As the SNP conference in Aberdeen announces that Scotland will sail into a golden age of developmentally informed early years practice, Liz Truss in London is in the process of scuttling England’s early years services and condemning early years practice in England to remain in the dark ages for the remainder of her premiership.
To understand how and why this is happening, we have to look first at how the human brain develops and how it evolved. Then we need to consider the priorities of different governments when they set economic concerns against human welfare.
How do human brains develop?
Everyone knows that to build a sturdy house, it must rest on sturdy foundations. As the Harvard Center on the Developing Child explains, “Brains are built, over time, from the bottom up”.
The question is, what does a creating a ‘sturdy foundation’ look like when building a brain? Does it consist of flexible, practical experiences that are shared with peers and adults, enriched by language which draws children into understanding? Or does it consist of a didactic programme in which a fixed agenda is directly communicated by adults to children in large groups?
The developmental synaptic connection programme is a long project in human beings. The basic neuronal architecture is constructed in early childhood which stretches across the first seven years of life, as the individual not only stores ‘content’ but intricately links concepts together in infinite networks through interwoven neuronal pathways that are built through experience within and upon the physical and social environment.
Children under seven have spent no more than 84 months in the world; they therefore have a very limited pool of existing knowledge to draw on to try to make sense of incoming information. Therefore, ‘beginning at the end’ with highly fixed objectives about what adults require them to learn is problematic, because they are at such an early stage of building their cognitive architecture.
This is particularly so for a species that relies so much on its unique ability to communicate complex concepts and ideas through language. Consequently, once the basic physical skills such as walking and manipulating objects are in place, getting to grips with this element of human life is the most important function of early childhood.
How are human beings ‘special’?
The greatest difference between human beings and other evolved creatures is our ability to use language to communicate complex concepts and ideas. This was further extended as our species developed literacy; not only were people able to share the contents of their thoughts in immediate verbal interaction, but they also became able to write them down and share them with a huge number of other individuals, even long after they were dead. This served as rocket fuel for cultural and technological advancement.
For the young child just at the beginning of a human life, increasingly competent language skills act as a learning accelerator as they open the door for the child to share their own thoughts with others, and to gradually develop the ability to understand the thoughts of others as they are communicated through language.
This is a long process and, as all adult human beings know, communication is not always complete even in adult conversation! However, as we mature, we gradually begin to think and understand others more effectively. Developing shared meanings is therefore a crucial element of early education. How else would we learn to deal with (and see the humour in) a conversation like this?
Literacy: the key early years ‘secondary’ skill
From the evolutionary point of view, young human beings have two types of skills they need to develop: primary skills such as walking and basic speech, which in the course of a normal developmental process emerge without the need for direct instruction from adults; and secondary skills which have to be directly taught.
Literacy is a prime example of a secondary skill which is not common to all human civilisations, and which needs to be directly taught. To start reading and writing, a child needs to have sufficient experience in the relevant primary skills (the ability to use verbal skills to engage in increasingly complex conversations) before they receive direct instruction in the commensurate secondary skills (decoding and producing a written text).
Customarily, in industrial and post-industrial societies across the world, schooling plays a major role in the development of the necessary secondary skills that underpin competent adulthood.
There are inevitable differences in the speed at which individuals develop secondary skills. In terms of literacy there is a very rough normal distribution curve starting in the middle of the fourth year of life, stretching to the middle of the sixth. Nature and nurture will both be involved in where individuals fall on this graph, for example how children are spoken to in the early days of life, including the variety of words and languages they hear, will have an important effect.
The importance of ratios with young children
Four-to-seven-year-olds who attend settings with high adult:child ratios and well-trained specialist early years teachers who give them copious activities for adult and peer verbal interactions will be gradually drawn into literacy by their teachers, via a mixture of techniques including but not entirely rooted in phonics. This is particularly the case where the adults observe them closely to determine their readiness, cultural knowledge and interests.
But a setting with high child:adult ratios that enforces a fixed, adult-led literacy programme on young children in large groups before their speaking and listening competence is sufficiently developed will risk bafflement, boredom and shattered confidence. This is particularly the case for those who have limited conversational experience in the language conventions of the setting and the adults delivering the programme.
Ticking the relevant boxes on statutory testing requirements that are imposed at a too early stage, in order to feed into teachers’ and schools’ performance management, throws further rocks into the path.
It is very clear which type of setting costs less: the one with large groups, didactic instruction and high child:adult ratios. But can we afford the costs of the fall-out from such developmentally ill-informed practice as the children grow into adults? Consider in particular the importance of high quality early years experiences for later learning skills and mental health as explored in Yorkshire Bylines a few months ago.
A tale of two cities: very different priorities
This leads us to new British prime minister Liz Truss, whose policy for three-to-four-year-olds in England is beginning to leak from various government sources.
Conservative policy for five-to-seven-year-olds has long been that they are admitted to formal schooling with high child:adult ratios. Some elements of early years practice, including slightly lower child:adult ratios, are retained in their first ‘reception’ year. But it would appear that there are already moves afoot to curtail this.
It has been reported that Truss is considering removing the adult:child supervision ratios completely, including in early years education and care settings caring for three-to-four-year-olds.
Truss first entered this debate in 2013 as early years minister, commenting that she found free flow early years settings “chaotic” and that she wanted to see “children learning to listen to a teacher [and] respect an instruction, so that they are ready for school”.
But why would a mother of young children at that time have supported such developmentally ill-informed policy? Would she have been content with such practice for her own children? An interview in The Times in 2013 throws some light on this question. It seems at that time, Truss employed a nanny.
She suggested in this interview that she would quite happily send her children into the higher child:adult ratio regime that she was recommending- at some future unspecified time. But whether she ever followed through on that – or whether she in fact believed that it is reasonable for the children of those who can pay privately to receive a higher quality introduction to learning than those whose parents are forced to rely on state-funded services – is currently unclear.
What is clear, however, is that England’s policy for early years education is already set at a very high level of economic parsimony, negatively impacting upon developmental needs. It’s also clear that Truss’s proposed reforms would ramp that up, while Scotland moves in the other direction.
This is not the only area of policy in which Scotland has chosen to value human welfare above cost-cutting. As a developmental psychologist, I would however argue that Truss’s plans for early years education will potentially have the most disastrous consequences and, ironically, will impose a much higher economic cost on society in the long run. Because developmentally deprived children grow into learning-deprived and emotionally fragile young people and adults.
NB: Some of the content of this article has been paraphrased from: Pam Jarvis (2020) The Myth of Early Acceleration in Sue Palmer (Ed) Play is the Way. Paisley: CCWB Press.