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When does responsibility for education begin and end? And whose job is it to educate our youngest children? Here, Natalie MacDonald looks to answer the questions that are often swept under the carpet…

One of the questions that has been forefront in my mind recently is where education should begin.

Current and proposed policy and curriculum development targets children from the age of three and beyond – does this also mean that education begins when children walk through the doors of school and finishes when they leave?

Successful Futures’ has been dubbed as the chance to ‘build a new curriculum for Wales which is fit for the 21st century and beyond’ – a revolution of sorts, and whilst there is significant opportunity for improvement and development of the education of our future generations, there is something missing. What happens before the age of three?

Successful Futures mentions ‘early years’ three times, making reference to the ‘early years of secondary school’ twice and in a bio of one of the advisers; ‘pre-school’, ‘birth’ and ‘under three’ are not mentioned at all.

The same is true for ‘Education in Wales: Our National Mission’, with no acknowledgment or inclusion of early years as part of the plan for the education of our children.

As an early years researcher, lecturer and practitioner I find this baffling.

Engaging and working with families and children under three has been seen as a priority and initiatives such as Investors in Families and supporting guidance for the Pupil Development Grant recommend using this funding to make links with families and communities.

Within early years, working closely with children and families is and always has been a fundamental necessity. Across the globe, community networks are established providing a holistic approach to education such as the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.

The interesting thing here is the wall that exists between parents and education, from ‘it’s not my job to teach them’ to ‘the parents don’t do anything with them anyway’.

Before entering school there are no expectations that parents should be engaging their children in education or development, then suddenly on entry to school, parents are expected to undertake any work sent home from school.

Early years settings must also take some responsibility in this; from the youngest ages relationships are established between parents and early year’s professionals, working together to provide care for their children, but again their education is overlooked and parental contributions to their child’s learning and development is often missing.

The divide between care and education has some responsibility here, early years professionals do not need to take account of education, with the links between supporting children’s development and learning prior to three and the skills needed to continue their development in education overlooked.

This does not mean to say that early years should be focussed on getting children ‘school ready’, more that supporting children’s development in the early years helps children to be ‘learning ready’.

A mutual recognition and understanding is needed here of the work, knowledge and roles of early years professionals and early years teachers.

The recognition that learning fine and gross motor skills in early years’ settings contributes to their literacy development at a later stage, and learning to self-regulate and share with their peers facilitates the development of group work and team work.

Policy and transition have a key role to play here; stronger links need to be created to establish a unified profession, allowing parents, early years professionals and teachers to provide a consistent approach to supporting the learning and development of their children.

Let us take transition for example, birthing class opportunities are provided to new parents taking them through the stages of pregnancy, birth and the first few weeks.

Why do we not provide parents with the opportunities to discover how their child will learn and develop, what they can expect and their role in supporting this?

This would provide parents with some ownership over their children’s development and creating a sense of responsibility that can be nurtured and continued when working with early years professionals and then teachers, eliminating the ‘them and us’ from the outset.

I am sure both parents, teachers and early years professionals would establish a more effective working partnership if there is a clear understanding of roles, responsibilities and purpose.

The difficulty remains that this requires a shift in culture than can only be achieved long-term, not in an ever-changing policy and funding environment.

Trust needs to be placed in the evidence that supports this outlook and time allowed to embed these changes before we will see improvements in attainment and working relationships, and I don’t know that governments are brave enough to take up this challenge.

But rest assured, taking the time and energy to bridge the great divide would pay dividends.

  • Natalie MacDonald is an early years lecturer at Yr Athrofa