by Matthew Byran
Headmaster, Longacre School
Forgive me, dear reader, for starting an article about the early years talking about myself. You see, I’ve been a teacher since I left university, which means that not only have I never skipped a long summer holiday, but I’ve also always had a sense that I knew a fair bit about education and what really mattered (for good and not so good). The problem was, it has only been in the last few years that I stopped getting things completely upside down.
You see, I fell into the trap – and it’s common enough – of thinking that because I was most aware of the impact of university and secondary school (which helped me considerably to get into that university), that this phase of education must be the most important. The inspiring Mr Chips/Dead Poets Society/History Boys kind of teachers, the independence, the club ties, the grown-up vocabulary and ill-judged use of Foucault, Derrida or Rousseau to gain intellectual gravitas. When people ask where you went to school, they don’t mean when you were five. And therein lies the problem: it is easy enough to categorise someone if you know they went to Harvard, or boarding school, but in so doing you are leaning only on preconceptions about that place, or that kind of place, and you lose sight of the individual, unique, human in front of you.
Even when I was fortunate enough to have children, and they in turn went to preschool, I didn’t understand that this moment, right here, was to be pivotal in what I sincerely hope will be a happy and fulfilling life for them. When I saw that they had played with shaving foam, or made ‘food’ from play dough, I was mostly glad that it hadn’t been left to me to do the cleaning up; when they appeared in their first nativity plays, I worried about whether they had been cast in an appropriately starring part – often, indeed, as a star of some kind…
Reception seemed much the same, a riot of building blocks and stories and – mostly – playing nicely with other children. Meanwhile, I was busily giving my son toys and puzzles that were pitched far in excess of his actual age in what I now recognise was a bid to increase his chances of one day going to one of those high-profile schools or universities that people often talk about.
To clarify, I have no quarrel with those seats of learning which give their students outstanding opportunities to learn, debate and produce new ideas. Nor do I take exception to parents who want the best for their children – even now, I bow to no one in my hopes and aspirations for my children. But I fundamentally changed my outlook when I took on the job of being a prep school Head, with its own Early Years setting. My aspirations now extend to some 250 children, and I want to give every one of them the best chance to succeed. How to do this? The most efficient way is to give a child the best Early Years experience possible.
As the Head of an independent school, I am sometimes asked what is the most important phase of schooling if parents only have limited funds which they wish to invest in education, or what is the minimum number of years to be in private prep school in order to gain access to a prestigious secondary school, or a non-fee paying grammar school. The older I get, the more unequivocal my answer: there is no more important phase in a child’s education than their first years. For working parents, and notwithstanding government initiatives, preschool is a seriously expensive business. Reception at an independent school means yet more significant expense. This isn’t a sales pitch, either for my school or private schools in general, but I do encourage parents to find the best possible early years experience for their children. Don’t fall into the same trap that I did, of thinking that those early moments with crayons and blocks, mud kitchen and dressing up boxes, are anything less than critical.
The best days in the Early Years are filled with stories, multi-sensory experience, physical activity and making your mark on the world. Children must learn independence, as well as how to leverage the knowledge and experience of their teachers. Let them learn self-reliance, and how to share. Let children play in imaginary worlds and discover knowledge for themselves. Understanding exactly when to follow the rules, and when to exercise one’s own judgement and break those rules, can take a lifetime. I was once told that toddlers jump in puddles to prove their existence in the universe. If only Rene Descartes had had that kind of existential awareness.
Practitioners in Early Years settings routinely show some of the best pedagogical techniques that you will find anywhere. Play-based learning ensures fun, ensures motivation, ensures genuine educational progress. Learning is tailored to individuals, rather than a one-size fits all approach to lesson planning. Children’s answers are taken on their own merits, rather than a test of how closely they approximate to a teacher’s predetermined answer in fact. They experience fun, excitement, variety, fresh air and utilise all of their senses.
Children have agency over their choices and activities, with the guiding hand of an adult expert in the background ensuring that they cover the full range of crucial learning goals. They are allowed – nay, encouraged – to fail, reassess, persevere and find a way. There is a noteworthy absence of grade point averages or positions in class. There is barely a mention of extrinsic motivation in the form of house points or treats – not needed when visible learning and progress provide their own encouragement. There should be a total absence of fear: no fear of being shouted at by teachers (as a parent, I wish I could say that I had never lost my temper with my toddler child, but I can assure you that it’s a great deal easier when working with other people’s children!), nor fear of disappointing parents by failing to live up to their expectations.
But what of phonics? Or cursive handwriting? The essential step of learning pencil grip or fluent reading aloud? Well yes, each of these has great value. They should all come, and in an ideal world will come before a child reaches the point of cognitive development wherein they are aware of their relative prowess compared to peers – usually around six to eight years old. But not at the expense of the personal, social and emotional development, physical development and communication and language which will underpin a whole lifetime. Not before the child is ready. And definitely not by skipping some of the key foundation points in a bid to ‘get ahead’.
There is no sense, nor lasting learning, in memorising the first phonic sounds (S, A, T, P, I, N in case you wondered) before one can recognise and understand the environmental sounds around us – a ticking clock, a telephone ringing or a knock at the door. There is danger in making assumptions, and great value in utilising the skills, experience and perspective of an Early Years specialist. These years really are a foundation for life, the best way to ensure that our children grow up to be confident, kind, resilient and thoughtful.
Longacre School – delivering an engaging learning experience for boys and girls aged 2+ located between Guildford and Cranleigh.
Visit us www.longacreschool.co.uk