Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from YoungMinds (EY 60)


  YoungMinds, the national children's mental health charity, represents 22 professional organisations working in the field of children's mental health. Amongst our members there is widespread recognition that the experience of children in their earliest years will not only affect their capacity to cope with the developmental phases of childhood but will significantly determine their mental health as an adult. We are therefore very concerned about the nature of early years education.

  We welcome the current focus on early years education incorporated in the DfEE document on Early Learning Goals. We hope our comments will be helpful to the Inquiry.


  1.  While broadly agreeing with the QCA early learning goals and the need for well structured settings, we have reservations about some aspects of the numeracy and literacy goals and the impact that achieving them may have on the overall early years educational environment.

  2.  We have concerns that the goals do not include the issue of personal safety.

  3.  Early years settings must be closely in tune with the developmental needs of young children.

  4.  The attitude of adults is the key to successful early years education.

  5.  Early years provision must be resourced to respond to the considerable emotional and developmental needs of some young children.

  6.  Primary school reception classes are not always an appropriate substitute for nursery schools.

  7.  Staff need training in child development, children's mental health, and a personality sympathetic and responsive to the needs of young children.

  8.  Staff need to be able to create an emotionally healthy environment where positive relationships are modelled between staff themselves, staff and children, and between parents and staff.

  9.  Assessment of early years settings should focus on the quality of social interactions and learning processes and not purely on the measurement of goals.

  10.  Consideration should be given to raising the starting age of formal schooling on the basis of international evidence which demonstrates its educational and social advantages.

1.  The appropriate content of early years education

  1.1  As a children's mental health organisation our main concern is that the content of early years education is developmentally appropriate to the individual child and is delivered in an appropriate style. The importance of play and physical activity cannot be over estimated. Many young children are over-stimulated by television, have too little physical exercise—which is important for mental as well as physical development, and have insufficient direct adult attention.

  1.2  We welcome the concept of "well-planned play" if this means providing opportunities which maximise creativity and allow play to progress with open-ended outcomes which are determined by children themselves. We would have concerns if it refers to a set of predestined learning experiences with anticipated outcomes.

  1.3  There are considerable risks attached to requiring children to cope with the complex physical and mental tasks of reading and writing before they are ready to do so.1 Experiences of failure can lead to a range of behavioural problems as well as inhibiting later learning. This may be a contributory factor in the gender differences which are apparent in learning achievements where boys do not do as well as girls. Boys far out-number girls in schools for those with behavioural difficulties2 Many children, even those who are quite bright, are not reading confidently until they are seven. While being entirely in favour of providing stimulating, constructive environments for young children we must guard against the strong possibility that the pressure on staff to achieve the goals will be passed onto both children and parents and skew the "curriculum".

  The following are examples of early learning goals which are likely to cause difficulties to a significant proportion of children:

    —  read a range of familiar and common words and simple sentences independently;

    —  write their own names and other things such as labels and captions and begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation. (Early Learning Goals, QCA)

  1.4  Priority needs to be given to all aspects of play, language and social development through a mainly oral and aural approach which takes account of developmental needs. The focus of teaching should be on pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills in order to provide a basis for formal education.3

  1.5  Early years education should address the issue of personal safety—on the roads, in the home, in school and in dealing with unfamiliar adults.

  1.6  Base-line assessments should help reception teachers to set targets appropriate to the developmental stage of individual children. They should help teachers to identify gaps in pre-literacy and numeracy skills which may inhibit subsequent learning. An overemphasis on numeracy and literacy may not be helpful.

2.  The way in which early years education is taught

  2.1  Between the ages of three and five children are involved in negotiating key developmental tasks. They need to be able to separate confidently from their parents or carer and to play both alone and with others in a way which increases self-confidence. They need help to develop rather than being over controlled.

  2.2  Children's ability to cope with early years education will be a combination of their physical and emotional readiness which will be heavily influenced by their home backgrounds. For many, the early years setting will need to provide the kind of caring, as well as stimulating, environment which they do not receive at home. It is important to recognise the role of these early educational experiences in providing a positive attitude and a sense of self-confidence in learning. We recognise that many children in the education system suffer from low expectations by the adults around them and poor quality provision. However, the pressures on staff which might be generated by the early learning goals should not reduce the capacity of high calibre staff to allow children to achieve a sense of self-development.

  2.3  The attitude of staff is fundamental to the quality of experience that a child will receive. Children should not experience a sense of failure which can be instilled all too easily. There is a danger that children can feel a sense of humiliation at this age if they fail to manage particular tasks or are unable to conform with their peers which can cause lasting damage.

  2.4  Supporting children in developing positive relationships with those around them is key at this stage. Staff need to be aware of the effect on children who are fearful of their contemporaries, and also to consider why a child might be behaving in a bullying or aggressive manner.

  2.5  While the QCA document recognises that children will be at different developmental stages it is not explicit about the extent to which the home experiences of some will conflict with the ethos of an early years setting. The quality of a child's relationship with their parents or carer, ie their attachment, is likely to affect their ability to cope with a new setting. It may also complicate their relationships with their teachers and peers. Some children will require far more support than others and it is important that the educational system has both the capacity and the skills to understand and respond to individual need. It is easy for children to be labelled difficult or naughty if staff do not recognise the nature of a child's difficulties. This is particularly important for those with special needs. Many children and their parents have to cope with problems in later years which could have benefited from being identified at this stage.4

  2.6  Parents should feel that they are working co-operatively with early years staff and that their views and opinions are respected. This is not always the case, particularly in the independent sector where children are being admitted at increasingly younger ages. The groundwork needed for this kind of relationship can begin at a pre-admission meeting which can establish the needs of the child in the context of its family.

  2.7  For staff to be able to provide this level of support requires skills, resources and links with wider professional networks such as children's mental health services.

  2.8  There are often considerable differences between a nursery setting and a reception class in a primary school both in terms of ethos and staff ratios. Which of these settings a child attends is currently too often an issue of pragmatism rather than parental choice. The greater formality of a reception class can pose difficulties for some children. This applies in particular to those who are starting at four years old and are required to adjust very quickly to all day attendance, and to those with special needs. A significant proportion of children given the label special needs have learning difficulties.

  2.9  Staff should work in an environment where there are regular opportunities to discuss children about whom they have particular concerns.

3.  The qualifications required by staff

  3.1  We take the view that the education system as a whole does not adequately recognise the emotional dimensions of the learning experience. A child who does not feel emotionally secure is not in a state of emotional readiness to learn. We are concerned that the training of staff generally does not equip them to understand child development and to recognise the extent to which the personal style of an individual teacher has the capacity to influence whether a child has a positive or negative educational experience. Teachers in turn benefit from working in an environment where they feel supported and valued.

  3.2  A fundamental requirement for staff in early years education is that their personality should be suited to working with this age group. They need to have a genuine interest in children, be sympathetic and understanding and be able to achieve a rapport with them.

  3.3  It is essential that early years staff are suitably trained in terms of their understanding of child development, how children learn and their ability to identify and respond appropriately to "distress". Distress may be a symptom of a wide range of problems from mild transitory issues associated with the new setting, difficulties at home through to serious diagnosable disorders.

  3.4  Staff need the aptitude and the knowledge to create an emotionally healthy environment. By this we mean that the setting is one in which the relationships between staff themselves, children and staff, and staff and parents are felt by everyone to be good. Such relationships are formed on the basis of respect and training. To achieve this is a considerable challenge. Many parents do not have a positive attitude to education which affects how both they themselves and their children might respond to staff. Establishing partnerships with parents often requires both knowledge and skill to work with their personal perspectives.

  3.5  Relationships between the statutory agencies—health, education and social services—are often not as good as they could be. Training for early years staff should include an understanding of other support services available and how to achieve effective working relationships.

4.  The way quality of teaching and learning in the early years is assessed

  4.1  We do not claim particular expertise in this type of assessment. We do feel strongly, however, that assessment in the early years setting must pay close attention to the quality of social interactions and the processes of learning.

  4.2  These issues have been addressed in the work of the Effective Early Learning Project in their professional development programme: "Evaluating and Developing Quality in Early Childhood Settings".5

  The programme incorporates the use of "The Child Development Scale—an observation instrument which is child focused and attempts to measure the process of learning rather than concentrating on outcomes; and "The Adult Engagement Scale". The latter is based on the view that the style of interaction between the educator and the child is a critical factor in the effectiveness of the learning experience. By using observational techniques it measures three aspects of adult behaviour: sensitivity, stimulation and autonomy.

5.  The age at which formal schooling should start

  5.1  There is considerable evidence to suggest that the age at which children in the UK start formal schooling is not in the interests of either their emotional or their educational development. A range of international studies demonstrates that children who start school at age six to seven and whose pre-school education concentrates on pretend play, stories, rhymes, songs, informal conversation and problem solving do better educationally and socially than those in more formal settings.6

  5.2  The International Educational Achievement Study studied reading literacy and instruction in 32 countries. Of the 32 studied, three began formal schooling at five years, one began at five and a half years, eight began at seven years and 20 began at six years. Those who started at seven years were often the best at age nine years and across all countries six years was the best of all.7

  5.3  A recent study at the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology has demonstrated the links between later physical development and educational problems and suggests that it is important to consider reading readiness before requiring children to acquire this skill. Sitting still, paying attention, manipulating a pencil and controlling eye movements are all necessary for reading. Children who have not acquired these skills are at a disadvantage when they enter school in terms of their physical and neurological development. They do not necessarily lack intelligence but require extra time for this phase of their development.8

  5.4  It is important to consider whether there should be a more flexible age of entry to formal schooling which could reflect the different rates at which children develop and reach a stage of educational readiness for formal learning.


  1  Bishop, DVM, Adams, C (1990) A Prospective Study of the Relationship between Specific Language Impairment, Phonological Disorders and Reading Retardation, Journal of Psychology, Vol 31 No 7 pp 1027-1050.

  2  Barber, M (1995) Interim Report. Young people and their attitude to school. Keele University. Department of Education.

  3  Silva, PA, Williams, SM, McGee, R (1987) A longitudinal study of children with developmental language delay at age three: later intelligence, reading and behaviour problems. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 29,630-640.

  4  North, C, Parker, M (1994) Teaching Phonological Awareness. Child Language Teaching and Therapy. Vol. 10, No 3, 1994.

  5  Pascal, C, Bertram, T (1997) Evaluating and Developing Quality in Early Childhood Settings: A Professional Development Programme. Centre for Research in Early Childhood. University College Worcester.

  6  Sylva, K (1995) Comparisons between Early Childhood Environment Rating Scales Ratings of Individual Pre-School Centres and the Results of Target Child Observations: Do They Match or Do They Differ? Paper presented at the European Conference on the Quality of Early Childhood Education, Paris, France.

  7  Wolff, S (1999) Starting School: do our children start too young? YoungMinds Magazine issue 42.

  8  Goddard Blythe, S First Steps to the Most Important ABC. TES 7.1.2000.


January 2000

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