‘Now what I want is facts’, said Dicken’s famous headmaster, in whose model school young pupils were treated ‘as pitchers to be filled to the brim with facts’.
What the equally utilitarian and emotionally devoid Sir Michael Wilshaw demands today falls directly in his mould. Infants, he says, as young as two must be taught to count, hold a pen and recognise words. (Recognise? words? – why waste time with understanding speech, smiling, laughing, games, gestures, signs and communication).
No, nothing can be left to chance. Parents cannot be trusted; and now daycare nurseries can’t be relied upon to turn out prospective swots schools must take over. This is the Ofsted chief inspector’s spectacular and specious logical deduction.
Once schools take the lead in early education (we can forget anything about child nurturing) all will be hunky dorey on Sir Michael’s planet of education, education, education. And the poorer you are the earlier your education will start. In this case will it soon be starting in the womb, the bemused John Humphrys asked him yesterday morning. Why not?
If the utilitarians were the target of Hard Times, Oh boy do we need a present day Dickens to target Ofsted’s Mckinsey-isk tick box ignorance and cruel philosophy.
The moral of Hard Times was that it took the emotional breakdown of Gradgrind’s daughter, totally unable to express herself as a result of her dry education, for her father to have any feelings at all.
Just like him Sir Michael believes that ‘structured learning’ is the answer. It will deal he insists with what he calls ‘school unreadiness’. It won’t. I don’t think so. Neither do any of the country’s foremost child experts. Of Sir Michael’s proposal they say:
“This utilitarian shift from experience to content betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience. The determination to dragoon England’s young children into unconscionably early quasi-formal learning is catastrophic for their well-being, and is setting up many for failure at a very young age.”
You do not need to be a trained psychologist to understand this. As Sally Goddard Blythe has written Sir Michael betrays a woeful ignorance of infant needs and child development. It is not directives that children need she says but an enriching environment in which they learn through exploration, discovery and trial and error about the world around them and their place in it.
She warns that ‘forcing children into sedentary and near-point visual activities before they are ready can literally do more harm than good’. They do not have the physical competence and confidence in space to “provide the basis for balance, postural control, coordination, control of eye movements needed to support reading, writing and maths, the ability to sit still and even emotional stability”. All this is acquired naturally “in a milieu which facilitates free exploration, discovery and most of all, play”.
Basic language learning, in case Sir Michael does not know, is also primarily a mother-child interaction; it is based on attachment, eye contact and intimacy. It is hardly surprising then that infants who have spent long hours of their first years in days centres are not ‘school ready’. This natural process of language acquisition cannot be ‘taught’ by a stranger – unless that stranger becomes a committed substitute mother.
Research tells us too what commonsense should, that eighteen-month-olds classified as insecurely attached (infants who receive lower levels of responsiveness from their mothers) will be more stressed. This stress is revealed in elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Children who continue at age two to show such elevated levels of cortisol appear more fearful and inhibited. These are children classified as receiving lower levels of maternal responsiveness. Other investigations have confirmed these findings. One researcher, Dr Gunnar, reports that the level of stress experienced in infancy permanently shapes the stress responses in the brain, which then affects memory, attention, and emotion.
So if this critical ‘appropriate responsiveness’ is lacking, it is the mother, not the child that needs help. A mother can learn to be emotionally and appropriately responsive to her baby’s needs. She cannot if her infant is handed over to a school at two.
It is no wonder that daycare is not producing the results Sir Michael wants to see. But he is whistling in the dark if he thinks that changing the setting – from daycare to school nursery will make a blind bit of difference. It may make matters worse. The simple fact is that institutional care – whether in a nursery attached to a school or in a daycare centre – is not an appropriate place for babies to spend long hours in, let alone to ‘learn’ in.
The truth is that the problem of ‘school unreadiness’ as Sir Michael defines it, is a problem of a culture as much as poverty; one that sanctions and encourages single parenthood; that accepts neglectful parenting as normal; that pushes mothers back to work at the earliest opportunity and that invites parents to relinquish ever more of their responsibility for childrearing to the state.
But the more the likes of the Ofsted chief see the State as the solution to this chronic parenting culture, the less adequate and skilled the parents will become. But if he is determined to follow the path of this self-fulfilling prophecy there is but one logical outcome. It is to take ‘poor’ children away from their parents altogether – into school orphanages from birth – and leave nothing to chance.
1. M. Nachmias et al., “Behavioral inhibition and stress reactivity: the moderating role of attachment security,” Child Dev 67, no. 2 (Apr 1996): 508–22.
2. M.R. Gunnar et al., “Stress reactivity and attachment security,” Dev Psychobiol 29, no. 3 (Apr 1996): 191–204.
3. G. Spangler and K.E. Grossmann, “Biobehavioral organization in securely and insecurely attached infants,” Child Dev 64, no. 5 (Oct 1993): 1439–50.
4. M.R. Gunnar, “Quality of care and buffering of neuroendocrine stress reactions: potential effects on the developing human brain,” Prev Med 27, no. 2 (Mar–Apr 1998): 208–11.