The man actually said ‘yada-yada-yada’

When I hadn’t been blogging for too long, I wrote a paragraph about Michael Gove. In effect, I was saying that while I was fascinated by the proliferation of informed views one can be exposed to via social media, about policies, movements or influential individuals, I didn’t like it when it crossed a line into being personal. I was magnanimous enough to defend our Education Minister, as via twitter he gets a lot of very personal abuse. But is he earning my sympathy? I think not. It ran out last Thursday night.

Feeling all grown up, I got in with the folk who look forward to BBC Question Time last week, as soon as I picked up that Mr Gove was going to be on. All the serious journalists I admire like Zoe Williams of The Guardian, or Helen Lewis of the New Statesman, form a little cluster on Thursday evening and tweet eloquently for all they are worth. Full of anticipation, I tweeted Michael Rosen (literary god and vehement anti-Gove tweeter) to say I was looking forward to what he had to say during the programme – and he retweeted me! Ah the democracy of twitter gets me all excited again…. And I digress.

10.40pm came round, and we were off. Also on the panel were two other folk whose politics seemed ‘somewhat right of centre’, The leader of the Green Party (who uttered a lot of sense throughout the programme), and Emily Thornberry, Shadow Attorney General. A good way in to the programme, the inevitable question about the National Curriculum was posed, and off went Gove into his extended rhetoric about how kids need knowledge before they can get creative. When challenged by Mrs Thornberry about the basis of this claim he actually used the phrase ‘yada yada yada’ at her; she looked momentarily stunned, her mind trying to compute that a supposedly literate and professional politician with a senior place in the cabinet could have possibly been so bloody patronising. Despite the other three members of my household all being in bed by this point I did start shouting at the telly at his darn rudeness, and I didn’t hold back on the personal insults. My blog-promise to stay polite was broken – and I feel no regret.

You see, really, we should all be alarmed, should all be shouting at the telly. This man is in charge of the education system in this country for the foreseeable future. He has never worked in education. His view of how the history curriculum should be shaped, for example, has much more in common with a set of pub quiz questions (not my words) and does nothing to promote the critical thinking that actually defines the academic excellence so often achieved here in the UK. His attitude towards early years and primary education is, to me at least, utterly terrifying. He appears to dismiss the huge body of evidence articulately put together by the Cambridge Primary Review that makes it clear to anyone reading it that we aren’t getting this stuff right. We are failing to engage and inspire many of our very young children, and he does not appear to care. He seems preoccupied with a very narrow, cartoon-esque version of education, one that has kids learning their times tables by standing up in class to recite them. Sit in rows, keep silent, put your hand up, don’t think for yourself, be disaffected. A few of you will be OK but the rest will remember school through a negative, shadowy lens.

My bouncy, bright and busy 4-year-old will start school in September. I am very happy with our choice of school, and I have considered all the options possible, and am largely at peace with the notion of letting others shape her learning experiences alongside my hubby and me. But for the first time, I am really starting to feel alarmed that this man could wield so much power over my question-filled, curious girl. Her classroom teacher comes across as a woman of clear, independent thinking, but how much of the crap that falls from on high can she realistically keep out of her classroom?

And (again, for effect) he actually used the phrase ‘yada-yada-yada’ on prime time television, to a fellow professional public servant. Be afraid – very, very afraid.

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Pre-school is for life, not just for Christmas

Chances are, if you reading this blog as a parent yourself, you have a photo like this one stored on your hard drive, (does any of us ever get round to printing them off anymore?). Nativity season is warming up nicely – our own, at my daughter’s pre-school, is on the 20th. Encouraging 18 or so three or four-year olds to follow instructions and remember a sequence of events is for most mortals a laughable notion, but for your average pre-school play leader? Piece of cake. Such individuals are made of tougher stuff than the rest of us, and we are grateful to them for their resilience, patience, knowledge, skill, and, ultimately, their utter devotion to the task. These are people of absolute vocation; it certainly can’t be the pay that inspires them to do as the do. On average, pre-school play leaders are earning somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000 a year. Less than, well, pretty much everybody, for doing a job that when measured on the importance-to-society scale, comes right at the top.

For the last decade my working life has taken me into at least one pre-school most weeks. With the odd exception, they are remarkable places. On shoestring budgets they give young children their first taste of group learning. They devise engaging and original ways to help their charges develop an understanding of the world around them. They gently steer those attending from egocentric toddlerhood to independent, curious-minded, socially-skilled individuals who understand sharing, turn-taking and so much more besides. They do what they do on the best of evidence-bases, keeping up with latest research, meeting demanding training requirements, and doing hours and hours of unpaid planning, observation write-ups, and many other tasks.

The Cambridge Primary Review, published in October 2009, praised the play-based, child-led focus of the better pre-schools, and argued hard for the extension of such environments for all children until they are six. The biggest meta-study ever carried out, it surveyed 4000 other studies of how young children learn, and concluded that the British pre-occupation with bunging kids behind desks needs to be seriously questioned, if not abandoned altogether, at least for four and five-year olds. After all, our German, Scandinavian, Italian, French and American neighbours don’t put their children in classrooms until much later, and we don’t see these nations suffering intellectually, or socio-economically as a result. Quite the reverse. Sadly, our current government rejected the entire content of the study. A previous study did, however, influence policy. The EPPE study in 1994 concluded that most British children would be better off for spending some of their time in a good quality pre-school prior to school attendance than none at all; it was this study (alongside a few other pieces of key research) that prompted the 1997 government to introduce the idea of funded hours for all three and four years olds, the thinking being, if we invest in our children when they are young, they’ll ‘cost us less’ when they’re older. But it is beyond politics, and really unfathomable lunacy, that our current Education Minister would dismiss so easily the clear thinking of the Cambridge Primary Review. I find myself concluding, as someone wise said to me recently, that every generation is the collective ‘guinea pig’ of the current Education Minister, sometimes with disastrous results.

And here’s the crux of it all, the why-it-matters-so-much of this blog post. Who we are when we are three and four is who we are, period. If you get a three-year old engaged, excited even, about participating in play that has them learning without realising it, you have shaped that child’s future for the better in a sustained and enduring way. Such a child will not get disillusioned at 15 and start annoying taxpayers with his or her destructive behaviour. That’s not my political opinion; that’s a research-based fact. Pre-schools carry tremendous power for the good; they can do so much for your child. And they do all of it without the financial certainty of the school next door. Their staff do the same job as the teacher in her warm classroom, but for a half, no probably, a third of the pay and nothing like the security of tenure. And because of this, they need parents to stump up, and to get stuff done. Fundraising, building maintenance, committee membership, and so on, and so on.

So here’s my true agenda. You’re child’s pre-school does so much for you: What are you doing for it? They’re working their socks off to give you those most cherished moments to remember in years to come, and to show your child the path to an enlightened childhood. In the current climate they are being squeezed harder than I have ever known. So, when you pop along to watch your child at their nativity, and feel your sentimentality and appreciation bursting through, show a little gratitude, and pay something back in to the hard-working people who made that happen. Volunteer, donate, get involved!

Soshul Meedja: get it?

On Friday I watched a fascinating campaign unravel on Twitter, and finally the power of social media (or ‘soshul meedja’, as Steve Wright calls it) became clear to me. Our most-followed tweeter, Stephen Fry and many, many others, passed the baton of asking us all to sign the petition for widening the consultation on the English baccalaureate, which is set to replace most GCSEs in 2015. Quite a few tweets had a distinct anti-Gove air. (For my international readers – I have a few it seems! – Michael Gove is our controversial Education Minister). I’m not a fan of the man’s policies myself, precisely because, to return to the paragraphs above, they demonstrate an absence of respect for the unique requirements of early years education.

But the day’s campaign had me realising two things. One, the democratic directness of Twitter, that has me ‘listening’ to people I respect and taking action as a result, is a seriously powerful tool. And two, and on a slightly different note, there is a fine line between giving someone who has put themselves in the public eye, (making decisions that affects people’s lives) a hard time for the way they carry out their role, and giving them a hard time for who they are. Critics of Gove struggle to stay on the right side of this line; it all gets a bit personal rather too often. And all this got me thinking that an important principle of the relationship between blogger and blog reader has to be that we respect each other’s right to express a view, without being personally offensive. I always want NDBI to give you cause for thought, but I hope it never offends. You might conclude you don’t agree with me, but may you always respect my right to say what there is to be said. For my part, I will always welcome your comments, even if you do just want to tell me that you simply don’t agree.