On a day when we should be celebrating the literacy skills of British children being amongst the best in the world we are sadly faced with the fact that our young people are the most illiterate in the developed world, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and recently compounded by the worst GCSE results since the exams began in 1988!
I lay the blame mainly on the constant meddling and changes by Government from the Labour battle cry of 'Education, Education, Education' through to the current Early Years Foundation Stage and National Curriculum. Child development and well-being has been played with for the sake of politics and bravado and our children are now suffering for it in the form of development regression, and it's not just literacy!
In my age group of early years (under 5's) we are forced to follow the Government's own Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) which has been constructed to allow a 'box ticking' culture of achievement that includes those areas of population where English is a second language for example. It is logical that for a child who's first language is not English they are not going to develop according to English language developmental structure (and subsequent development of other areas). So instead of adapting the developmental achievement milestones for those children, the Government's answer was to lower that standard for all, the root cause of the devastating developmental regression we are seeing today. Their other answer is to take children in to a formal educational setting at continually lower ages when numerous research, including that by David Whitebread from the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University clearly explains advocates delaying the start of formal schooling until the age of 7! Of course, this would mean the Government would have to provide much more support to parents to provide them with the knowledge they need to encourage their child's play-based development until then.
There are however, a few other factors that we need to take to task to turnaround this current devastating trend:
• TV & Celebrities - we portray to our children, through television and some celebrities that the way to be successful is to appear illiterate and outrageous. This is the examples that we portray as being acceptable in both self-development, self-respect and behaviour.
• Technology & Social Media - with the rate of progression of technology and in particular social media we have made it acceptable to lose the art of the English language and traditional communication formats. Text speak is commonly used and emails do not demand the formality of a written letter. Our children hide behind screens from a very young age instead of directly interacting with their peers and the world around them. The art of debate and conversation is also being lost! Our own politicians choosing to use the platform of debate to simply berate each other in appalling manner instead of informed and educated words.
• Parenting - whether through 'guilt parenting', lack of support or knowledge passed down or for whatever reason, it has become acceptable for the behaviour of the children to rule the parents. For the children not to have manners, etiquette or respect and to ignore their parents or any form of authority. We do not say "respect your teachers or the law" when our children are disciplined for their wrong doing, instead we undermine authority by arguing the boundaries.
• Professional Qualifications - over the years, due to the continuing trend of regression in educational achievements, the entry requirements and the course content for the profession has been lowered to the point where it is now damaging to the very children it is supposed to be nurturing. I have fabulous staff who work hard, are dedicated and passionate about the children in their care but through no fault of their own do not have the same level of knowledge that was required in the former Nursery Nurse Examination Board qualification (NNEB).
All of these factors are contributing to the downward spiral we see in today's society and children's development, and it's not just literacy. This trend however, begins at a very early age and if we do not challenge the Government for reform NOW, the regression we see today will only deepen.
The reform that is needed is great, a mammoth task now due to the number of years the issues have been ignored. I have been raising these issue for many years through my MPs and even a letter to the former Prime Minister and the only replies ever written are 'how much the Government are spending', yet the damning reports continue!
I hereby challenge our new Prime Minister to actually listen to those of us that are working in the professions of Early Years and Education, that are clamoring for reform and to SAVE the future generations, for we are at risk of a crisis in development, well-being, education and mental health concerns. Radical change is now desperately needed if we are to once again be respected and world leaders instead of our current ranking of 'most illiterate'.
• Provide adequate information and support to parents throughout pregnancy and the children's early years on development, well-being and parenting - prevention is key (and less costly!)
• Reform the EYFS to where the milestones should be in the 21st Century and encompass other recognised developmental programmes that are progressive in achievements.
• Reform the professional qualification structure to support existing staff as well as those entering the profession.
• Re-structure the entry date in to formal education until the child is 7 years, providing a play-based (non-educational) service prior to this.
• Financially support the sector sufficiently to allow both the professionals to be recognised sufficiently from a financial perspective for their role and for the settings providing the crucial role of childcare to also financially survive and develop.
Until the Government listens and acts, there are some ways that parents can take control of their children's destiny and it starts at the very beginning:
1. Pregnancy - due to cuts in maternity services very few mums are aware of the advances made in pregnancy research. Your baby's development begins in the womb with their sensory journey and brain development. From the very beginning you can have an impact on your baby's well-being and stress for example, can be a huge factor that can have a direct impact on your baby's brain development and future mental health. I have previously written about ways to combat stress but also want to stress the importance of bonding with your baby in the womb and also nurturing their sensory journey, as this is where their development begins.
2. Baby Talk - with the rise in technology and busy lives we do not interact with our babies as we should. We do not read to babies, and I do mean babies! Hearing language through talking to them, reading to them and them listening to the world around them is how they begin to formulate language in their brain in order to speak themselves. Most importantly, continuing this interaction helps them develop their own word bank which sadly on average is regressing at an alarming rate with many two year olds only having a vocabulary of about 15-20 words, when it should be more like 50-70 with some words being put together in the beginnings of a structured form. So, put away the phones and tablets, children under 3 (in my opinion at least
5) should not be using screens as they are damaging to the critical period of brain development. During this time, children need specific stimuli from the outside environment not found in screens and crucially not over stimulation and cognitive developmental shortcuts, which tablets etc provide.
3. Give them a childhood immersed in nature - sadly this is one area that has regressed significantly over the years and is one of the most damaging. Being outside, in nature, interacting with it and understanding it leads to developing compassion, self-awareness, respect, and mental well-being as well as many other developmental areas such as physical skills which are the pre-cursor to our cognitive skills. From babies and beyond, children benefit unmeasurably by being in nature, in the garden, visiting parks, forests and even the seaside for example. Again, put away the technology and get out in nature, it will benefit you beyond measure too!