It is well known that children’s formative years are crucial to their development in later life. But how well are we preparing our youngest learners for the world around them? Allison Jones investigates…

In recent months, we’ve witnessed changes to education in Wales, albeit some temporary, potentially with the most significant yet to come. Curriculum 2022 is on the horizon, a welcome distraction to Covid-constrained conversations, so it feels timely to pause and reflect before seizing the opportunity to explore how we can best equip our young learners with consensually identified, quantified and evidenced essential skills.

It’s safe to say that none of us know what education in Wales will look like next year, let alone in five years’ time. Covid aside therefore, are we adequately preparing learners for an unknown, unspecified future?

According to a 2018 report published by Dell Technologies, an estimated 85% of occupations that will feature in 2030 are yet to exist. So how can we prepare a workforce for roles we know nothing about? Technology is changing at a rapid rate and with increasing automation, we are arguably teaching skills that will effectively be redundant by the time our youngest join the rat race.

I’m confident that most practitioners would agree that an early years curriculum should offer broad experiences, foster curiosity and develop a love of learning and that in doing this, we are laying the foundations on which to build engaged, independent individuals ready to face the challenges that lay ahead.

Educationalist and proponent of the importance of the arts in schools Sir Ken Robinson explores the role of creativity in the curriculum. He questions why four-year-old children will take a chance if unsure about something – they’ll take a punt because what’s the worst that can happen? Robinson questions why their capacity to take risks so naturally, dissipates by adulthood.

My days as a nursery teacher were bursting with three and four-year-olds busying themselves in and out of the classroom, some with glue sticks in hand, marvelling at their latest creations, some deciding how best to enhance their latest metropolis, whilst others thrived outdoors. There was a range of interests, experience and skills but rarely a child who uttered the words “I can’t”. They had a go, they were prepared to try and regardless of the outcome, they were usually incredibly proud of their efforts.

In stark contrast to this was my experience of teaching the same children at age eight or nine. Fast forward four years, and already, these children had developed a very firm opinion about whether they were ‘good’ at something, particularly in relation to art, music or sport. Coupled with this was a firm resistance by some to give such pursuits their best efforts. When questioned, the cacophony of reasons shared similar themes – fear of failure, making a mistake, or just looking plain stupid.

Experiential learning, problem-solving and exploration are concepts that pepper the Foundation Phase, the curriculum for three to seven-year-olds in Wales. Although the progressive nature of the Foundation Phase signalled a radical departure from its predecessor, the National Curriculum, the introduction of the National Literacy and Numeracy Framework in 2013 reinforced the expectation that children’s skills should be aligned to chronological markers, by outlining the skills that they were expected to develop through setting outcome statements for pupils aged three to 16.

Explicitly developmental in its focus, the pedagogy of the Foundation Phase however, is fundamentally at odds with measuring progress by ‘scoring’ children numerically.

With learning opportunities pigeon-holed into neatly defined subjects, we may be reinforcing the idea that being ‘good’ at school is something that happens when you achieve a high score. As creative subjects are not quantifiable in the same way, we are therefore unintentionally assigning them a lesser status. Rarely does someone make reference to themselves as being ‘good’ at school if they excelled in music, art or sport.

It cannot be a coincidence that in my experience these subjects were not assigned scores, not typically interrogated by Estyn or Ofsted, not celebrated, not ranked nor shared nationally nor in the school prospectus. We have created a hierarchy of subjects, with literacy and maths at the top and the creative subjects at the bottom of the list, as Robinson suggests.

A child’s formative years in education are laced with opportunities to gather data by scoring numerically, yet the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests there is little evidence that this enhances their learning experiences.

Within weeks of children starting their Reception year, it is a requirement in Wales to measure a child against a set of outcomes and later submit this Foundation Phase Profile score to the local authority. This is gathered nationally and used to track children’s progress and predict future outcomes. At the age of just four we are assigning numerical scores which arguably serves little purpose other than to put practitioners, parents and young children under pressure whilst simultaneously reinforcing curricular priorities.

If less importance is assigned to subjects like art, music and sport throughout the primary phase, it’s no surprise that children lose their confidence and willingness to risk-take, experiment and explore. As we are preparing children for an unknown future where adaptability, problem-solving and experimentation could prove advantageous, then the value of creative subjects needs to be readdressed in the new curriculum.

Rather than just preparing our children for the outcome-driven environment of ‘big’ school, secondary education, university or the world of work therefore, why not allow them to bask in their journey and nurture the development of skills that will best prepare them for life, not just the next stage…

  • Allison Jones is an Early Years Advisory Teacher for Swansea, and a student on Yr Athrofa’s Doctorate in Education programme