Hitting the target and missing the point

Under 7s learn best and enjoy better life chances when they’re free to play, writes Sue Palmer

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Illustration by Chris Dooks

As Chair of a children’s charity that has – at time of writing –  9,500 followers on Twitter, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m obsessed with getting to 10,000. It’s pathetic. Why should something so puerile matter to me? I’ve concluded it’s because 10,000 is a target. A target that now seems easily attainable…

But then, for goodness sake, I once wrote a piece for the Guardian about data-driven targets that have, over the last couple of decades, turned education into a tick-box exercise.  Age-related educational targets have reduced teachers to mere ‘deliverers’ of an increasingly soulless curriculum and children/young people into mere passers-of-tests.

But test results are much more attainable than well-rounded young people who can think for themselves – who are, in the words of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence ­– “confident individuals, successful learners, effective contributors and responsible citizens”. Thanks to targets, education has lost sight of its point – which must surely be to enlighten, educate and empower members of the up-coming generation to think for themselves. So I’m feeling really ashamed of myself, but I still want that bloody 10,000.


Beginning at the beginning

The charity is called Upstart Scotland. Our aim is to change the ethos of education for children under seven years of age. We want a relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for children aged three to seven, similar to the early years provision in the Nordic countries. We believe this would improve the chances of educational success for the least advantaged children in Scotland, 25% of whom currently live in poverty. And it would also improve the long-term health and well-being of all children, rich and poor. This would be great for them, and great for the whole of Scottish society.

We’ve assembled the evidence and gathered support. A few weeks ago, we published a book called Play is the Way: child development, early years and the future of Scottish education, which has been selling like hot cakes. The Vice-Chair of Upstart Scotland organised a crowd-funded campaign to give a copy to every MSP and every Director of Education in Scotland. We reached our target within three weeks, so all Scotland’s policymakers will get a copy for Christmas. But will they get the point? Are they now – thanks to the Great God Data – so locked into a target-driven culture that they won’t be capable of thinking beyond their adult-centric little box?


Why early years and targets don’t mix

Until twenty years ago, I was a literacy specialist. The driving force of my existence was to ensure all children learned to read and write. And a hundred or so years of research into literacy acquisition pointed towards the significance of a certain type of structured teaching. I loved it. It seemed so neat and tidy. And I was quite influential, writing for the TES, advising the BBC, working at government level with England’s National Literacy Strategy (NLS). Then, by accident, I was diverted into researching early child development. I discovered why early years specialists are so opposed to what literacy specialists were advocating. They aren’t concerned about the ‘how and why’ of our suggested teaching strategies. They’re concerned about the ‘when’.

At the age of fifty, I swapped disciplines. Now, after twenty years of research into early child development, all I can say is ‘peccavi’. (I have sinned!) For human development isn’t driven by top-down targets. It’s driven by evolutionary biology. Which means nature and nurture. Children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development are inextricably intertwined. So in the early years – defined by the United Nations as birth to eight – simplistic targets are completely pointless because human development is holistic and complex.

All we grown-ups can do is try and provide the best possible conditions for optimum development. These are – as they have always been – the material essentials of food, shelter and safety and the social/emotional essentials of secure attachment and self-directed play.


Daring ventures from a secure base

This evening I watched a wonderful discussion about the interface between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and poverty, with Sir Michael Marmot and Benjamin Perks. It was inspirational. However, it inevitably focused on ACEs and poverty. If I’ve learned anything in the last twenty years, it’s ‘don’t over-focus!’ We desperately need to look at childhood through an ACE’s lens – and that means huge attention to secure attachment.  And we also need to put immense effort into combating poverty. But we also have to attend to what children themselves bring to the table.

From birth, every human child is primed by evolutionary biology to learn and develop the life skills s/he will need to survive and thrive. This is achieved through play. And play – real play – can’t be controlled. We can’t make targets for it. It belongs to the children and … just happens. Along with secure attachment, children’s lust to play is how homo sapiens got this far. “Life is best organised” said John Bowlby, founder of attachment theory “as a series of daring ventures from a secure base”.

For the under-sevens, we have to leave the target-setting to the kids. And we have rejoice in the fact that –whether they reach whatever personal target they’ve set or not – they learn.




Play is the Way: child development, early years and the future of Scottish education is available from http://www.upstart.scot/play-is-the-way/




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