Please…no…not on my watch.

When I set out to write a blog, as I said in earlier posts, it was about trying to unpick my disquiet at what was happening to the early years sector whilst situated as I am in higher education, in what are challenging times. If you have come this far, you have put up with my squiggling thoughts as I try to make sense of how I have been shaped by experience, and moulded into the human I am: one who holds a deep respect for our youngest children and what they bring to the world and a strong conviction that we owe it to them and our future to provide the very best that we can in terms of their care, and through that their education. I know that I stand alongside many others in this belief and I find comfort in the fact that however low I am, there are others to take up the baton at times when I feel too weak.

This has been the hardest post to write, but the one that I think I intended to write from the very beginning. However, as in my usual practice of prevarication, where the ironing suddenly seems much more interesting than an unpleasant task, or how my car mysteriously slows down as I get closer to an unwanted destination, I have avoided writing it. Instead, I have revelled in my squiggling thoughts, and rediscovered the long abandoned act of writing for the joy of writing. Funnily, I have avoided many academic conventions (including correct referencing) which I think have sometimes constrained my squiggling brain.

This is likely to be the last post for a while, not least because I am exhausted having been on an emotional rollercoaster of self discovery and confession. I feel culpable at the situation we find ourselves in within the university and early years sector, as should we all perhaps. I have tried to use my little voice in a noisy world through sharing my experiences, whereas previously I have allowed it to be bullied into silence.

As I have written my posts those little voices in my head say “You are not worthy. Who will want to read your ramblings?” To them I say “I don’t care. This writing was always for me and those that understand.” If you agree with the little voices, and believe my writing is self-indulgent, I can at last have the courage to say in the words of my students, with all due respect, jog on. The last part of my story is laid out below – if you wish to indulge me, read on. Once again it is a long post, so perhaps this time a glass of what you fancy will help you to the end…

On the day I walked onto the campus of my first lecturer’s role, I struggled to enter the building. It wasn’t an emotional struggle, but a physical one as I couldn’t open the door! It is something that I often use as an illustration for my students when teaching about Piaget’s ideas on schema…I hadn’t come across a door that opened this way and I was flummoxed. I tried everything I could from my repertoire of how doors open, but nothing worked. Eventually a uniformed man appeared and gestured to the small green button on the wall. I pressed it, the door swung open and I entered a new life. At the same time a new idea was added to my existing schema of how doors work. The security man looked me up and down and said “the building isn’t open to students yet love”. I explained that I was there for my first day as a lecturer and he laughed “you don’t look like one of them”. This was my introduction to academia, and sums up the way I often feel that “I don’t look like one of them” and often don’t sound like some of them. At times the words of academics exclude others. That little girl in the puddle of her own making comes back in times of insecurity and uncertainty. At times these manifest from inside and feelings of being an outsider when no such slur is made; at other times it manifests because of being made to feel that way by a look or words, or by the actions or insidious inaction, of those around me. When we tackle issues of inclusion and diversity in early childhood settings we discuss how important it is that children and families can see images of themselves in the setting as an important first step. In the university sector this is still a significant problem and one that is slow to improve*.

I starting working in higher education in 2010 when early years workforce education and development was at a high point. Graduate leader funding was available for early years settings to develop their staff, and as a result recruitment to early years foundation degrees (FDAs) and part time degree courses was at a high. In many institutions students were interviewed and the strongest were given a place, whilst others were turned away with guidance on how to develop before they tried again. EYPS courses were also thriving and by 2010 over 4.5k EYPs had been created. For those universities offering the short, graduate-based (validation) EYPS pathway the fact that they were growing their own graduates meant that recruitment was good.

Since then the landscape has changed dramatically and recruitment to part-time work-based courses has plummeted in the university sector. I have tried to consider some of the more obvious reasons for this in relation to early childhood and my own experiences:

– the graduate leader funding ran from 2008 until March 2011. Austerity measures after this time resulted in the gradual shrinking of local authority funding. Early years setting support services were systematically slashed and they have largely had to concentrate qualification funding support on statutory qualifications at best.

– following recommendations from the 2011 white paper ‘Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System’ some universities chose to move away from 2 year part time early years FDAs moving them out into partner colleges. Despite counselling otherwise from those on the ground about the negative outcomes of losing FDAs, some universities decided instead to introduce 4 year part-time full honours degrees. From my own experience and knowledge of the workforce I understand how hard it is to embark on the journey into higher education. Many practitioners believe they are not capable, however as in my own experience, practitioners get a taste for study on an FDA and many move on to complete a top-up full honours degree when through successful results their worth is validated. Four years of study seems like an eternity when you are from a non-traditional background and believe yourself incapable of university education – “not university material” – 2 years however seems do-able.

– The 2012 increase in tuition fees in England has resulted in the downturn of recruitment to part-time courses, as set out in research by the Sutton Trust **. According to their figures, since 2010, the number of part-time undergraduate entrants attending UK universities and English FE colleges has fallen by 45%. Students on part-time work based early years degree courses are poorly paid in the workplace and often non-traditional students with lower qualifications on entry. As the Sutton Trust highlight, the recession has impacted on part-time numbers. The thought of taking on a ‘debt’ in order to study causes great concern when you are living in hard times. Even though these practitioners are counselled that they will in all likelihood not have to pay back the debt of fees, and if they do repayments will be small because of the small amount they earn, the long-term effect of such a debt weighs heavy on the mind. I was lucky enough to get funding for the majority of my study – looking back my upbringing taught me that any debt was wrong and had I been in the same situation I too would have been loathe to study.

– The 2010 coalition government had already scuppered the trajectory for the growth in EYPs by removing the expectation that every setting should have an EYP by 2015. In 2013 it added another controversial nail in the coffin, by changing EYPS to Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS). The EYP standards were changed, and the focus moved away from children’s development in its own right, towards an emphasis on development for school readiness. The leadership of practice element was lost to a greater emphasis on teaching academic skills of literacy and numeracy. Additionally the entry requirements changed and as well as a degree, entrants were expected to have GCSE English, Maths and Science at grade ‘C’ or above and successfully complete the online professional skills test in numeracy and literacy. The assessment processes mirrored those on QTS courses. The changes have, and continue to be a fierce bone of contention – whilst EYTs undergo the same rigorous assessment and the course has the same requirements as those on QTS courses, it does not result in the same pay or status. Once again, we have the thorn of ‘equivalent but not equal to’ and those with EYTS are unable to teach in reception classes of maintained schools. Their expertise remains bounded. Recruitment has plummeted, and the impact of my previous points resulting in less graduates in the workforce, has taken its toll.

– There has been a lack of direction from the government for the development of the early years workforce. As an EPI report highlights ***, the proportion of level 3 qualified staff in early years settings fell from 83 per cent in 2015 to 75 per cent in 2016 with an increase in the cost of level 3 courses from £250 in 2012 to £1,900 in 2015. There are many reasons for this fall in level 3 staff, which are too complex to discuss here, however the knock-on effect is that there are less level 3 students to progress onto higher education courses. The report highlights a number of other worrying trends which indicate the pressure that the early years workforce are facing resulting in ‘a recruitment crisis’****. When times are tough and morale is low, as I can picture in my minds eye on the faces of my students, it is hard to take a leap of faith to study and a mountain of debt. If you only require a level 3 to manage a pre-school why bother with the hassle? Sadly, I see more early years students who study not for their development in the sector, but to escape it.

These are just some of the reasons that recruitment to early years courses in universities has diminished. There have been decisions made over this time, that we might have influenced in some small way and for this reason perhaps we are all culpable. The reason that I started writing this blog is that I am fearful.

I am fearful because the university sector, like other education sectors, is suffering a crisis in revenue and having to make ‘difficult decisions’. The lifting of the cap on student numbers in 2015, the fall of the numbers of 18 year olds and the marketisation of the university sector have led to a fall in student numbers in many institutions *****. Universities are living in uncertain times in relation to their finances. The government hint at a decrease in tuition fees ****** and whilst a decrease would be welcome to some in real terms, universities are already looking to tighten their belts should this happen. I can see the links to the cuts made to local authorities where we saw a cut to services, a cut in staff and a culture of fear for those without power. In relation to the early years sector those cuts have had a real and detrimental impact.

…and so I am deeply fearful. I am fearful that in the casting around for money saving and cost cutting the eyes of those in positions of power within universities will fall upon part-time courses where recruitment is low. I am fearful that instead of looking towards the future and a strategy for growth, instead they will be reactive, thinking only of the short-term effects of cuts on today.

I am fearful for the knock on effect of any cuts in part-time HE courses on the development of our early years workforce. The eyes of government are currently turned to other more complex things, but to my mind they have long been blinkered. We need a joined up approach to workforce development led by clear policy and we need investment. As a sector we have wonderful squiggle-thinking individuals trying to shore up the crumbling landscape by creating new visions, new initiatives and maps through the complexities of workforce training. Like working on a large unruly old mansion which has had different bits added along the ages, they work with others to try to mend the foundations and bring order to the chaos. The problem is the roof is leaking and until we fix that, the building continues to leak and ruin what is beneath. We need the clear strategy and policy from above, otherwise our disparate private, voluntary and independent settings choose their individual path through the complex bumpy landscape.

In my blog ‘the liberating rollercoaster’ I ended by saying that I stood on the shoulders of the university tutors “in the same university position that they inhabited, in my small attempt to give a hug to those little children, now adults, who have been made to feel “I am not worthy”. We are in danger of that being lost, and I feel bereft and culpable.” I hope that this post gives a sense of why I feel so bereft because my squiggling brain imagines the possibilities and thinks the unthinkable.

Some may think that I could have put my points across in a more succinct and direct way or that a blog may not be the way to voice concerns, or perhaps that more direct action is what is needed. However, I wanted to illustrate the path of one real person through the complexities of working in the early childhood sector and to demonstrate the difference that higher education had on one real person. Too often decisions are made without too much thought to the effect of a decision on less powerful individuals…and so I am using my little voice in a noisy world. I am an EYP, an agent for change.

At last I am spent…and my furious writing journey (and annual leave) is at an end for the moment. Thank you to those that accompanied me on my meanderings…I will likely return after taking a breath, dusting myself down and finding a space again to write.

*https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/sep/07/uk-university-professors-black-minority-ethnic

** https://www.suttontrust.com/research-paper/lost-part-timers-mature-students/

*** http://epi.team1support.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/EPI_-Early-Years-Workforce.pdf

**** https://www.ndna.org.uk/NDNA/News/Press_releases/2016_press_releases/Workforce_survey_-_Government_must_solve_early_years_recruitment_crisis_.aspx

***** https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2018/08/10/russell-group-universities-struggling-fill-places-clearing-figures/

****** https://inews.co.uk/news/education/university-tuition-fees-cut-theresa-may-6500/

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The road to EY professionalism is paved with…untruths.

This blog post continues my journey through early years as discussed in ‘the liberating rollercoaster’ and the quest for professional recognition. A lovely EY Twitter colleague said that my first blog post sounded like my memoirs, and perhaps it is. This blog may hold no value to anyone else, particularly as it is long and descriptive, but it serves as a tool for me to remember what drove me along the bumpy road I travelled and the choices I made at each crossroads, all of which led me to where I am today.

If you have read this far and you can bear to read on, I suggest you sit down with a nice cuppa, this post really is a tome, a real humdinger…

I finished my BA in the summer 2006, vowing that I had completed studying, at least for a few years. My family breathed a tangible sigh of relief – after 3 years of study the dining table could be cleared of books and papers and wife and mother returned to ‘normal’ functioning. It had indeed been a rollercoaster for everyone not just me. In less than a year I had completed 4 modules and the mother of all research projects. Despite being counselled otherwise by an amazing supervisor, I had embarked on a complex work-based enquiry, involving interviews and videoed play sessions. My squiggle brain managed to weave the threads into a dissertation which received a high grade, but more affirming in many ways, feedback that it should be shared with the support service I worked for in order to influence county wide-practice. I glowed with the pleasure that the project gave me: from inception, through the data gathering process, to the conclusion containing my final suggested outcomes for my workplace – all had set my squiggling brain buzzing. However, as part-time work-based study is wont to do, it had taken its toll on my personal life. It was in this place that the majority of academic work is done; where the blood, sweat and tears are shed; where the frazzled, snapping, insecure student tries to join theory to practice and meet those elusive learning outcomes in order to pass their assessment. My family had stood resolutely behind me, pushing when I cried that I couldn’t do it: I was too stupid, and celebrating with me when I succeeded. They were relieved however that their effort as well as mine was at a close…

However, I had not long received my graduation invitation when once again a provocation was presented. This time a ‘Nursery World’ news article. The then Department for Children, families and schools (oh I mourn the loss of that title and emphasis) announced that as part of its children’s workforce strategy it was introducing ‘Early Years Professional Status’ (EYPS). They billed this as an equal status to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). Led by the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) their rhetoric spoke of ‘pedagogues’ and ‘agents of change’.* This seemed so attractive to me, I wanted to have professional recognition and this seemed to be the start of early years being given that recognition. For me it was not about pay (although that reward is always nice), as much as status and professional recognition. I wanted to be seen as equal to others teaching children. I worked for a service where there was clear demarcation between my role as support worker and that of teacher, and yet I felt we did similar jobs, and after 9 years of working in my role, and degree study, I had equal knowledge and skills. I decided to apply for the pilot EYPS course, and received a place.

It was a long hard road, both metaphorically and physically. To attend the first session in September 2006 I had to travel from the South Coast up to Birmingham. I remember that first day vividly. I had left home at 5am and my head was pounding when I arrived, as was my heart. The warm welcome was lost to me, and all I could hear were the words that the CWDC had adjusted its definition of EYPS being ‘equal’ to QTS. Instead EYPS was to be seen as ‘broadly equivalent’ – each status had its own distinct nature, its own set of skills. The day was full of explanations of assessment processes and paperwork and I didn’t have time to consider the implications of this new definition until the long journey home. Broadly equivalent meant that still the early years workforce was held separate from later age phases in education, however I held the hope that EYPS would change the professional landscape within the sector. After all, the government had made a commitment to have an EYP in every setting by 2010 (later changed to 2015 when it was realised that it needed to upskill the workforce and this would take longer than expected). This commitment was supported by transformation funding, and later graduate leader funding, to support individuals to achieve EYPS and settings to develop their staff **. It was not what I had envisaged at first, but I thought then that it was a start on the road to professionalism, despite this first major untruth I encountered.

The EYPS course was hard. Hard not only because it was an intense 4 months of gathering evidence and writing links between this evidence and the 39 standards, and of physical assessments (oh the scary gateway review, and final assessment day). It was also hard because as a pilot the goalposts changed often and at short notice. But I emerged blinking from the dizzying and intense journey, knowing that I was one of only 2 EYPs in the county where I lived, and the 300 in England. I was lucky enough to be invited to a celebration event in London, and be handed my certificate from my long-time idol and role-model, Floella Benjamin. Leaving that event with my head held high I felt that I was a recognised professional and I was proud…

As the saying goes ‘pride comes before a fall’. After I was awarded EYPS I went to see the leader of the support service that I worked for, presented my dissertation for her to read, (as they had kindly given a small contribution for my uni fees), and asked her if there was a chance of some sort of promotion with my new professional status. She went away with the dissertation and a few weeks later the dissertation was returned via a colleague, and an email congratulated me on my hard work, but said there were no opportunities available. QTS was a requirement for any promotion,and only if a role was vacant. I had in my heart known what the outcome would be, of course – them rules is rules and local authorities at the time were transparent in their hierarchical roles and responsibilities, but frustrating in the inflexible and drawn out processes in order to bring about any change. I loved my job and I had learned more in that role than any other, but I felt such injustice at the decision. I was also burnt out having recently attended one too many funerals of some of the lovely children with complex needs whom I worked with. The time had come to move on.

I cast around for something that would give me some professional recognition and a new, less emotionally-draining challenge and found an advertisement for ‘early years consultant’ in an advisory service – there were 3 posts available. I read the job specification and looked at the requirements. I could fulfil each and every criteria except the last one – to hold QTS. With a push and shove from a dear colleague who had mentored me through my academic journey, I applied. At her suggestion my application form set out how I answered each and every criteria on the job specification. It justified why I felt EYPS was equivalent to QTS and why it was relevant to the position being offered. It worked – I was called for an interview, and surprisingly to me at the time, offered one of the 3 positions.

I was given a flexible secondment opportunity – I cynically wonder now whether the advisory service knew they were taking a risk. EYPS was new and untried, they had the option to send me back from whence I came if I wasn’t up to the role. I had been blown away by the salary in the job details – quadruple the amount I was getting as a support worker. When my formal letter arrived however, the pay was half of that in the advert and I decided to sign nothing until I had a more full picture. On my first day I started along with my two new colleagues who both had QTS. We all had such complementary knowledge of the early years sector as we came from different backgrounds and I did not feel that any one of us had more than the other. Once I got to know them I asked them about their salary and was shocked to hear that both of them were on the salary in the advert, only I was on half that amount. I made an appointment to see the head of the service, who explained that QTS commanded a different salary scale and EYPS was not equal in value. I left unhappy and angry. I composed myself and my response – same role and responsibilities = same salary was the gist. I quoted equality law and drew on all my graduate level writing skills to cry ‘injustice’, threatening to take it further. It worked, and with apologies for a clerical mistake I was awarded the same salary as my colleagues.

I set about proving that I was worthy of the job, and that as an EYP I could do everything that those with QTS could do. In every position I have had in my early years work, I have always found myself surrounded by brilliant early years colleagues – in the main dedicated, passionate and hard working. This job was tough. We would be at work by 8am and update the rating document of the huge number of settings in the area. Our rating would prioritise who we visited first. We travelled the county supporting settings during the day, and many nights would deliver training on the latest national strategy or priority area. We would host twilight network events and training for schools and settings to bring them together. On the majority of nights I wasn’t home until 11pm. Despite trying to bring schools and settings together to share expertise, in many situations there was a clear hierarchy. The assumption by many of the teachers I met was that I had QTS. I started my role holding back the fact that I had EYPS rather than QTS, as I had no stomach for the possible surprised look followed by the unveiled disappointment, or the closed eyes and pinched mouth. After I had a professional, but frustrating discussion with one reception teacher who claimed that EYPS was taking away professional standing from teachers and that it was a cheap poor quality alternative to QTS, I vowed instead to proclaim loud and proud that I was an EYP. Not all teachers were negative at all, some embraced working with early years practitioners and sharing their complementary expertise. Sometimes it was the confidence of practitioners that got in the way, and the familiar-to-me negative feelings of not being worthy.

I had realised that my status and background had the opposite effect on the early years practitioners in settings, they voiced their pleasure to be supported or trained by someone whom they saw as having the same humble roots, and who knew first hand the challenges of working in a setting. I loved that I was a role-model for the practitioners I visited, and when they said they couldn’t possibly get a degree at their age, I would laughingly say “if I can, anyone can!”

Don’t get me wrong, those days were perhaps the hay-days for Early Years in many ways even if professional recognition was hard fought. From 1997 local authorities had money from central government to support the children’s workforce. We had the wonderful Birth to Three Matters Framework in 2003. We had the child centred 2003 initiative of ‘Every Child Matters’ threading through policy and legislation drawing together all professions (many of us still mourn the loss of this language). In 2008 the EYFS was introduced and was followed up by supportive national strategy documents – all of these documents recognised the principles that underpinned practice, and provided pedagogical guidance for practitioners whatever their experience of working in early years. We had funding for Sure Start and children’s centres, and for local authority support services for the children and young people’s workforce. All was (almost) rosy in the garden.

The service that I worked for morphed into something different, and I applied for a new position in a local authority. I was pleased that news of my experience and campaigning from others had changed things in the local authority, and the early years education and care support service had changed any relevant job roles to require QTS or EYPS. I was taken on to run a network for other EYPs and support their further development. The other part of my role was to embed the EYFS further within the county, and develop training. I had discovered a love for teaching early years practitioners, and writing supporting materials and enjoyed this part of my previous role and this new role. At this point I felt strongly that the early years sector was making inroads to being seen as a profession…there was some way to go, but graduate leadership (and the funding provided by this) was supporting the development of the workforce. Life was good.

And then disaster hit. In 2010 the coalition government came into power and local government funding was under threat. The local authority I worked for decided to look at ‘rationalising’ services and to make decisions early. The first restructure meetings began. I found it to be one of the most unsettling dehumanising processes I had encountered. The system sets one person against another; people were aware that they would be going up for one job against several colleagues. It bought out some of the worst sides of humans who are under threat and I could not bear it. At the time an advert came out for a university lecturer, part of which was to lead an Early Years FDA. It was my dream job, and it felt circuitous somehow. I did not feel worthy of such a role, but friends and an old colleague pushed me to apply; “nothing ventured” and the interview experience would be good.

I left the interview exhilarated but without any expectation that I’d been successful. I’d had to present a teaching scenario but discovered my invitation was incorrect and I had 10 mins less to present than I had planned for. The IT didn’t work, and I ended up acting out the video clip I had planned to show. The students at the front were smiley, but the lecturers in the back seemed less so. Little did I know that this would be a typical day of teaching in higher education! I had a phone call to say I had been successful, and I was over the moon despite earning less than my job in the local authority. I was going to be able to provide part-time work-based Early Years students with the same support that I’d been given. It was a privilege and I was up for the challenge. A new professional era began.

I remember being invited to a university EYPS celebration event in the summer after I had been awarded mine, and the speaker saying to those EYPs (with some kind of right, and many kinds of wrong): “ You are pioneers, but remember pioneers are likely to have to remove the arrows from their backs. It is a hard road ahead with the arrows whistling around your ears…” At the time I didn’t see the significance of this, but over the following years I was often reminded of his words.

Looking back I can see how lucky I was to have these professional opportunities in the early years sector. Many of those working in early years still fight for professional recognition and pay that barely equates to a living wage, and nothing near a graduates’s pay.

My road as a pioneer was fraught with different difficulties. For each new role I felt I had to make my application stand out from the crowd, and once I had the role I had to work harder and keener to prove that I was equal to others. I have a thick skin from the times when people from other professions have said, “Early Years? That’s all play isn’t it?” I have learned that there will be silence when I say I am lecturer and they ask what in, and I reply ‘Early Childhood Education and Care’. The usual response is a small smile and a change of subject.

In many of my roles there have been people in power who down-play early years, and my experience is still that people do not appreciate the specialist knowledge and skills that are required for those working in early childhood. I am weary of having to justify what I do, and frustrated by the mistaken belief that I see and read, that anyone can teach the subject or that it isn’t as important as later education phases.

I am still removing the arrows…and they don’t hurt any less than when I was awarded EYP in 2007…we still have a long bumpy road to travel to professional status but with effort we will get there.

* Pam Jarvis provides a great explanation of EYPS – http://histpsych.blogspot.com/2018/05/early-years-professional-status-past.html?m=1

** Dr. Eunice Lumsden’s wonderful doctoral study ‘Early Years Professional Status: A New Professional or a Missed Opportunity’ (2012) explores the context surrounding EYPS. https://www.northampton.ac.uk/directories/people/eunice-lumsden/

Squiggle thinkers of the early years world unite!

This is another long-meandering blog and again, I apologise. At the start of my blogging plan, I fully intended it to be logical, chronological and planned but instead it will be the stuff of squiggles and scattering; a positioners nightmare. If this spikes your curiosity read on, but hold onto your hats as my squiggling brain is let loose…

When I grasped ahold of the idea of writing a blog, it was in order to find a way of trying to retain some power whilst feeling powerless, and provide a medium for the little voices that keep me awake at night. Those little voices often try to unravel the threads that make up a situation, to reflect as I habitually reflect, in order to better understand the ‘possibilities’. Instead of falling silent, what happened when I pressed ‘publish’ was that those little voices went into overdrive! 

I remember sitting in a conference somewhere, moons ago, and the speaker* drew a square on the board. She suggested that many adults have thoughts and ideas which are square in nature – quite restrained, fixed and logical; more often than not ‘inside the box’.

She drew a circle. She suggested that teachers often want children to think in this way; quite contained, but flexible enough to move in and out in order to take in new learning (I often think that the current government education agenda would perhaps have one straight line rather than a circle; have children in on that conveyor belt, lift the lid, fill the head, ship them out). More flexible adults, who seek new learning, demonstrate this circle thinking.

She drew some messy squiggles with lines coming out. She suggested this demonstrated the thoughts of a pre-schoolers and those with creative brains – the thoughts of endless possibilities; following one idea for a while before another comes along to move the first in another direction. Unfettered and unrestrained this is the foundation of experimentation, of new learning and of new theories about the world. 

I am sure like me EY peeps can make links here between what that speaker proposed and neuroscience – brains under construction, seeking to make new connections and form theories through schematic investigation. The assimilation and accommodation of new understandings as proposed by Piaget. The later pruning of those unused pathways, as the brain becomes more mature and specialised, results in different ways of thinking. However perhaps if we as the ‘more knowledgeable other’, using Vgotsky’s ideas, scaffold children’s explorations and squiggle thinking during the early years, we can support them in the discomfort of not knowing in preparation for learning later on. We can support them to understand that we do not always have the answers, and trying to find a solution is tough (Piaget’s ideas of disequilibrium before new knowledge can be accommodated), but that this is ok. Disequilibrium is healthy and is the stuff of squiggle-thinking possibilities – this is where beautiful creations happen; new ideas, new understandings, new worlds. 

I think that my brain is often constrained to be square when I am in my work role, but at night, or when I am a play partner with a child, my brain turns to squiggles. I am put in mind of when I used to carry a big bag of toys when I went to work in the homes of Pre-school children with complex needs. I remember one particular day, whilst sitting on the floor with a 3 year old boy, his parent saying from her seat on the sofa, with whispering voice, that she found it difficult to play with her child. As if on cue, her child upended the bag and began to set up tea for three, mixing up the colours of saucers and cups and put a car up to his ear to telephone and invite me. My hand had already reached for my own car to reply, when her exasperated voice said “ I mean, look, it is messy, and so illogical!” Needless to say I reassured her that not every adult finds it easy to play, and over time we worked together to help her find playful activities that she was more comfortable in when interacting with her child. Her square-type thinking, could not comprehend the squiggle thinking of her child. For me, I revelled in the squiggle-thinking and loved to follow the invitations and play cues from a child – joining them as they led me on their convoluted journey of possibilities. We sparked off each other and learning happened for us both along the way.

So I asked myself late into the night why the squiggle thinker only appears when it is quiet and dark, or during play. I have learned to be a square thinker. After all, the grown-up world is perhaps largely a square thinking world where people are placed in boxes. It seems to be what is most acceptable to most of society particularly in my ‘grown-up’ based jobs – square thinkers are predictable and easily managed. I had naively hoped that university – with its ‘free thinking’ would be different. However, squiggle thinkers are unpredictable, and messy. They question, they dream and imagine, they are never quite content with ‘more of the same’ or accepting of being delivered just one choice. Quite often they believe there is more that could be offered and their squiggling makes them jump forward to see other possibilities which square thinkers may not even imagine. From a personal perspective, in our current austerity driven but consumerist society, perhaps the squiggle thinkers in a workplace who are rights-driven and ethics-driven are a pain in the behind. They can imagine a different world. 

In being the square thinker part of me is lost I think. I conform but my spark is dulled. Again, I can make links to schema here for EY folks (and particularly my previous desk-share colleague) – I have learned through work experiences that a positioning schema keeps things neat and tidy (and perhaps keeps friends happy), but my true style is a scattering schema, despite all good intentions. Anyone who has taught with me can see this: I set up my materials in an ordered way, but before we are 10 minutes in I have scattered everything into an unruly mess. It helps me think, and sets my mind free in a strange way, to create and weave.

I feel that more and more our current education system encourages square thinking when we need more circles and squiggles! The fixed-answer curriculum, easily measurable, overrides active learning, and creativity (in its broadest sense). I am not saying that there isn’t room for helping children understand how to be circle thinkers – that may be their natural bent and if it is not, they will likely enter a world of work which demands that. 

We also need to proceed with observation and caution in order to be supportive of our squiggle-thinkers too. I discussed my ideas with a family member recently. She is also a squiggle-thinker, and we considered the risky aspects of squiggle thinking too. Squiggle thinking as an adult can bring with it anxiety, sleeplessness, stress and agitation if unfocused and sometimes needs the gentle “Stop. Enough” grounding by trusted others. Squiggle thinking children with meerkat brains ( See Jane Evans https://www.savechildhood.net/teach-children-meerkat-brain/) on high alert looking for danger may with their possibility thinking be fearful of the myriad of possible outcomes in an unpredictable situation. The expression of this anxiety and panic may be ‘fight or flight’ and they will need a safe-base to help them regulate their squiggling thoughts. They will need reassurance about what will happen next in their world, and over time be given a tool box of tools to rein in the squiggles when they get out of hand.

Bringing my squiggling thoughts back to a conclusion, we do need to provide more opportunities for messy, creative minds to flourish and for young children to have the freedom and courage to explore possibilities whilst being supported by nurturing, observant adults. Those children will grow into society’s scientists and inventors, artists and hopefully EY practitioners and teachers…with opportunities the possibilities are endless!

I witness the squiggle thinking of many EY colleagues, and the squiggling opportunities they offer, however currently I also see the constraints from above forcing them to provide square-thinking activities and experiences. We need to resist – squiggle thinkers of the world unite lest the sparks of children be dulled.

*Early Years colleagues please let me know if you recognise this speaker and I will gratefully attribute these ideas. If not I thank her for letting free my squiggles.



Addendum to ‘the liberating rollercoaster’: catharsis

In the middle of the night I thought about my teacher with the ruler. Following the last blog, many may blame her from my picture of the little girl standing in a puddle of her own making. Although she held some responsibility and she certainly was not kind, there were many others and many experiences that contributed to my lack of self-belief and poor self-image. Being part of a minority group is always tough – in particular you cannot hide faceless in a crowd, when your difference is always on view to others. The first aspect that some make judgements on is your outward appearance, closing down their ability to listen to your voice, or understand the meaning of your words or actions. They decide on your worth in one quick glance. However, the positive part of my experiences is that I was lucky enough to have people along the way, who demonstrated a belief in me and modelled for me forgiveness and care. I learned to be resilient. I learned to be empathic. I learned eventually to love, in part, who I am. I have always strived to be that same life-line to the children and young people I have met along my journey through life; the person that believes in them because it does make a difference.

 When I was in my late teens, my mother, unaware of the meanness of this first ‘educator’, begged and cajoled me to visit my “lovely first teacher” as she had moved into a house down the road, and was lonely. By that time she  was an elderly lady, a spinster with no children. Eventually I agreed.

I had always wanted to please my mum – the look on her face, or the touch of her hand when I did something ‘good’ provided that warm, fuzzy ‘I am loved’ feeling of toddlerhood. The opposite was provided whenever I said ‘no’ and displeased her. The disappointed look and withholding of warmth and positive touch provoked sadness and loneliness in me, and feelings of guilt that I had somehow hurt her. The long-lasting deep roots of this attachment relationship have provided the blue-print of many future relationships and my responses in very many experiences – my wish to please and to be the ‘good girl’ comes partly from that warm fuzzy feeling that results. I have battled long and hard to learn that saying ‘no’ sometimes is healthy and necessary for self-preservation. I have realised that the ‘good girl’ doesn’t change injustice. I still wrestle with the heavy trappings of guilt and the effects this has on me using my voice.

I did not attend a preschool and did not spend time with any other adults but my mostly loving parents. I say mostly because their demonstration of love sometimes came in strange ways. My lovely dad fiercely wanted to protect me and my sister – but when we fell over he would smack us before he would hug us. I now realise that the surge of Adrenalin, and his reptilian brain ‘fight or flight’ response kicked in, and whilst it was confusing as a child, as an adult I realise it came from a fierce urge for protection and from love. There were plenty of times when he demonstrated his love in far more recognisable ways: climbing onto his lap for a big safe bear-like hug and to smell his wood-worker smell; him handing me peas from his garden to eat and turning his back when I picked them myself and buried the pods in his garden because I knew it was forbidden. Warm memories…and he learned how to manage his first fierce response as we grew older and were hurt. I have learned with age that parents are only human with all the warts that come with being human – as parents we do our very best as there are no instruction manuals. I was raised at a time when smacking was the norm though, and it was still a widely held belief that children should be seen and not heard; my familial adult/child relationships were based around hierarchy and power. I don’t regret any of my early home life – I knew what it was to be loved.

However, my life experiences have shaped a deeply held belief that those working with babies, children and young people need to pay heed to the relationship roots they provide, that help children grow. They can provide acceptance of the expression of all children’s emotions, even those that some may name as ‘negative’. They can help children regulate and manage those emotions that are so big that they overwhelm them, until they can manage those emotions alone. They can help them find words, when those big emotions have stripped away any other form of communication but physical action. Most importantly, but simply provided to me, they can provide warm arms and a lap when the world becomes a scary place, when emotions get too big to cope with, with reassurance that there is a safe space to weather the storm. We cannot be perfect, “we are only humans after all”, but we should be aware how our actions and words are noticed and internalised by small people. Practitioners and teachers should strive to help grow those wriggly roots of “I am loved and lovable”, rather than those deep tap roots of shame and guilt which are hard to unhook. These early relationships form deep roots, setting the foundation of who children become and how they view themselves and go out in the world. We owe it to them to try to get it right…they are our future and we reap what we sow.

I remember walking into the home of my first teacher, and saw the small, wizened, frail, lonely human in front of me. I made her a cup of tea and sat politely on her sofa, talking weather and flowers. In my mind I thought of her punishing ruler, and the way her comments made me feel…but in that visit I realised that I felt deeply sorry for her. Here she was alone in the world at the end of her life, and soon I would be walking up the road to my bonkers, laughing, mostly loving family. Though I did not realise this then, I was approaching the prime part of my life, after a brief bump in the road, whilst she was reaching the end of hers. I would like to say that in that moment of forgiveness, I found it in my heart to visit again…

However, this isn’t a story book but real life; I was a self-centred young person, who viewed old age as an alien, poisonous, nothing-to-do-with-me, far away concept, and I never returned to see her. I hear her voice as I type this: “Typical”…but I forgive her.


The liberating rollercoaster

I do not expect this blog to be read by others necessarily. It serves as a tool for me to unpick the sadness I feel at a difficult time in the early years sector, but also how this is situated within the university sector. If you are interested in my slightly mad meanderings read on…

In 2003 I embarked on a course that was to change all aspects of my life for ever. I had applied for a place on the first ever Foundation Degree (FDA) Early Years Care and Education at a university in the south of England, and been accepted. I was excited and scared in equal measures. Surely at 41 I was too old to be starting university, surely I wasn’t worthy or capable enough?

Family circumstances had scuppered my later school life in the late 1970’s, and I messed up my A’ levels big time. I had never seen myself as university material. I was one of the only black kids in a predominantly white school and although I was encouraged by many of my teachers, and my parents wanted me to succeed in my education, my self-belief was rock-bottom. For many years I did not understand the reasons for my lack of self-belief but this is written with that wonderful reflective tool of ‘hindsight’.

I can’t say we were poor: we always had food, a home, and clean clothes (often provided by the use of catalogues and clubs which put off the payments) – but we were working class, and definitely different with a very white dad, and a very black mum in a very small rural village. The only blacks in the village…

I had attended a Primary school where there were 3 black kids: me, my sister and a girl from the local children’s home. My overriding memory of my first day is of me, my pigtails, downcast eyes and wet legs, standing in a puddle of my own making, with a teacher standing over me saying just one word: “typical”. That same teacher was mean to the other kids too – and a ruler on the back of the hand was her first port of call when we did anything to displease her – however I took it personally, as a nod to my difference and confirmation of the names I was called by some of my peers, and significantly that I wasn’t worthy.

It is a hard hard thing to be in the minority, to walk into a new situation and stand out from the crowd because of the colour of your skin; to look around the sea of white faces to think ‘friend or foe?’, ‘advocate or judge?’ I was a joker and laugher, a big-faced smiler, and the forward-thinking comprehensive school staff provided me with opportunities to be a singer and actor. When I stood on the stage I could be someone else, it gave me the skills to put on the mask and pretend that I actually was someone – underneath this veneer still crouched the only black kid on the stage and one who didn’t think she was worthy. Following my final performance in the school musical a quite famous actor approached one of my teachers offering to put me forward for a place at an acting school. I laughed at it (the joker emerging) and declined – I was far too scared and felt too vulnerable to take the risk of the mask being stripped and being branded again as the unworthy one.

Roll on to 2003. I was a wife and mother. Following a short stint in an office and the birth of my daughter in 1987 I had drifted into working in Pre-school settings for convenience initially, and later into the most rewarding job of my life as a support worker in a service for children with special educational needs and their families. Convenience shifted quickly to enjoyment. I had found my passion and my gift. I was fascinated by young children and their learning and development. I loved to interact with them and held a deep respect for their cleverness. I had a commented-upon talent for being a play partner. I found the innocent questions “why is your skin brown?” or the rubbing of their little fingers on my brown ones to see the effect, cathartic. My love for them, and theirs for me was a healthy tangible nail in the coffin of difference and division. But I digress…perhaps food for a different blog…

I had taken professional courses to provide me with the necessary qualifications to do my job, and many, many day courses for professional development, but by 2003 I had questions that remained unanswered and a thirst for further knowledge. I had read about new early years Foundation Degrees in ‘Nursery World’ and without thinking too much applied to a university. As a pilot course it was free, what was there to lose?

On the interview day the mask went on, and as usual the joker and laugher persona was paraded. The interviewers were amazing…they began the job of prising off the mask and looking beyond the fool. It didn’t matter to them the colour of my skin, or my age, or the fact that I’d flunked my A levels. They wanted to know about my experience and current knowledge of working with young children; did I have that ‘spark’ and a quest for understanding and new learning. Their acceptance of me onto the course was enough to begin that peeling back; they believed in me, and that was enough to start.

Part time, work-based learning is a roller-coaster. I cannot say it was an easy ride. The balancing of family life, work life and academic life becomes an all-consuming super-hero type mission. There are times when I wanted to stop; when family and work tragedy hit and an assignment was due or when the grade I’d expected or the perceived negative feedback I’d received forced the mask to go on and the joker to be reapplied… “I am not worthy, I am not worthy”. There were times when the laughing and joking self-sabotaged my learning. However, those wonderful tutors grabbed a hold of my hand, and pulled me back onto the roller-coaster ride with reassurances that I was capable and I could be successful. They had the knowledge and skill of making tricky concepts and theories real, by applying them to real work experiences. They stripped away the inaccessible language of academia, to reveal the accessible underneath and in doing so made higher education the inclusive, liberating experience it should truly be. 

I emerged at the end of the 2.5 years clutching a FDA certificate with metaphorical sick-bag in hand because of that dizzying ride. My work-based practice had been enhanced most notably because of the skills of true reflection that l had learned. Those wonderful tutors had not quite stripped the mask completely – I did not attend my graduation event. The little voices (“you are not worthy”) and that picture of the little girl standing in the puddle (“typical”) remained. In my head it was ‘only’ a FDA despite the hard work and achievement. I was pleased, but not proud. This time the tutors stood behind and pushed, convincing me that I should apply for the short-track top-up for a full honours degree because I was definitely worthy. It was extremely tough, but truly liberating. I found my voice (however small), and a confidence that not only could I walk the walk, but I could actually, unbelievably, talk the talk. I could put theory to practice. I could answer some of the ‘whys’ I had when I started in higher education and I was armed with tools that gave me the means to provide possible answers to the questions I knew I would have in the future. 

I tickled that little girl in the puddle, and gave her a hug. She wasn’t gone and never will be – but at last I acknowledged she was there. I had spent my life trying to be strong and resilient with a smile on my face whilst being made to feel negative about the fact that I was different because of my colour. I had been told by family, by neighbours, by school, by media that if I voiced this ‘negativity’ that I was using it as an excuse, I was crying racism when it wasn’t there. Thus I had developed a habit of self-deprecation and an ostrich-like mentality to pretend there was nothing wrong. University education helped me recognise unconscious bias and the toxic effects of this on those who are atypical. It gave me a life-affirming, professional-affirming, self-affirming lift that would not have been available had it not been for a free part-time work-based course. Widening-participation is only possible when people are invested in; making the inaccessible, accessible. When that is provided it opens the door to social justice.

I attended my BA graduation for that little girl in the puddle of her own making, but also for those other non-traditional students like me who are trying to still the voices “I am not worthy”. I attended as a nod to those wonderful tutors who gave me an opportunity that changed my life…

Tutors whose shoulders I stand on today, in the same university position that they inhabited, in my small attempt to give a hug to those little children, now adults, who have been made to feel “I am not worthy”. We are in danger of that being lost, and I feel bereft and culpable. 

In danger of this post already being far too long, another blog post awaits and the meanderings continue…

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me! It was with shaking hand and nervous anticipation that I started my series of blogs. I do not blog for affirmation from others, but from a desire for some sort of clarity during difficult times. I hope that in my unravelling of self, positioned in the early childhood sector but within a higher education environment, I may help others in their reflection. It has taken me many years to find any sort of voice or the bravery to say things aloud. My voice is often still silenced by others with louder, more powerful and confident voices. I feel that often I whisper when I want to roar. Such is the way in the Early Childhood sector…

Having worked in Early Childhood for many years I have seen the cyclical nature of policy and practice – what goes out of fashion, years later comes back into fashion. Since 2010 I have experienced a downward trajectory of many of the things I hold dear and true. I have often felt voiceless and powerless even when expressing my views aloud. Such is the way in the Early Childhood sector….

Working in higher education was a high point in my work-life journey and supporting others in their understanding of theory to practice, as I had been supported, was a dream come true. I discovered that the struggle to have my voice heard when promoting early childhood education and care, was as real in these hallowed halls as it was in the world outside. The understanding of the specialist knowledge and skills needed for those working with our youngest children was not as appreciated as I had hoped. Early Childhood was sometimes down-graded and down-played. The fight for recognition was just as hard here as on the ground where the real work is done. Such is the way in the Early Childhood sector…

The blog posts that follow are not intended to be particularly academic in nature. What I blog will not necessarily change what I dislike of the world, but will I hope allow a space for my quiet voice in a noisy world.

“One whisper, added to a thousand others, becomes a roar of discontent” Julie Garwood

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