Tuesday, 17 March 2009

A pedagogic obscenity

Danger: daft preschool neme official in England!
But just maybe better times ahead?

If you are in England, with a young disabled child to bring up and educate, if you are a conductor or if you are trying to run a proper conductive preschool service of any kind, this beast is already unleashed amongst you.

And if you are outside England, don’t be smug at our discomfort, memes (read here: daft ideas) almost by definition have a way of spreading like microbes. Be afraid, be very afraid…

The English preschool in a command economy

In English education we now have what used to be called in Soviet Studies (Sovietology) a ‘command economy’. In the days before the Wall came down, this used to be the subject of fascinated analysis, largely to document and elaborate why it didn’t work, with especial fascination towards particularly disastrous central policies, imposed heartlessly across society, and mechanistically ’managed’ by obedient Jobsworths (you can hardly blame them, though!) and leading to the most dreadful woes, social, ecological, economic, human.

Older readers who grew up in the Hungarian Peoples’ Republic may personally remember similar policies and their effects. Younger Hungarian readers may have heard of them from their parents and grandparents. Of course one may laugh wryly at such things now (Hungarian orange anyone?) but the personal effects and experiences could be lemon-bitter.

The English preschool (the ‘Early Years Foundation Stage’) as now conceived looks set to contribute to an educational Great Famine that, though it won’t result in the deaths of millions, will wrack incalculable damage upon children’s development, their education and ultimately therefore the economy itself that it is supposed to boulster. Amongst this man-made (and woman-made) catastrophe disabled children will probably be particularly disadvantaged. And attempts to established a rationally based conductive-pedagogical approach for young disabled children and their families will be lumbered with ever more absurd practical requirements and a further buzzing haze of confusion to hinder its articulation in the new world of uniform ‘multi-agency’ provision.

The ‘foundation stage’ as far as I understand it, covers those various stages of development and pedagogical requirements that succeed each other from birth up to six years of age. I have to restate here ‘as far as I understand it’. I beg, please, to be corrected. How can our state system believe that these first six years are some sort of single unit covering the whole of this age-span? (It should of course be longer where children have developmental disabilities but this is a bureaucratic stage, not a matter of developmental and pedagogic reality, and at six years, according to this rubric, it is time to move on into the next ‘educational’ fantasy park).

Foreigners, please believe me.

You couldn’t make it up

Here is just one small manifestation that swam unwanted into my view over the last week, concerning the ‘profile data’ required to be collected to guide what teachers do when children move on to learn what comes next.

The teachers’ unions do not like this. This is part of a response that the National Association of Head Teachers published last week.

The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) is a way of summing up each child`s development and learning achievement at the end of the Foundation Stage. It is based on ongoing observation and assessments in all 6 areas of learning and development [don‘t ask]… Judgement for FSP should be based on at least 80% coming from observation and knowledge of the child.

The NAHT of course has its own agenda and its therefore its own good reasons not to be happy with this new central direction (and NB, participation will not be voluntary, for anyone!). As for CE, well…
  • you may wish to ponder theoretically, about the predictable pedagogic outcomes of ‘assessing’ children, all children but most especially disabled children, 80% on their levels of present development;
  • you may care to wonder practically about what space will be left for ‘operative observation’ and the relative weight that will be granted to pedagogic evaluation in the face of 80% weighting to how children are now;
  • you may reasonably ask yourself what realistic prospect remains for families who want to bring up their children conductively in the context of a birth-to-school-leaving educational system seemingly determined to attune their children’s education ever more finely to the past rather than to the future of their development.

Government will take no notice of the teachers’ unions, and would certainly have none for what CE might have to say, even if it had a voice. All this is a done deal.

Who is responsible ?

  • Who is responsible for the constellation of strangely dated, quaint and rather fey notions that underpin this notion of ‘assessing’ children for what they can (and can’t) do, rather that what they might be brought to do through properly motivation and attuned pedagogy. Who knows?
  • Whence this mix of Rousseauesque nativism, sentimentalist child-centredness and the cult of ‘spontaneous learning‘? Who knows?
  • Most amazingly and intriguingly, how does this woolly, muddled mix of reaction and sentimentality manage to sit with such apparent ease at the heart of an official preschool policy that believes itself hell-bent upon achieving improvements in the development and education of the next generation? Who knows?

It is all too easy to imagine a close coterie of senior academics and officials, within and closely involved with the major relevant government agencies, with the formulation of policy and its directives firmly in their control, mafiosi, party hacks, apparatchiki, running dogs and lickspittles, Parteigenossen, for this preschool ideology. They clutch tight to the top of the greasy pole that they have climbed and carefully police who is allowed to clamber up behind. You might think that…

You might even offer a few names but, while there may well be elements of reality in such an analysis, as in many sectors of society, this does not explain the powerful grip that the vision 'early childhood' represented here has upon not just politicians and bureaucrats but within the media, the schools and other centres of influence within our society. There is surely some other factor at work.

One has recently been hearing about the notion of the birth-cohort effect in the changing political orientations of succeeding generations. We observe that older people tend to be more ‘conservative’ that the younger generation and one may therefore deduce that people become more conservative, less socially liberal, as they grow older, for all sorts of reasons. Not so, says a birth-cohort analysis. Nowadays’ oldies are carrying on attitudes and values that they learned in the the world of their childhood and young adulthood. They have always been like that, and will continue to be so. Correspondingly, today’s young adults will carry their ‘liberal’ views with them into old age.

By this analysis, our present masters in politics, administration and academe, now largely in their fifties and early sixties, whose higher education and early professional careers (and many of them involved here will have been student-teachers and teachers at that time) are carrying in their hearts the sorts of notions about child development and education that were radical and trendy in ththe England of the seventies… Yoiks, it hardly bears thinking about!

Nil desperandum

Such a formulation might turn all too readily tto despair atthe prospects of affecting the ways that things have turned out. It certainly offers a wretchedly depressing prospect, looking at what we have already been brought to and in dread expectation of what even dottier notions and directives ‘they‘ might come up with next.

I do not know the scholarly status of the idea of saecula, nor of the relative value of the empirical data for and against the attractively dynamic ideas of Strauss and Howe. Their standpoint is, however, worth watching for its prediction of forthcoming favourable change in the Zeitgeist. It is also compatible, at least in part with the much lamented Klaus Riegel’s dialectical theory of development across the lifespan, formulated in a world very different from our own.

After all, only a year ago bankers, financiers, speculators, were counted as ‘Masters of the Universe’. Hard to conceive now of how, not that long ago, nobody could have plausibly voiced a contrary opinion on this now pilloried crew. Maybe even in England we can dare hope for analogous public recognition that present educational Emperors and Empresses, for all their present power in the land, actually have no clothes, and hope too for the the meltdown of present structures and a credibility crunch for the ideas behind them that presently bar the advance of really progressive practice and understanding.


NAHT (2008) Foundation Stage Profile and Target Setting, 12 February

Howe, N., Strauss, W. (1991) Generations: the History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, NY, Broadway Books

Two footnotes

1. Earlier this evening I received an email from a regular correspondent, one of several such enquiries that I have received over the recent few days:

Where on earth are you? Are you OK? … I miss your intelligent, witty and sometimes depressing postings. Get back on track! x

I therefore sat down and wrote this item, as token that I am still kicking. I do hope that will not not read as ‘depressing’…

2. The title of this item is a play on one of the titles of A. S. Makarenko’s Road to Life


  1. When historians come to name names, let us not forget the "Children's Workforce Development Council"

    As you read their home page, keep saying to yourself, this is about the upbringing of children, about children.

  2. Yes, there's another unspeakable bull in a china shop!

    Naming names, be they of people or organisations, however, will give you a list to stretch to doomsday.

    When's that? Maybe the likely impending cull of the public sector will sound the trump.

    Here's looking on the bright side...