Like many of you, the pause button pressed on everyday life by the national lockdown has prompted some reflection on my priorities – personal and communal.
Some of you might have experienced a slowing down, more family time and opportunities for stillness, awareness of the world about them and a chance to pursue hobbies, projects and studies.
For others, it has been a chance to rethink their lives in relation to goals, family, work-life balance and what really matters.
Stop the world, I want to get off, you might have been thinking. Well stop it did, but have we stepped off? And are we now simply desperate to jump back on the merry go round, mount our chosen steed and enjoy the ride? Or is it a chance to jump onboard a new ride altogether?
The problem with ‘catching up’
It would appear that our education system is calling for our children to ‘catch up’, as evidenced by the recently announced billion pound ‘lost learning’ budget for schools. This begs the question – what it is we are asking them to catch up to?
The underlying assumption is that we are all agreed on a return to normality, or maybe that we are planning a new temporary normal, a stopping off point back to a world measured in test and exam results, a world in which our children are once again assessed and valued for their worth in terms of data scores.
In this normality, we are our maths and English GCSE grades. We meet the expected standards for our school year age, or we do not. We pass or we fail.
Welcome back to the merry-go-round.
In this world of statistics, children become cohorts, classified by characteristics – boys, girls, black, white, Asian, poor, SEND, or disadvantaged. Their marks are analysed, tabulated and pored over to identify trends and gaps by group.
How are our disadvantaged white boys doing – compared to the standard? How can we catch them up? How is our COVID cohort going to meet its targets?
Some of those who have taken the opportunity to reflect during this time have concluded that… maybe this is not what we want for our children. In a world with such vast challenges – inequality, poverty, hunger, pandemics, pollution, terrorism, modern slavery, racism, misogyny – will maths and English GCSE scores be enough? Should we continue to aspire to ever greater consumption, a new car and foreign holidays? Or is it time to disrupt the very system of values that has presented us with these challenges in the first place.
A renewed focus on each and every unique child?
What is it we want for our children? This is the question we should be asking ourselves.
How will we tackle the challenges of our time? And where and when will we start to do so? It seems to me that we are waiting for the system to change but I would like to suggest that, especially in Early Years, we are in charge of our own destiny.
We have the freedom already, and we are all empowered to use it. We already have a curriculum that explicitly identifies the unique child, the child shaped by positive relationships. We know enough about brain development now to understand the powerful influence of both carers and experiences on how a child’s character develops. On how they develop dispositions that will foster lifelong habits for learning, self-regulation, creativity, empathy and imagination.
Perhaps, instead of focusing every effort towards catching up, we just keep on doing what we already know to be right? That is, to see our children as individuals and to love them. That seems eminently doable to me.
The lessons learned from lockdown
Three of our nurseries remained open during lockdown for the children of our key workers and for identified vulnerable children. What characterised each of these settings was the sense of calm, fun and sanctuary, separate from the world plagued by the virus and the fear of contagion outside our walls.
Our teams felt relieved to be at work, distracted from the news and engrossed in the children’s kingdom of play where they indulged their zest for life, their inquisitive natures and their need for human connection. It was certainly a reassuring base from which to rebuild as we opened all of our nurseries and preschools.
Like many others, we were concerned how the many weeks of separation would have impacted on our children’s relatively short lives. We need not have worried.
As one manager commented, “We don’t give our children credit for how well they adapt to new situations, how flexible and resilient they are. Our fears and worries for them were mostly unfounded. They wanted to see the staff and their friends and were unfazed by new groups or layout.”
It was a relief to discover that what our children need most is friendship and connection, not complex and deep therapy. It is simply a matter of being present. Our focus has not been on targets, school readiness or knowledge acquisition. It has been rather, time to play, to enjoy one another’s company and to chat.
Time to ask the right questions
The author and Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr is quoted as saying, “When you get your, ‘Who am I?’ question right, all of your, ‘What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves.”
The marvel of Early Years teaching is that we are invited to help our youngest children start to find the answer to the first of these questions, even from the earliest age:
‘Who am I?’
How we answer this question for these children helps them establish their identity, build their character and start to develop interests that will one day lead to their ‘What should I do?’.
Perhaps we have the privilege of nurturing teachers, engineers, artists, discoverers of life-saving vaccines, adventurers, athletes, kind, sacrificial and empathetic people. What a responsibility and what fulfilment in knowing that we can play our part in setting life trajectories, maybe even disrupting generational hurdles that we don’t yet know how to overcome.
Could we help all of these children make the world a better place?
There is always hope and we are the conductors of it. We do not need permission, our job description directs us to make a difference in lives. This is our normality. It is positive and fun and it is reassuring to return to it.
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