Liz Truss. Let’s cut to the chase. She’s a neo-liberal economist who now has responsibility for education and childcare in this neo-conservative government because of her far-right Friedmanite Chicago School beliefs in the power of the free market to remedy all of society’s ills and provide for all of our needs, including the needs of our children. Not that it’s the children who are going to be ‘buying in’ to our increasingly marketised education and childcare provision. The little dears will just need to accept whatever the market decides will be on offer.
3D Eye readers might have seen our tweets earlier this week concerning certain statements put out by Liz Truss. We also commented on the appearance of a certain Toby Young on one of the BBC’s flagship news programmes, The World At One, giving support to those statements.
Here we have two highly political, extremely right wing individuals, with no background in education, yet again given the opportunity to propogate their reactionary and toxic opinions about education on our national media, without any adequate challenge from the BBC’s journalists and presenters. How long can this go on?
In essence, Ms Truss has this idea that our current adult/child ratios in early years settings are far too generous, which accordingly makes childcare and nursery provision more expensive than it might be if only ratios were allowed to rise, which they now will be, thanks to the genius of Ms Truss.
So there she was on BBC2’s Newsnight last night, chirruping away about the virtues of the French system, within which there are larger numbers of children in the care of smaller numbers of adults, on the basis that the adult in charge has a university degree. Genius! This is essentially the same argument that it matters not whether Primary class sizes exceed thirty so long as the teacher is a good teacher. It’s complete nonsense, of course, especially when you consider the complex challenges facing teachers of large classes of children with complex needs, but as usual the free marketeers think only in terms of quantifiable numbers, ratios, inputs, outputs and costs. Any effects that can’t be measured therefore don’t get measured, and aren’t considered by the statisticians and the economists.
Liz Truss says she wants to see English children sitting nicely, listening to teacher, quietly focused on real learning tasks and not ‘aimlessly wandering around the place’. It seems that such good practice is what she’s observed in French schools and nurseries.
What she implies is that these things never happen in English early years settings, which is complete nonsense, and a disgusting slur on our own hard-working and very excellent early years practitioners.
Whilst it’s true that there used to be an irrational reluctance in some sections of the profession to engage very young children in any kind of activity involving numbers, letters and the printed word, this is no longer the case except in certain die-hard nooks and crannies. Since my own daughter taught herself to read at the age of four – through sheer curiosity about these strange little symbols we call letters and words – I’m well aware that some children want and need involvement with literature and literacy, and certainly enjoy engaging with books, print and reading, at quite an early age. For others this is not the case. And in certain cases they can be led into – not forced or coerced into – that sort of engagement. The same is true of numbers and mathematics, obviously.
Of course we should all have high expectations, but that’s not what Truss, Gove and their good friend Sir Toby are talking about. These people are fanatical about ‘academic attainment’ and ‘value for money’, and their way to increase these two things – killing two birds with one stone – is to get the little dears or the little blighters sitting down and engaging with formal learning as soon as possible, even from the age of three. Since these people have never themselves been teachers, let alone been early years practitioners, they naturally know nothing about these matters, other than what they’re told by the likes of Sir Michael Wilshaw and his Knights of the Ofsted, who similarly and invariably have never been class teachers in early years settings.
As for the notion that an academic degree magically enables anyone to become a great teacher who can effectively work with large groups in nurseries and early years classes – this is so stupid it’s not even worth commenting on. Over many years I lost count of the number of graduates with PGCEs, etc, who came into their first classes knowing next to nothing about child development, classroom management and how to provide for large mixed groups with complex needs. They survived thanks to having strong support from nursery nurses and teaching assistants who had experience, knowledge, flair, empathy and every possible quality that a good practitioner needs, though not, as it happens, a university degree.
To be clear about this, we’re not saying that theoretical knowledge isn’t important – but it must complement an understanding that comes from experience, and support a practice that’s improved through rigorous and reflective in-service professional development. In fact we applaud the system in Finland that insists all teachers should achieve a Masters degree in order to have a career in education. What we object to is Ms Truss’s blithe assertion that it’s OK to increase adult/child ratios in the early years purely on the basis of an adult in charge having a degree in education. In fact we wouldn’t support an increase in group sizes in nurseries and early years settings even if every teacher in charge had a Masters degree. This is not the way to improve learning across all of the intelligences, to increase children’s wellbeing, to promote a love of learning, to foster creativity and imagination, or to increase children’s life chances. It’s simply a self-defeating ruse to hike up academic attainment whilst cutting the costs of childcare and education.
The education minister’s claim that nurseries are too ‘chaotic’ has already outraged teaching unions and childcare providers.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, the minister, who is increasingly tipped for a Cabinet post, said too many childcare settings were ‘chaotic’ and saw children ‘running around’ with ‘no sense of purpose’.
She praised a traditional approach akin to France’s écoles maternelles, which studies suggest are more effective academically and produce better adjusted, happier children.
‘At the moment, only one third of nurseries have a teacher-led structure,’ she said. ‘Good providers have high-quality, structured learning from age three which really benefits later on.’
Neil Leitch, of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: ‘The picture the minister paints is not one that would be recognised by anyone who knows anything about child development. Day nurseries are not hothouses of anarchy, as the minister seems to believe.
‘What she sees as the ideal French model is regarded by many French practitioners themselves as dull, and uninspiring for children.
‘Young children are by nature active, energetic and inquisitive. It is these features that good-quality nursery staff nurture and develop through a balance of child-oriented and adult-led activities.’
Penny Webb, a registered childminder who runs Penny’s Place in Kidderminster, said: ‘I find it rather annoying – no, very annoying – that the early years minister can go on and on and on about early years practitioners needing higher qualifications, needing to do x, y and z to improve outcomes for children – when she herself does not have any formal qualification in early years childcare.’
So what is it with Ms Truss? Here’s an individual who’s making a stellar career in politics via a familiar route – banging the drum about “driving up standards”, slamming teachers and schools, now including nurseries where children are actually encouraged to be active and social in their learning, whilst also suggesting that academic qualifications are the one and only key to being an effective teacher or teaching assistant.
This is the Guardian’s comment:
What’s missing from Truss’s recommendations, and from the entire Tory mindset as far as I can tell, is any mention of kindness or enjoyment. Not to mention interesting-ness. What if nurseries were run by people who really knew how to engage children? People who made the children laugh? Who the children really liked? I don’t think it’s a weird thing to expect. My daughter went to a nursery like that (state-run, in the middle of a south London housing estate) and she’s still notably un-wayward 10 years on.
Like almost every utterance issuing from our dear leaders (whom I would not wish to address correctly if they walked into the room) Truss’s ideas about nurseries parade as common sense, but are in fact yet more patronising, authoritarian claptrap whose key result would be to increase our overall misery.