Much too much, much too young

Issue: 143

Terry Sullivan

Richard House (ed), Too Much, Too Soon: Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood (Hawthorn Press, 2011), £20

In April this year Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw announced that from September 2015 four year olds will be tested within the first few weeks of starting school. This “baseline assessment” will then form the starting point to judge schools and their teachers. Wilshaw went on to try and undermine the vital importance of play as the main way in which young children learn by saying this was simply a middle class prejudice. Perhaps even more shockingly he declared that children should start school at two!1

Richard House’s excellent if somewhat eclectic book, Too Much, Too Soon, is a most welcome antidote to these views. This is especially so as it is part of the Open EYE (Early Years Education) campaign (now part of Early Childhood Action) which fights against the erosion of childhood, including the government’s drive to force children to undergo too much formal education too soon.

The book is split into four parts. Part I, “Policy Making and the Erosion of Childhood”, sees the likes of childcare expert Penelope Leach and Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, look in detail at the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), the statutory curriculum in England for children from birth to age five. Ed Balls is subjected to withering criticism for his comments as Labour education secretary that “children starting school need to hit the ground running” (p64). The contributors make it worryingly clear that: “Many of the ‘teaching to the test’, assessment driven characteristics of the primary school are now invading our nurseries and other early-years settings” (p40). In short, the Learning and Development Requirements of the EYFS amount to “SATs for the Under Fives” (p79).

Part II, “The Foundations of Child Development and Early Learning”, sets out the kind of foundation that the contributors hold young children need in order to facilitate successful learning in the longer run. We are reminded that a 2009 report by the Children’s Society revealed children in Britain are some of the unhappiest in Europe. In the light of this we should embrace the book’s insistence that “self-confidence, well-being and a joy in learning” (p149) should be our priorities for children. There is also a stout defence of the importance of play. Play is the very best way for young children to learn since “it is during play episodes that young children are challenged and contradicted in non-threatening ways which cause them to transform their thinking” (p207).

Part III, “Advocacy, Research and Policy-Making for Children’s Early Years Learning”, is perhaps the richest part of the book and looks in considerable depth at the highly controversial areas of early literacy, formal learning and screen technology. Commenting on forcing very young children to read, Sue Palmer notes that: “Some can be trained, like dogs, to perform these tasks, but it’s not proper learning, and may be physically or psychologically painful” (p233). Further, we discover that there is little research into the benefits of trying to teach reading and writing to ever younger children and what there is suggests that “there is no benefit…on later reading skill” (p238).

In a fascinating chapter Richard House reveals that the then Department for Children, Schools and Families commissioned two pieces of research on the Early Years Foundation Stage, termed the “Super Scale Points Project”. One piece of research—supposedly vindicating the more formal aspects of the EYFS framework—was released and received wide and positive media coverage. However, the second was not published and only became available after a Freedom of Information request. This second piece of research directly contradicted the first and strongly supported “an informal, story and play-based early learning milieu, with strong emphasis on naturalistic and artistic learning experiences; whilst the government’s emphasis on preschool cognitively biased learning (eg in literacy) is, at the very least, thrown into considerable doubt” (p252).

Aric Sigman looks at screen technology in education. Many parents reading this article will be familiar with supposedly educational programmes for the very young such as “Baby Einstein”. However, Sigman reports on research that found for every hour per day spent watching such programmes children under 16 months understood an average of six to eight fewer words than those who did not watch them. Disney, the makers of the Baby Einstein DVDs and videos, has recently offered refunds to parents who bought them. Sigman also considers recent research that concluded that “the introduction of home computer technology is associated with statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student maths and reading scores” (p270, my emphasis). Those of us who use “brain training” software and applications may wish to reconsider in the light of the research Sigman quotes from leading science journal Nature which argues that claims about their positive effects are completely unsupported: “Computerised mental workouts don’t boost mental skills… There were absolutely no transfer effects from the training tasks” (p271).

Part IV, “Ways Ahead to Achievable Futures”, considers what changes might be made to current Early Years legislation and guidance, and associated pedagogical practices. This is the part of the book that readers of this journal will find least satisfying. Not once, not twice but three times the reader is urged to resist the temptation to become “opponents” of those in government who make Early Years policy. Given that at least part of the present coalition government is desperately trying to fashion itself as Thatcherism Mark II and the incumbent education secretary, Michael Gove, is perhaps the most reactionary in living memory, it seems that becoming their opponents is exactly what we should be doing. Nonetheless, the key message is that we need to fight to force recognition within all aspects of the EYFS that “young children need time to explore and consolidate concepts through first-hand experience, before they are expected to learn through instruction” (pp326-327).

The book is an inspiring and often enjoyable read although a handful of chapters lack the rigour and coherence of the stronger ones. Finally, when Michael Wilshaw made his pronouncements about testing four year olds Richard House along with colleague Simon Boxley wrote to Socialist Worker urging that those who teach young children should boycott the tests—what they called “principled non-compliance”. Shortly afterwards delegates at the NUT’s annual conference voted unanimously to support a motion by the national executive to consider boycotting the tests.2 Hopefully the intervening months have seen this call taken up and we are now witnessing a campaign that will stop these tests—which many see as little short of abuse. Don’t Test Tots!


1: Gaunt, Catherine, 2014, “Ofsted Report says that Best Place for Twos is in School” Nursery World (7-20 April).

2: Gaunt, Catherine, 2014, “Teachers Propose Boycott of Reception Baseline Tests”, Nursery World (21 April).