Life before school

Poor old Liz Truss, tied up in knots again.

Her interview in the Daily Mail, with the headline quote that British toddler in nursery are “running around with no sense of purpose” has been widely lampooned, with Twitter gleefully competing to see who could deliver the best sound bite as to toddlers’ often all-too-firm sense of purpose.

It is easy to laugh, and I was self-righteously snarking along with the best of them. Of *course* toddlers run around with apparently little aim. They are colliding – quite literally – minute by minute with new surroundings, experiences and ideas. From one day to the next, things prompt different reactions and thoughts and demand speedy and often chaotic exploration. It’s the reason why small children are so delightfully exhausting.

My two eldest children were at nursery from a few months old. Although we had some issues with the place which, together with several other factors, eventually led to me leaving work to look after the children at home, the books and development charts which the nursery staff completed showed that there was thoughtful consideration behind the apparent mayhem which sometimes greeted us on drop-off and pick-up. Nurseries and childminders are already subject to Ofsted regulation, and any setting in which children were literally just allowed to riot for hours behind a locked door would struggle to continue to operate. If Liz Truss has observed mobs of unruly toddlers, surely her correct response should be to ask why the existing framework isn’t being implemented?

Behind the sniggering, though, the article chills me. It is entirely of a piece with the sense I get from much government policy which suggests, implicitly, that children are a menace and a nuisance, and that we ought to go further even than the Victorians in trying to ensure that they are neither seen nor heard till they can make some kind of valuable contribution.

A 2 year old is not a miniature version of the child she will be at 4. My own 2 year old is little short of a barbarian – he is rough, inattentive, often unruly and incredibly obstinate. Were he still to be so by the time he starts school, I would worry – but I have confidence that the long slog of installing some kind of civilisation into him will pay off, not because I enforce the behaviour I wish to see, but because we model and encourage and cajole – and, sometimes, judiciously ignore. Surely insisting that very small children display a given set of conduct before they are actually ready to do so is setting even more up to be pathologised with a diagnosis of behavioural problems?

Of course, some children start school with no social skills and unable to sit still, but all, or most of them? Ironically, this was one of the issues which Sure Start and the universal preschool place for 3 year olds (now extended in disadvantaged areas to even younger children) were aimed at tackling. Another reason to hope that they don’t fall victim to the education-as-childcare-for-working-parents trend. For my money, they are a much better way to ensure most children, whatever their background, enter Reception ready to learn than rows of nappy-clad bottoms learning by rote.

I’ve been thinking about this since I posted yesterday. I’m aware that the article in the Daily Mail gave a slant to Liz Truss’s comments which made them easier to mock. My concern remains, though, that policy is being mooted on the basis of a few visits by an individual, no on research showing, for example, that children who attend nursery do demonstrably worse at school (which, I would suggest, would be hard to find.)


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