reforming the SEND system – for good

In the previous post, I claimed that teacher training and targets were two factors that explained why the current SEND system couldn’t work  –  and why it has never worked effectively.  In this post, I’ll explain my claims about teacher training and targets and suggest how the SEND system could become both effective and sustainable.

teacher training

For any system – education, health or social care – to meet the needs of a varied population, two ingredients are vital; expertise and flexibility. Practitioners need the knowledge and experience to deal with any needs they might encounter and the system has to be able to adapt to whatever needs arise.

Bizarrely, teachers have always been expected to teach the 98% or so of children who attend mainstream schools, but have only ever been trained to teach the 80% who don’t have SEN, not the 20% who do. And since funding was withdrawn for special education Master’s degrees in the mid-1980s, SEN expertise has gradually leached out of the education system as a whole as special education teachers have retired. It’s only since 2009 that new SENCOs (special educational needs co-ordinators) have been required to be qualified teachers, and only recent appointees are required to have SEN training. There is still a massive gap in SEND expertise within the education system. How can teachers teach children if they don’t know how to meet their educational needs?

targets

Setting targets sounds like an obvious way to improve performance. You set the target, expect someone to meet it whatever that takes, and provide some sticks and carrots for their encouragement. Targets, accompanied by sticks and carrots, were part and parcel of the early education system but were abandoned because they didn’t work.  And as quality control researchers have been telling us since at least the 1920s, performance depends on the factors that contribute to it. In the current education system, the measure of school performance is actually pupil performance in SATs or GCSEs. But how children perform in tests is influenced by many factors; their health, family circumstances, life events, quality of teaching, their own learning etc. Schools have little or no control over most of those factors, so to measure school performance by pupil performance in tests is pointless.

Despite the evidence, the current education system still sets targets.  And the sticks and carrots expected to encourage schools to raise their (pupil) performance mean that there are no incentives for a school to invest resources in the education of students who are unlikely to improve the school’s test results. If students aren’t going to meet the ‘expected standard’ however hard they or the school try, why invest resources in them? Why not focus on the children likely to meet the ‘expected standard’ with a bit of extra effort?

So, teacher training and targets have been major factors in marginalising the education of children with SEND. But even if the government had a forehead-slapping moment, cried ‘How foolish we’ve been!’, required all teachers to be trained to teach all the children in their classes, and abandoned its ‘expected standards’ criteria, it would take years to transform the system into a SEND-friendly one. Children with SEND don’t have years to spare and their parents have to deal with the here and now. So what needs to be done?

parents can’t police the system

This post was prompted by a recent conversation I had with a parent carer forum. The parent carer forum was of the opinion that parents with good knowledge of the national framework and their local offer can use that knowledge to get commissioners and providers to make suitable educational provision for children.

It’s certainly true that knowledge of the national framework and the local offer (however incomplete) can help. How effective it is at getting commissioners and providers to meet their statutory obligations is another matter. Since the new system was introduced, I’ve been told repeatedly that it’s improved outcomes for parents and children. Maybe – but I have yet to see any. What I have seen is parents who know the national framework backwards having to resort to mediation, tribunal, formal complaint, the Local Government Ombudsman and in some cases being advised that their only option is Judicial Review – exactly the kind of problems that prompted the revision of the SEN system in 2014.

Until I had the conversation with the parent carer forum, I’d assumed these hurdles were the unwanted and unintended consequences of flaws in legislation that had been rushed through (the pilot study didn’t finish until after the legislation came into force). Then the penny dropped. The only explanation that made sense was that individual parents challenging commissioners and providers is the government’s chosen method of enforcing the new legislation.

That’s a terrible way of enforcing legislation.  For many parents of children with SEND, it’s as much as they can do to hold the family together. To expect parents in already challenging circumstances to police a flawed system that was rushed through at a time when LAs are struggling with huge budget cuts is, to put vulnerable families in harm’s way. Not only is that strategy likely to fail to bring about compliance on the part of commissioners and providers, it’s morally reprehensible.  For 150 years, if a school failed a child, parents have been able to appeal to school boards, independent governors or their LEA for support. Not any more. Parents (and children with SEND) are on their own.

what needs changing and who can change it?

The system still needs to change and if parents don’t change it no one else will, so what to do? Since my family entered the SEN ‘world’ 14 years ago, I’ve seen parents fighting lone battles with their LA; the same battles replicated hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I’ve seen parents new to the system set up support or campaign groups only to discover they are just one in a long line of support or campaign groups that have either burned out, or at best brought about change that hasn’t actually made much difference on the ground.

What the individual parents and campaign groups have lacked is focus and organisation. I don’t mean they’ve been unfocussed or disorganised; some of them could focus and organise for England. And there’s no doubt that parent groups were instrumental in getting the SEND system changed. It’s rather that there’s been a lot of duplication of effort, and the focus has been on single issues or fighting on all fronts at once rather than on the key points in the system that are causing the problems.

I think the key points are these;

  • Mainstream teachers should know how to teach all children in mainstream schools.
  • Each child needs an education suitable for them as an individual rather than for the average child in their age group, as the law already requires.
  • Assessment and funding should be the responsibility of separate bodies – the new legislation didn’t do away with the LAs’ conflict of interest.
  • There should be an independent body (with teeth) responsible for implementation and compliance that should support parents in their dealings with commissioners and providers. Parents should not have to resort to legal action except in extreme cases.
  • Parents struggling with the system need more support than they are currently offered. A buddying system matching up parents in similar positions dealing with the same local authority might help. As would training in negotiation.

Much of the negotiation undertaken by individual parents and parent groups is with schools, LA officers or the DfE. And problems with the SEND system are generally seen not as being with the structure of the education system or the SEND legislation, but with implementation. But the problem runs deeper than implementation, and deeper than the SEND legislation. It lies with the structure of the education system as a whole, and with the market model espoused by successive governments. Instead of lobbying LA officers and DfE officials who are trying to implement the law as it stands, groups of parents should be lobbying their local councillors and MPs to ensure that teachers are suitably trained, arbitrary targets are abandoned, and responsibility for implementing the system is distributed more widely. These changes won’t require significant new legislation, but they might require a big shift in thinking.

 

First posted in July 2016 here.

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a short history of special education

In 2006 a House of Commons Select Committee described the special educational needs system as ‘no longer fit for purpose’. By September 2014 a new system was in place. Two years on, it’s safe to say it hasn’t been an unmitigated success. To understand why the new system hasn’t worked – and indeed can’t work – it might help to take a look at the history of special educational needs and disability (SEND).

a short history of SEND

Education became compulsory in England in 1880. Some local school boards set up special schools or special classes within mainstream schools for physically ‘handicapped’* children, but provision was patchy. What took people by surprise was the number of mentally handicapped children who turned up to school.

At the time, teachers were expected to teach according to the official Code – essentially a core curriculum – and many schools in the fledgling national educational system were seriously under-resourced. Teachers were often untrained, paper was very expensive (hence the use of rote learning and slates) and many schools operated in conditions like the one below – with several classes in one room. They just weren’t equipped to cope with children with learning difficulties or disabilities.

Shepherd Street School in Preston in 1902

Shepherd Street School in Preston in 1902§

Two Royal Commissions were set up to investigate the education of handicapped children, and reported in 1889 and 1896 respectively. Both recommended the integration of the children in mainstream schools where possible and that special provision (classes or schools) should be made by school boards. The emphasis was on children acquiring vocational skills so they could earn a living. Those with the most severe mental handicap were deemed ‘ineducable’.

The Royal Commissions’ recommendations, and many others made over the next few decades, were clearly well-intentioned. Everybody wanted the best outcomes for the children. The challenge was how to get there. After WW2, concerns about the special education system increased. Parents felt they had little control, the number of pupils in special schools was rising, and children were still being institutionalised or marginalised from society. In 1973 Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, commissioned a review of the education of handicapped children, led by Mary Warnock, whose Committee of Enquiry reported in 1978. A year later Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and some of the Warnock recommendations came into force in the Education Act 1981.

The Warnock report introduced a very different way of understanding ‘handicapped’ children. They were no longer seen as being different, but as having special educational needs – as did up to 20% of the school population. Special educational needs were defined in terms of the support children needed, rather than in terms of their physical or mental impairments. What was envisaged was that many children in special schools would gradually migrate to mainstream, supported by Statements of Special Educational Need. And mainstream schools would gradually become more inclusive, adapting their buildings, equipment and teaching methods to meet an ever wider range of educational needs. The new system might have worked well if the rest of the education system hadn’t changed around it.

context is crucial; one size doesn’t fit all

The Warnock recommendations were made in the context of a very flexible education system. In 1981 Local Education Authorities (LEAs), schools and teachers had a great deal of autonomy in what was taught, how it was taught and when. That all changed with the 1988 Education Reform Act that heralded a compulsory National Curriculum, SATS and Ofsted. Central government essentially wrested control of education from local bodies, something that had been actively opposed for the previous 100 years – few people wanted education to become a political football.

The new education system was at heart a one-size-fits-all affair. Governments find one-size-fits-all systems very appealing. They look as if they are going to be cheaper to run because professional training, equipment and resources can be standardised and performance can be easily measured. Unfortunately for governments, human populations are not one-size, but are very varied. If a universal service is to meet the needs of a whole population, it won’t do that if it’s designed to meet only the needs of the average person. A stark choice faces those designing universal systems; either they can design a system that meets everybody’s needs and resource it properly, or they can design a system that doesn’t meet everybody’s needs and then spend years trying to sort out the ensuing muddle.

The 1880 education system was one-size-fits-all and the next century was spent sorting out the problems that resulted for handicapped children. There was a brief period after 1981 when the education system took a big step towards meeting the needs of all children, but seven years later it flipped back to one-size-fits-all. The last 30 years have been spent trying unsuccessfully to limit the damage for children with SEND.

So what’s the alternative? The answer isn’t further reform of the SEND system, because the causes of the problems don’t lie within the SEND system, but with the broader education system. Two key causes are teacher training and targets – the subjects of the next post.

*I’ve used the term ‘handicapped’ because it was in widespread use in the education system until the Warnock Committee changed the terminology.
§ © Harris Museum and Art Gallery http://www.mylearning.org/victorian-school-and-work-in-preston/images/1-3215/

Originally posted in July 2016 here.

standardised testing: what’s it good for?

A campaign by parents to keep their children off school as a protest against SATs prompted a Twitter discussion about the pros and cons of standardised tests. One teacher claimed that they’re important because they hold schools to account. I think that’s a misuse of standardised tests. First, because test results are a poor proxy measure of teaching quality. Second, good teaching (and hard work on the part of the student) are necessary but not sufficient conditions for good test performance. Third, using test results to hold schools to account overlooks the natural variation inherent in large populations.

test results as a measure of teaching quality

Tests such as the National Curriculum Tests (commonly known as SATs) GCSEs and A levels sample students’ recall and understanding of a particular body of knowledge – the KS2 curriculum, GCSE/A level course. The knowledge is sampled because testing the student’s knowledge of all the material in the course would be very time consuming and unwieldy. In other words, test results are a proxy for the student’s knowledge of the course material.

But the course material itself is a proxy for all that’s known about a particular topic. KS2 students learn basic principles about how atoms and molecules behave, GCSE and A level students learn about atomic theory in more detail, but Chemistry undergraduates complain that they have to then unlearn much of what they were taught earlier because it was the simplified version.  So test results are actually a second order proxy for the student’s knowledge of a particular topic.

Then factors other than the student’s knowledge impact on test results. The student might be unwell on the day of the test, or might have slept badly the night before. In the months before the test they might have been absent from school for weeks with glandular fever or their parents might have split up. In other words, test results are affected by factors other than teaching and learning; factors beyond the control of either the school or the student.  In other words, test results are a weak proxy for both the quality of teaching and the student’s knowledge.

good teaching and hard work are necessary but not sufficient for good test performance

There’s an asymmetry between the causes of high and low test results. It’s difficult to get a high test score without hard work on the part of the student and good teaching on the part of the school.   But there are many reasons why a student might get a low score despite hard work and good teaching.

That’s at the individual level. Similarly at the school level it’s safe to conclude that a school with consistently good results in national tests is doing its job properly, but it’s not safe to conclude that a school that doesn’t get consistently good results isn’t.

The education system has been plagued over the years by two false assumptions about student potential. Either that all students have the potential to get good test scores and that good teaching is the key determining factor, or that students from certain demographic groups won’t get good test scores however well they’re taught. In reality it’s more complicated than that, of course. Students from leafy suburbs are more likely to do well in tests for many reasons; even if they are taught badly, they have access to resources that can sometimes compensate for that. Students from the kind of housing estate that motivates Iain Duncan Smith are at a higher risk of adverse life events scuppering their chances of getting good test results no matter how good the teaching at their school. And the older they get, the more adverse life events they are likely to encounter.

So, test results are a pretty good first order proxy for a student’s knowledge of course material. They are a not-so-good second order proxy for a student’s knowledge of the topic the course material represents. And only a weak proxy for quality of teaching.

life is just one damn thing after another*

Those in favour of standardised testing often cite cases of particular schools in deprived areas that have achieved amazing outcomes against the odds. Every child can read by the age of six, or is fluent in French, or whatever.   The implication is that if one school can do it, all schools can. In principle, that’s true. In principle, all head teachers can be visionaries, all teachers can be excellent and all families can buy in to what the school wants to achieve.

But in practice life doesn’t work like that. Head teachers get sick, senior staff have to work part-time because of family commitments, local housing is unaffordable making recruitment a nightmare, or for many families school is just one more thing they can’t quite keep up with.

On top of that, human beings are biological organisms. Like all populations of biological organisms we show considerable variation due to our genes, our environment and interactions between the two. It might be possible to improve test performance across the education system, but there are limits to the improvement that’s possible. Clean water and good sanitation increase life expectancy, but life expectancy doesn’t go on increasing indefinitely once communities have access to clean water and sanitation. Expecting more than 50% of children in primary schools to perform above average simply shows a poor grasp of natural variation – and statistics.

standardised testing: what is it good for?

Standardised testing in primary schools makes sense. It samples children’s knowledge of key material. It allows schools to benchmark attainment. Standardised testing as a performance measure can alert schools to problems that are impacting on children’s learning.

However, the reasons for differences in students’ performance in standardised tests are many and varied. Performance will not improve unless the reasons for poor performance are addressed. Sometimes those reasons are complex and not within the schools’ remit. To address them local families might need better public services, better jobs or better housing – arguably not the core responsibility of a school. Poor teaching might not be involved at all.

However, successive governments haven’t used test results simply as broad indicators of whether a school is on track or whether there are problems that need to be addressed (not necessarily by the school), but as a proxy for teaching quality.  Test results have been used to set performance targets and determine funding, regardless of whether schools can control the factors involved.

This shows a poor understanding of performance management§, and it’s hardly surprising that the huge amounts of money and incessant policy changes thrown at the education system over recent decades have had little impact on the quality of education of the population as a whole.

First posted 3 April 2016 here.

Notes

*A quotation attributed to Elbert Hubbard, an American writer who died when the Lusitania was sunk in 1915.

§ The best book I’ve read on performance management is a slim volume by Donald Wheeler called Understanding variation: The key to managing chaos.  A clearly written, step-by-step guide to figuring out if the variation you’ve spotted is within natural limits or not.  Lots of references to things like iron smelting and lumber yards, but still very relevant to schools.

joining the dots and seeing the big picture

I’m a tad cynical about charitable bodies these days, especially if they’re associated with academies. Whilst reading their ostensibly ‘independent’ reports I’m on the lookout for phrasing calculated to improve their chances of doing well in the next funding round, or for ‘product placement’ for their services. So a report from the Driver Youth Trust – Joining the Dots: Have recent reforms worked for those with SEND? was a welcome surprise.

The Driver Youth Trust (DYT) is a charity focused on the needs of dyslexic students. Its programme Drive for Literacy is used in ARK schools. I’m well aware of the issues around ‘dyslexia’ and haven’t investigated the Drive for Literacy; in this post I want to focus on Joining the Dots, commissioned by DYT and written by LKMco.

Joining the Dots one of the clearest, most perceptive overviews of the new SEND system that I’ve read. Some of the findings and explanations for the findings are counterintuitive, often a sign of report driven by the evidence rather than what the report writers think they are expected to say. The take-home message is that the new SEND system has had mixed outcomes to date, but the additional autonomy schools now have should allow them to improve outcomes for children regardless, and it presents some inspiring case studies to prove the point.

Here are some of the findings that stood out for me.

SEND reforms interact with the rest of the education system

Reforms to the school system since 2010 have had an even greater impact on young people with SEND than the 2014 Act itself…we find that changes have often enabled those previously succeeding to achieve even better outcomes, while things have only got tougher for those already struggling. As a result unacceptable levels of inequity have merely been reinforced. It is also clear that changes have been inadequately communicated and that many stakeholders (including parents in particular) are struggling to navigate the new landscape.” (p.7)

Fragmentation

“I think that what we did is picked up all the fragments, dropped them on the floor and made them even more fragmented… and now it’s a question of putting them back together in the right order…” – LA service delivery manager (p.15)

SEND pupils and their families have therefore found themselves lost in a system that has yet to reform or regroup.” (p.17)

Funding

Three levels of funding are available for schools: Element 1 is basic funding for all pupil, Element 2 is a notional SEND budget based on a range of factors, and Element 3 is high needs block funding mainly for pupils with EHC plans. The lack of ring-fencing around of the notional SEND budget means that schools can spend this money however they want. (p.20)

Admissions

Pupils with SEND require additional resources and their often lower attainment can impact on the school’s standing in league tables. Parents and teachers reported concerns about admissions policies being stacked against students with SEND.

The local offer

The DfE Final Impact Report for the Pathfinder LAs trialling the new SEND framework found that only 12% of Pathfinder families had looked at their Local Offer and only half of those had found it useful. That picture doesn’t seem to have changed. An FOI request revealed that the number of LA staff with responsibility for SEND varies between 0-382.8 full time equivalent.

Schools

Schools often don’t know what information to give to the LA about their SEND pupils, and the information LAs give schools is sometimes inaccurate. The Plumcroft Primary case study illustrates the point. Plumcroft’s new headteacher tried to improve LA support for pupils with SEND but realised that services available commercially and privately were not only often better, but were actually affordable. As he put it; “If a local authority says ‘no you can’t’ most people just go ‘alright then’ and carry on with the service and whinge about it. Whereas the reality is, you can… there’s no constraint at all.” (p.35)

Categories

The new SEND system does away with the School Action and School Action Plus categories, partly because of concerns that children identified as having SEN were stuck with the label even when it was no longer applicable. The number of children identified with SEN has dropped substantially since, but concerns have been voiced about how children with additional needs are being identified and supported.

Brian Lamb highlights another concern that emerged in the early stages of the legislation, that pupils who would previously have had a Statement, would, under the new system, find it ‘difficult to impossible’ to qualify for an EHCP unless they also have health difficulties or are in care (p.39). This fear doesn’t seem to have materialised, since LAs are now transferring pupils from statements to EHC plans en masse, and it’s in the interest of service providers to ask for an EHC plan to be in place in order to resource any substantial support a child needs.

All teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs

Even though the DfE itself said in 2001 that ‘all teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs’ teacher training funding has consistently failed to recognise this. The new system hasn’t introduced significant improvements.

Exam reform

A shift to making public examinations more demanding in terms of literacy automatically puts students with literacy difficulties at a disadvantage. A student might have an excellent knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, but be unable to get it down on paper. The distribution of assistive technology varies widely between schools.

Reinventing the wheel

LA bureaucracy has been seen as a significant factor in the move over recent years to give schools increased autonomy. This has resulted, predictably, in increased concerns over transparency, accountability, expertise and resources. Many schools are now forming federations in order to pool resources and share expertise. There is clearly a need for an additional tier of organisation at the local level suggesting that it might have been more sensible to improve local authority practice rather than marginalise it.

The content of the report might not be especially cheering, but it makes a change to find a report that’s so readable, informative and insightful.

Originally posted in December 2015 here.

play: schools are for children, not children for schools

Some years ago, the TES carried an article about a primary school that taught its pupils how to knit. I learned to knit at school. My mum dutifully used my first attempt – a cotton dishcloth – for months despite its resemblance to a fishing net with an annoying tendency to ensnare kitchen utensils. The reason I was taught knitting was primarily in order to be able to knit. But the thrust of the TES article wasn’t about the usefulness of knitting. It was that it improved the children’s maths. It seemed that at some point since the introduction of mass education in England the relationship between schools and the real world had changed. The point of schools was no longer to provide children with knowledge (like maths) that will help them tackle real-world problems (like knitting), but vice versa – the point of useful real-world skills was now to support performance in school.

school readiness

I was reminded of the knitting article when Sir Michael Wilshaw, then chief inspector of Ofsted, suggested to inspectors that not all early years settings are preparing children adequately for school. In a comment to the BBC he added;

More than two-thirds of our poorest children – and in some of our poorest communities that goes up to eight children out of 10 – go to school unprepared,” he said. “That means they can’t hold a pen, they have poor language and communication skills, they don’t recognise simple numbers, they can’t use the toilet independently and so on.”

His comments prompted an open letter to the Telegraph complaining that Sir Michael’s instruction to inspectors to assess nurseries mainly in terms of preparation for school “betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience.” One of the signatories was Sue Cowley, who had blogged about the importance of play. Her post, like Sir Michael’s original comments, generated a good deal of discussion.

Old Andrew responded promptly. He comments “This leads me to my one opinion on early years teaching methods: OFSTED are right to judge them by outcomes rather than acting as the “play police” and seeking to enforce play-based learning“.

The two bloggers have homed in on different issues. Sue Cowley is concerned about the shift in focus from childhood experience to ‘school-readiness’; Old Andrew is relieved that Ofsted inspectors are longer expected to ‘enforce play-based learning’. The online debate has also shifted from the original question implicit in Sir Michael’s comments and in the response in the letter to the Telegraph i.e. what is the purpose of nurseries and pre-schools? to a question posed by Old Andrew; “Is there any actual empirical evidence on the importance of play? All the “evidence” seems to be theoretical.”

empirical evidence

Responses from early years teachers to questions about evidence for the benefits of play are often along the lines of “I have the evidence of my own eyes”, which hasn’t satisfied the sceptics. Whether you think it’s a satisfactory answer or not depends on the importance you attach to direct observation.

The problem with direct observation is that it’s dependent on perception, which is notoriously unreliable. David Didau has blogged about some perceptual flaws here. He also mentions some of the cognitive errors that occur when people draw conclusions from observations. The scientific method has been developed largely to counteract the flaws in our perception and reasoning. But it doesn’t follow that direct observation is completely unreliable. Indeed, direct observation is the cornerstone of empirical evidence.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’ve noticed that every time I use a particular brand of soap, my hands sting and turn bright red. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that I have an allergic response to an ingredient in the soap – but I wouldn’t know that for sure. There could be many causes for my red, stinging hands; the soap might be purely coincidental. The conclusions about causes I could draw solely from my direct observations would be pretty speculative.

But the direct observations themselves – identifying the brand of soap and what happened to my hands – would be a lot more reliable. It’s possible that I could have got the brand of soap wrong and could have imagined what happened to my hands, but those errors are much less likely than the errors involved in drawing conclusions about causality. I could easily increase the reliability of my direct observations by involving an independent observer. If a hundred independent observers all agreed that a particular brand of soap was associated with my and/or other people’s hands turning bright red, those observations wouldn’t be 100% watertight but they would be considered to be fairly reliable and might prompt the soap manufacturer to investigate further. Increasing the reliability of my conclusion about the causal relationship – that the soap caused an allergic reaction – would be more challenging.

is play another Brain Gym?

What intrigued me about the early years’ teachers responses was their reliance on direct observation as empirical evidence for the importance of play. Most professionals, if called upon to do so, can come up with some peer-reviewed research that supports the methods they use, even if it means delving into dusty textbooks they haven’t used for years. I could see Old Andrew’s point; if play is so important, why isn’t there a vast research literature on it? There are three characteristics of play that would explain both the apparent paucity of research and the teachers’ emphasis on direct observation.

First, play is a characteristic typical of most young mammals, and young humans play a lot. At one level, asking what empirical evidence there is for its importance is a pointless question – a bit like asking for evidence for the importance of learning or growth. Play, like learning and growth, is simply a facet of development.

Second, play, like most other mammalian characteristics, is readily observable – although you might need to do a bit of dissection to spot some of the anatomical features of mammals. Traditionally, play has been seen as involving three types of skill; locomotor, object control and social interaction. But you don’t need a formal peer-reviewed study to tell you that. A few hours’ observation of a group of young children would be sufficient. A few hours’ observation would also reveal all the features of play Sue Cowley lists in her blog post.

Third, also readily apparent through direct observation is what children learn during play; the child who chooses to play with the shape-sorter every day until they can get all the shapes in the right holes first time, the one who can’t speak a word of English but is fluent after a few months despite little direct tuition, the one who initially won’t speak to anyone but blossoms into a mini-socialite through play. Early years teachers watch children learning through play every day, so it’s not surprising they don’t see the need to rely on research to tell them about its importance.

The features of play and what children can learn from it are not contentious; the observations of thousands of parents, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists are largely in agreement over what play looks like and what children learn from it. This would explain why there appears to be little research on the importance of play; it’s self-evidently important to children themselves, as an integral part of human development and as a way of learning. In addition, much of the early research into play was carried out in the inter-war years. Try finding that online. Or even via your local library. Old Andrew’s reluctance to accept early years teachers’ direct observations as evidence might stem from his admission that he doesn’t “really have much insight into what small children are like.”

play-based education

The context of Old Andrew’s original question was Michael Wilshaw’s comments on school readiness and the response in the Telegraph letter. A recent guest post on his blog is critical of play-based learning, suggesting it causes problems for teachers higher up the food chain. Although Old Andrew says he’d like to see evidence for the importance of play in any context, what we’re actually talking about here is the importance of play in the education system.

Direct observation can tell us what play looks like and what children learn from it. What it can’t tell us about is the impact of play on development, GCSE results or adult life. For that, we’d need a more complex research design than just watching and/or recording before-and-after abilities. Some research has been carried out on the impact of play. Although there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between how much young mammals play and their abilities as adults, not playing does appear to impair responsiveness and effective social interaction. And we do know some things about the outcomes of the more complex play seen in children (e.g. Smith & Pellegrini, 2013).

Smith & Pellegrini agree that a prevailing “play ethos” has tended to exaggerate the evidence for the essential role of play (p.4) and that appears to be Old Andrew’s chief objection to the play advocates’ claims. Sue Cowley’s list describes play as ‘vital’, ‘crucial’ and ‘essential’. I can see how her choice of wording might give the impression to anyone looking for empirical evidence in the research literature that research findings relating to the importance of play in development, learning or education were more robust than they are. I can also see why someone observing the direct outcomes of play on a daily basis would see play as ‘vital’, ‘crucial’ and ‘essential’.

I agree with Old Andrew that Ofsted shouldn’t be enforcing play-based learning, or for that matter, telling teachers how to teach. There’s no point in training professionals and then telling them how to do their job. I also agree that if grand claims are being made for play-based learning or if it’s causing problems later on, we need some robust research or some expectation management, or both.

Having said that, it’s worth noting that for the best part of a century nursery and infant teachers have sung the praises of play-based learning. What’s easily overlooked by those who teach older children is the challenge facing early years teachers. They are expected to make ‘school-ready’ children who, in some cases and for whatever reason, have started nurseries, pre-schools and reception classes with little speech, who don’t understand a word of English, who can’t remember instructions, who have problems with dexterity, mobility and bowel and bladder control, or who find the school environment bewildering and frightening. Sometimes, the only way early years teachers can get children to engage or learn anything at all is through play. Early years teachers, as Sue Cowley points out, are usually advocates of highly structured, teacher-directed play. What’s more, they can see children learning from play in real time in front of them. The key question is not “what’s the empirical evidence for the importance of play?” but rather “if children play by default, are highly motivated to play and learn quickly from it, where’s the evidence for a better alternative?”

I’m all in favour of evidence-based practice, but I’m concerned that direct observation might be being prematurely ruled out. I’m also concerned that the debate appears to have shifted from the original one about preparation for school vs the erosion of childhood. This brings us back to the priorities of the school that taught knitting in order to improve children’s maths. Children obviously need to learn for their own benefit and for that of the community as a whole, but we need to remember that in a democracy school is for children, not children for school.

Originally posted in August 2014.

bibliography

Pellegrini, A & Smith PK (2005). The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans. Guilford Press.
Smith, PK & Pellegrini, A (2013). Learning through play. In Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters (eds). Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Developmentand Strategic Knowledge Cluster on Early Child Development 1-6. Available at http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/documents/Smith-PellegriniANGxp2.pdf Accessed 11.8.2014.