Early childhood education: if things are so different, how come they look the same?

In the mid to late 1970s, I spent many hours as a researcher in ‘infant’ classrooms (5-7 year olds) in the Bristol area. More than 30 years later, I returned to research in ‘reception’ classrooms as co-director of an ESRC project called ‘Becoming a Problem’, which looked at how 4 and 5 year olds in four schools in Greater Manchester come to acquire a negative reputation in school.[1]

It so happened that both projects had made classroom video recordings (in the 70s this was whizzy stuff, technically speaking), so we have a neat natural experiment that could show whether and how things have changed – at least on the ground, in the everyday busy-ness of classroom life during children’s first years of compulsory education in England.

The trouble is, even though I was ‘there’ during both projects, I can’t decide whether or how things have changed. Or even where to look. If you look at education policy you would have to conclude that things have changed drastically, and at increasing speed, between the Plowden report of the mid 70s and the contemporary scene of Every Child Matters and the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Teachers are now subject to the demands of league tables, quality assurance and the relentless accountability of ‘standards’. Curriculum, assessment and inspection frameworks penetrate ever more deeply into practitioners’ work and children’s lives, from birth onwards, shaping competence, pedagogy, aspirations and educational identities (every school child is a ‘Key Stage’ child now)

But on the other hand, maybe things don’t change so quickly. Notions of ‘the child’ and her developmental needs, and assumptions about what counts as good early years teaching, may not be all that different these days. Certainly, one of the puzzles that has dogged me over many years, reflected in the title of my BERA paper, is that despite the policy deluge and complex socio-political changes, infant classrooms look and feel very similar to those ones that I sat in 30 years ago.

So I went back to the old, grainy, black and white VHS tape recordings that I had helped to make between 1976 and 1979, and viewed them alongside the colourful digital recordings of  2006 – 2008. And yes, there were many deeply familiar elements. Then and now, children sit cross-legged on the carpet at the feet of teachers, talking when permitted. Teachers still get the lion’s share of the talk, and ask questions to which they already know the answers. There’s the same paraphernalia of reading books, wall displays, art materials, sand and water tables, toys, library areas and home corners (though they were Wendy Houses in the 70s). There are interactive whiteboards now of course, though I’m not sure how far these have transformed pedagogy. Children still line up, tidy up, mill around, jostle, fidget, snigger and yawn.

And yes, some things are different. Children spend much more time on the carpet, taking part in learning activities as a whole class, whereas group work was the norm in the Bristol classrooms of the 70s. A familiar sight in the Bristol schools was the teacher at her chair or table, mobbed by a crowd of children waiting to have their work checked. There are more adults in the contemporary classrooms, as teaching assistants, and perhaps a greater diversity of needs and capacities among the children, following the 1981 Act and inclusive education. Maybe there are more elaborate systems of rewards. And there seems to be greater emphasis on social and emotional development, or training, in the contemporary schools.

I could go on. But the point is, it’s pointless to try to weigh and measure all those differences, because this doesn’t tell us anything about what they all mean. And in any case, change is constant, and most of it is imperceptible. Moreover it is clear that things are moving and changing at different speeds and scales. So I started thinking about what tends not to be seen, and ended up looking at the invisible or ‘junk’ moments in the interstices of classroom life, when children wander round, humming to themselves, carving something out of nothing, or out of chaos, through improvisations involving rhythm, movements and word play. Deleuze and Guattari called this kind of thing the refrain or ritornello, and this is what the Bera paper turned out to be ‘about’. I think this kind of mundanely creative activity is much more significant than we often think, in terms of children’s capacities for experiment and their potential for learning.

Maggie MacLure.

Presentation to the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 4-6 September 2012

(Symposium: Provocations of ‘the child’ in uncertain times)

Session 2.06, Wednesday 5 September, 9.00-10.30

[1] Becoming a Problem: How Children Develop a Reputation as ‘Naughty’ in the Earliest Years At School’. ESRC RES062230105 2006-2008.  Project outline: http://www.esri.mmu.ac.uk/resprojects/project_outline.php?project_id=1


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