradigm thinking is evident in education outside the mainstream: Steiner and Montessori work alongside nature with processes that stimulate internal response and dovetail with self-regulation, helping children grow socially and emotionally, and constantly enriching and strengthening imagination, which builds the neural circuitry that can later be adapted for use in cognitive ways.

Play appears to the materially minded as dolls, blocks and trains.  But to the late Susan Isaacs, a much revered developmental psychologist, it was “the active dramatisation of the inner world of phantasy as a means for maintaining psychic equilibrium”[1]   We interfere with this deep mystery at our peril.   Those countries who perform better in the European literacy league, most notably Finland, allow children fully protected play until age 7, by which time the cognitive developmental window has usually opened.   Albert Einstein did not read until after his 8th birthday; was it that long delay that helped him think ‘outside the box’?

The bureaucrats who drew up EYFS evidently had no idea that the definition of play begins with the condition that it must be self-initiated, and that the point of it is in its internal effects, the subtle things that it achieves within the child’s mind, rather than the external/cognitive. Nor perhaps did they realise the extraordinary sensitivity of small children, who absorb the implication of every detail of a process, shaping themselves in response: they know instantly what adults want and do their best to produce it.  If they do not understand when expected to understand, they will infer that they are stupid and that learning is difficult.  They strive to please, but however hard they try, their organism cannot respond meaningfully to a stimulus unless it is developmentally ready to do so.   If the teacher divides a cake to demonstrate number, and they are not ready for numbers, they will comprehend only cake.

ICT skills are a major focus of EYFS, but computers introduced at too early an age can have a disastrous effect on mind.  Since the small child learns by mirroring, how will consciousness take shape in response to binary functioning?    Our future rests on the formation of those small heads.  It also rests on the rehabilitation of the legions of ‘disadvantaged’ children – who were probably the real target of Labour legislation.  Sadly, it is precisely these children who will be most damaged by premature focus on cognitive skills, bringing an earlier experience of failure and an earlier hatred of school.

However, if the government does decide to remove the compulsory aspect, EYFS could perform this task of rehabilitation, but only if practitioners can deeply think and act in accordance with the ideas of developmental psychology, embracing the subtlety of the infant world.  Thus, our next step will be to press for the establishment of an advisory body independent of both government and education to help establish the means to more appropriate attitudes and curriculum – which could be the beginning of a new world.

CC 2000  (‘Implications’ modified to clarify the early-years focus)

Old                                             New                                    Implications

Determinism                Indeterminism         Each moment is open to discovery/opportunity

Machine                      Organism                  Learning in every moment of interaction

Separate units              Interconnection        Empath, relationship, togetherness

Atoms                          Fields                       Why we do what we do

Exact quantities           Articulated structure   Understanding involves sensitivity to patterns

Observation                 Interaction                  I accept being changed by what I encounter

Control                        Participation               I learn to engage with the world

Competition                Co-operation              I look for mutual benefit

Freedom is illusory      Creativity                    I find new ways of being and perceiving


by Grethe Hooper Hansen