‘Too much too soon’: playing at educating

A new UK education campaign is an attack on the substance of education in general.

The ‘Too much too soon’ campaign, launched by the Save Childhood Movement on the back of a letter to the Telegraph, has UK education policy firmly in its sights. In its own words: ‘Children in England are starting formal schooling too early and are subject to developmentally inappropriate pressures that are damaging to their long-term health and wellbeing.’

The TMTS campaign even ventures its own solutions:

1) re-establish the early years as a unique stage in its own right and not merely as a preparation for school;
2) protect young children’s natural developmental rights;
3) prevent baseline testing;
4) reinstate the vital role of play;
5) introduce an English developmentally appropriate foundation stage for children between the ages of three and seven (until the end of Key Stage 1).

As these jargon-heavy objectives show, the campaign’s leading figures – academics, child psychologists and cultural commentators – are not exactly advocating a more enlightened education system. 

For a start, objective one is meaningless. From an individual’s point of view, any section of a life is unique. And to write that early years are considered ‘merely a preparation for school’ only shows the authors’ low opinion of schools. I cannot make head or tail of objective two: just what is a ‘natural developmental right’? 

And as for objective three, what exactly is wrong with baseline testing? Historically, it has been an effective tool for assessing general levels of literacy and numeracy. For example, the standardised reading and writing tests used by now the defunct Assessment and Performance Unit (APU) between 1979-1988 showed a slight rise in reading performance, contrary to the popular view of falling standards. Yes, the government may now use tests and targets to hold teachers to account, but a better response may be to say ‘okay, let’s have the baseline tests, but we teachers want the autonomy to teach our subjects the way we judge best’.

Moreover, the campaigners’ portrait of children traumatised by testing and being labelled a failure is contradicted by reality; some children may get anxious about tests, but many others don’t. In fact, many pupils welcome exam week as something different to the usual school routine. Besides, failing at a subject is not the same as ‘being labelled a failure’ – the only people who seem to think it is are the campaigners themselves. Most teachers and parents generally find ways to reassure, comfort and encourage children who have not done well in tests.

Objectives four and five indicate something more seriously wrong with TMTS: a profound misconception of what knowledge is. Schooling can be fun, of course, and teaching can incorporate play-like activities, but play is not an educational category. In school, playtime is what happens in between, not within, lessons. When introduced consciously and systematically, structured teaching methods can actually be helpful for both pupils and teachers – and some children can actually enjoy not having their work transformed into a supposedly ‘fun’ or ‘real-life’ activity. 

It is easy to understand why the idea of play seems so appealing to educators and some members of the public. The introduction of the instrumental language and criteria of business into schooling has made the idea of play, of ‘letting children be children’, sound commonsensical. But what is really at stake here, as the learning-objectives jargon invades schools, is the status of knowledge, not play. 

Within the realm of education, the hostility towards acknowledging and affirming the importance of subject knowledge arises partly because subject knowledge is more abstract and codified than everyday knowledge. For each subject there are special words, concepts and procedures that have to be learnt, and that is a difficult process that might require the teacher to employ repetition and other ‘unenjoyable’ didactic methods. 

As for finding an ‘English developmentally appropriate foundation stage’ for young children, it is true that at the start of school, middle-class children generally find it easier to perform better than working-class children. In this regard, the work of sociologist Basil Bernstein is particularly illuminating. Teaching in London’s East End during the 1950s, Bernstein identified the importance of language in education, later developing this into his theory of ‘elaborated’ and ‘restricted’ codes. In short, elaborate codes, prevalent in middle-class families, prioritised context-independent meanings; restricted codes, prevalent in working-class families, used more context-dependent meanings. In a school culture in which abstract language was important, middle-class children flourished, while working-class pupils faced the double hurdle of getting to grips with both the content of the subject and the language in which it was presented.

But Bernstein did not conclude that academic knowledge should be simplified or rejected for working-class pupils. He didn’t conflate pupils’ linguistic abilities with cognitive power. Rather, he saw it as the job of teachers to find ways of overcoming such problems. He argued that complex subject knowledge can be acquired by both working-class and middle-class pupils alike, but the evaluative criteria needs to be made explicit.

One example from a related study shows this clearly. When two groups of seven-year-olds were asked to sort different foods into groups, the middle-class group organised them according to type (dairy, meat, etc). The working-class group sorted them according to daily experience (fish with chips, eggs and bacon, etc). When asked to repeat the task differently, the middle-class group used everyday criteria, but the working-class group struggled. But as soon as the working-class group were asked explicitly to group the foods according to type, there was no difference between the groups. This shows that the linguistic differences between classes are well within the scope of teachers with strong subject knowledge to address - often by just making the evaluation criteria explicit. In this limited respect, it is legitimate even to speak of education being able to compensate partly for cultural deficits between different socio-economic groups.

The problem today is that the rejection of subject knowledge is far more pervasive than in Bernstein’s time. This means that explicit evaluation criteria are often detached from specific subjects and turned into a meaningless list of learning objectives. Where Bernstein upheld the pedagogic right of all children to academic knowledge because of its intrinsic abstract properties, some researchers today invoke a bowdlerised version of pedagogic rights to drain knowledge content from subjects. As campaigns like ‘Too much too soon’ show, many members of today’s educational and cultural elite have so little faith in either teachers or knowledge that they prefer playing to educating. Which is no education at all.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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