#BrewEdEY – focus on the Early Years


Thanks to the good offices of Simona McKenzie whose Twitter handle is @signoramac, there was a gathering at The Alexander Pope hotel in Twickenham to discuss Early Years issues. By no means an expert, I wanted to avail myself of the collective expertise and I wasn’t in any way disappointed.

There was Sue Cowley (@Sue_Cowley), Dr Lala Manners (@MattersActive), Ali McClure (@AliMcCureEP), Bethlyn Killey (@StarlightMcKenz) and June O’Sullivan (@JuneOSullivan). It was good to see Sue and Bethlyn again, after significant gaps between events, but equally interesting to hear the view of a broader group of speakers.

Sue Cowley gave a barnstorming opener for the day, as she put it, a bit of a rant, particularly about the general direction that it can appear that even early educational experiences are talked of in more formal terms, with testing and more structured “delivery” models being interpreted as “what’s wanted” from the “powers that be”. That this is external and top down can give the pronouncements greater weight, which in turn becomes interpreted into localised approaches, which, whether “liked” or “disliked” by the inspection regime, inevitably becomes the stuff of the local grapevine with other local providers changing to anticipate the needs of their next inspection, simply because no-one wants to be found wanting.

Topicality is the stuff of young lives, something that they have seen, heard or found and want to share with others. Equally, the adults will also want to bring in items of interest that will generate interest and inquiry. Sue spoke of “door handle planning”, in this context. Sue has a healthy scepticism of what is asked by others without the expertise in the age group.

Lala Manners is a professional who has links with Government decisions in the area of Physical Development (PD). With Sue, Lala shared the values of physicality in young lives, with specific mention of avoiding obesity at young(er) ages. In this regard she made reference to the need for EYFS professionals to be role models. One would think that getting children to be active would be one of the easiest things to organise, but the discussion moved to packaging of approaches, so that they required some form of preparatory training in order to deliver the programme.

While space can be an issue for some settings, there are many ways in which PD can be enhanced with limited equipment. Running and jumping are probably the easiest, dance can be supported by music and movement, as it was for many generations of children. General movement can be directed within a space, perhaps with floor markings helping instruction, or even masking tape, as a “balance beam”. Putting out scaffold boards, with bricks to enable them to be raised, can add to the balance challenges. Throwing stones or other natural objects (fir cones), balls, bean bags into a bucket. In many ways, it’s often limited by teacher imagination.

In my own mind, I linked physical development with literacy. I wonder how many teachers have considered that movement PE provides some of the oral base for many verbs and adverbs in describing movement that can be drawn into reading and writing?

Ali McClure worked with a wide range of ideas drawing from her career. She is a practising SENCo, as well as EY specialist and EP, so brought ideas about brain development through stimulus. While some colleagues might have argued with some interpretations of the internal workings of the brain, the idea of stimulus and vocalisation leading to some kind of mental schema organisation was central to Ali’s discourse. Using the term “Anchor of Attachment” made me think about the place of educational settings on the lives of children. For a number, the order and organisation of the setting may well be one of the few oases of calm in their lives; settled staffing, room organisation, resources and opportunities and understanding their place within the organisation can be stabilising factors.

Bethlyn Killey is well known to Twitter, as a strong questioner of SEND legislation and opportunity, or the lack, within the broader system. Bethlyn use the example of her son who had had nine settings by year seven. He’s now in a much better place, thankfully. The process of getting to this stage has been effectively analysed by Bethlyn, utilising the skills drawn from her work life. It is a salutary experience to listen to someone trapped in the complexities of EHCPs and the endless seeking of access to the relevant specialists, or advice, then to find school settings capable of addressing identified needs, but also to be aware of the potential for further diagnoses. In an education system that is gradually losing expertise, even staff in senior positions might not have had experiences that enable them to fully adapt their approach to the new needs. The system established in 2014 is complex, appears to offer a great deal for children with needs, yet often lacks the essential external expertise to support non-specialist staff. It is also budget constrained, as is regularly evidenced by contributors on Twitter.

When Bethlyn finished her talk, there was a collective gasp, as if we had all been holding our breath. It was more moving because it was her real-life experience.

June O’Sullivan was reticent to follow such an emotional experience, so we had a short break for refreshment or comfort.

June was another contributor who has the ear of Government. Her company runs a significant number of EY settings across London, including the House of Commons. Her brief was pedagogy and she took us on a journey that explored the philosophical background to pedagogies currently available. June is very down to earth, though and her approach is very child based; children doing, making, experiencing, exploring, discussing. She talked of dialogic reading as her philosophy, getting children into books. With over 100 languages across the settings, speaking is a key aspect; a mantra that I express as, something to think about, talk about, record (write?). In fact, the teaching and learning approach that she shared would have been seen in many successful mainstream primaries in SE Hants in the 80s-mid 00s. June’s organisation runs its own training for staff, calls each member of staff a teacher, so giving equality of status. It was always going to be the difficult “twilight” slot, but such was the knowledge base, delivered with humour and humanity, of June’s talk, that she held us over the planned finish time, yet the time passed very quickly.

As a first, Simona McKenzie can count BrewEdEY as a significant success. Thanks Simona.

All the speakers encouraged dialogue within their talks, so the significant collective expertise could be brought to the fore and available for everyone. Thanks to everyone for such a positive day; even on a Saturday… I was pleased that the Munster-Exeter rugby was still running on Channel 4+1 when I got home… even if it was a disappointment that Exeter lost…

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