Saturday, 4 December 2021

Message in a Bottle


At 21.55 on Wednesday 1st December, I posted this tweet.

I had been idly browsing the BBC news website and seen a reference to the Daily Mirror article about a Christmas party held in Downing Street the week before Christmas 2020. And then the date jumped out at me: 18th December 2020, the day my brother died in hospital.

Seven weeks later our very elderly mother, who was in the last stages of Alzheimers, died in her care home. She had not seen any member of her family in real life for approximately a year at that point. We had carried out many FaceTime visits, but they did not allow her infant great-grandchildren to properly interact with their ‘Old Nana.’ This was always the element of visits most likely to raise a smile from her, despite the fact she had been unable to speak in sentences for the previous two years.

Angered that the UK government were partying as people, including my own relatives, had died with only kind strangers physically present, as relatives were prevented from being in attendance due to lockdown rules at that time, I tapped out a hasty tweet and posted it. Little did I know the response that I would get.

… A hundred billon bottles washed up on the shore

As soon as the tweet uploaded to Twitter, the icons underneath began ticking over like a timer. This continued all through the night, sped up the following day, and continued over that night and into the following day. It only began to slow down in the late evening of 3rd December. And even now, on the evening of 4th December, likes, retweets and replies continue to trickle in.

I began to feel like the man in the old song, who casually casts his message upon the sea in a bottle, and receives ‘a hundred billion bottles’ returned by people in the same situation as him.

The vast majority of tweeters offered their condolences. There were less than 20 spiteful replies, principally from bot and troll accounts, which I instantly blocked. Above all, tweeters told me their own stories of bereavement, loneliness and isolation over the various lockdowns of 2020-21. I will not quote any of them here, to respect the privacy of those posting, but here is a summary of points raised:

*Relatives in hospital in which no visiting was allowed, who died without seeing any member of their family again

*Relatives who were very elderly or terminally ill spending their last Christmas without being able to see any member of their family other than on FaceTime or through a window

*People unable to attend the funerals of their relatives other by watching on webcam, which had also been my own experience, due to living 250 miles away from their location

*NHS workers nursing Covid patients who had to spend Christmas alone, due to fears of infecting vulnerable members of their own families

*And, most frequently repeated: ‘I wasn’t able to hug any of my relatives when we were mourning the death of someone in our family who died.’

One of the tweeters posting to my thread commented they were only able to say goodbye to their relative on What’sApp. Another said the last message received on What’sApp from a much-loved cousin was ‘no visitors.’ One, although not reporting a bereavement, commented poignantly that she had only been able to see her granddaughter through glass during the first year of her life and consequently, the child still responded to her as though she was a stranger.

Finally, a few students and students’ parents offered their condolences and reported that although their story did not match the tragedy of many others in the thread, they had been fined for holding parties with people with whom they shared halls of residence, due to the rule of numbers in the lockdown legislation.

Inside the Westminster Bubble

The number of deaths registered in the UK over the week ending 18th December 2020 was 13011. The number of covid deaths on 18th December was 403. Neither of my relatives had covid; my brother died from cancer and my mother from extreme old age and Alzheimer’s. However, everyone in the UK who was seriously ill/died over that period was subject to the same lockdown restrictions; rules which the vast majority of the UK population obeyed.

The fact that we now know that parties were in full swing in Downing Street, with the Daily Mirror proposes, 40 or 50 people ‘crammed cheek by jowl’ is a trigger to the bereaved to relive the last days, hours and minutes of their dead relative or friend, experiencing additional pain and disillusionment in the realisation that the government were not obeying their own rules, which had deprived their dying relatives of comfort. The Independent adds that ‘party games’ were played, and additionally, that ‘Downing Street staff repeatedly held banned lockdown parties’ over the 2020 Christmas period to which ‘the PM would turn a blind eye.’

The Manchester Evening News quote the Prime Minister as commenting on 18th December that, over Christmas 2020, people should keep all Christmas celebrations ‘short, small and don’t see too many people.’ Earlier that day, he had tweeted that same advice. And then apparently allowed a party involving 40 or 50 people living in different households to go ahead in No 10 Downing Street that evening.

The Government insist that ‘rules were followed.’ But how that could be the case is unclear. On the BBC News website, there is a short reference to a legal loophole that puts government offices outside emergency legislation, so that Ministers have the flexibility to react swiftly to an emergency without breaking the law. But surely, it would be clear to an eight-year-old child that the desire to have a party is hardly an emergency.

The whole situation has been neatly summed up by Ros Atkins of the BBC, and his report can be viewed here.

So, how can relatives of people who died during the winter of 2020-21 process these revelations and move on? My tweet was also accessed by representatives of the Mass Media, and I was asked by some of them to explain my feelings to the general public, which I initially did on GMTV.

Down the mass media rabbit hole

I’ve been asked ‘how I feel’ by many people, friends and strangers, over the past three days. I think ‘bemused’ best sums it up. My tweet was spontaneously posted in response to an immediate feeling of disgust, that on the day my brother died with none of his family present- because we were obeying the law- the office of the Prime Minister had been irresponsible and disrespectful enough to throw a Christmas Party that broke that same law. The prospect that they may now be attempting to rely on a legal technicality to wriggle out of responsibility for their actions only makes it worse.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve also been a participant in two interviews where Tory supporters were on the panel, one a sitting MP. One argument they used to protect the government was that they didn’t agree with the lockdown legislation, intimating that people who did obey it were mugs. But the Prime Minister is quick to evoke the two World Wars of the twentieth century when he wants to hold forth about solidarity in adversity. What would have happened if the majority of the population had taken that approach then?

They also proposed that if the Prime Minister said the law had been obeyed despite not issuing an denial that parties were held in Downing Street over the lockdown period(s), then the people must accept that, and that he shouldn’t be questioned further. Why? I was not aware that the British Prime Minister was now the equivalent of an absolute monarch. And if the stories the papers are running are not true, why isn’t Downing Street categorically denying them, and threatening libel action?

Another argument put forward was that if the Prime Minister was not at the party, it shouldn’t be a problem. But this wasn’t a case of a group of young people illicitly partying in an older relative’s house while s/he wasn’t there. 10 Downing Street is the office and official residence of the British Prime Minister, one of the premier seats of the UK government, and the Prime Minister is in overall charge of what goes on within its walls. So, why doesn’t the buck stop with him, whether he was there or not, as it would with a Head Teacher if staff or pupils had broken the law in this way on school premises?

Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to follow up any of these questions. I have never been a Conservative voter, but I have always seen them as a party that emphasises tradition, respect, law and order. But perhaps this changed when Boris Johnson took over the leadership? It would have been helpful to explore that question with his representatives, too. But I didn’t get the chance.

I’ve also been shocked by contacts from other media outlets, to whom I did not eventually grant an interview, requesting huge amounts of personal information in order to run a story from a ‘reality’ perspective, focusing on individuals weeping and demanding personal apologies from the Prime Minister. When I explained that my perspective on the situation was not my own feelings, but the volume of response on the twitter thread; the hurt and anger so eloquently expressed by a huge number of respondents, their interest waned.

Most of all, I have been overwhelmed with the sadness, dignity and kindness of over a thousand strangers who posted a message about their own loss and sympathising with mine. I have tried to respond to everyone who posted a message about a death of a family member or friend, and I apologise to anyone I inadvertently left out. While engaging with so much tragedy was harrowing, the courage and public spiritedness expressed within the replies both touched and energised me. It is a testimony to the fundamental decency of a majority of British people, and for that reason, I would urge people to access the thread and read through it.

So, what now?

Honestly, I don’t know. I believe that people mourn and grieve in different ways and find their own strategies to get through such difficult times. My own ‘therapy’ over 2020 was to finish a novel I had begun sometime earlier, which deals with family, love, loss and redemption, published in July 2021. I have since moved onto constructing a sequel.

I personally wish the Prime Minister would resign. As a psychologist, it concerns me that the British people cannot feel safe while he is able to treat them with such disrespect and duplicity, and that this will negatively impact on national stability during a time in which there are many so very many other issues that add to public insecurity. But if he does not have the decency to step down now, the next step will have to be decided by the Conservative Party and ultimately, through the ballot box. In the end, history will judge.

I hope we begin to see more high quality investigative journalism in the style of Ros Atkins, asking abstract, salient questions to which responsible answers are demanded from public servants, including elected politicians. I hope we see less of journalists setting up reality circuses where all issues are personalised thence trivialised, contributing to the ongoing gaslighting of the population.

And I think for me personally, a good start would be a media and social media break. I will be taking this for at least the next week, during which time I hope responsible investigative journalism, and the efforts of opposition politicians will continue to be brought to bear upon the government, in pursuit of resolution.

Monday, 22 November 2021

Early Years Education: Building a Foundation for Meaning


‘Brains are built, over time, from the bottom up’ (Harvard Center on the Developing Child ND, online).

'Over the course of the reception year, teachers should plan what it is they want children to learn... teachers’ judgements will largely be based on whether children are learning what has been taught' (The Early Years Foundation Stage 2022, p.8).

Everyone knows that to build a sturdy house, it has to rest on sturdy foundations. The question is, what does a creating a 'sturdy foundation' look like, when building a brain? Does it consist of flexible, practical experiences that are shared with peers and adults, enriched by language which draws each individual child into understanding? Or does it consist of a programme in which the agenda has already been firmly decided by the adult?

Children under six have spent only 72 months in the world; they therefore have a very limited pool of existing knowledge to draw upon to try to make sense of incoming information. Therefore, 'beginning at the end’ with highly fixed objectives about what adults require them to learn is problematic, because they are at such an early stage of building their cognitive architecture. 

The content of the teaching environment acts as the cement; if it is flexible enough for the child to be able to stick the 'knowledge' bricks to the foundation below, then what is added to the construction will be durable. But if the cement is weak, the bricks that the teacher attempts to lay will inevitably become unstable, and compromise the stability of the eventual 'house.'

Children are born with far more neurons than they will eventually retain in adulthood; however the connections or 'synapses' between these are much less dense. The early development of the brain involves an extensive neuronal connection programme as children interact with their environment and strengthen those synapses that are well used, whilst those that are rarely used shrivel and may eventually die.

The first picture above illustrates how a synaptic connection may initially appear, and the second how it develops as it is continually used over a long period of time, like a path that is well used by people walking across a patch of land.

As time goes by, the brain creates complex interconnections between synapses, rather like a road network. Consider a country lane that might be connected to a few other roads along its length, and then a motorway which is intricately interconnected to many other roads for hundreds of miles.

The developmental synaptic connection programme is a long project in human beings. As puberty arrives, the brain begins its last big project: pruning superfluous connections in the prefrontal cortex, and creating stronger/ more complex links between those that remain. This is the area of the brain which deals with impulse control and the management of social behaviour, meaning that the human brain is not fully neuronally mature until the individual is around 25 years of age. 

Some amount of plasticity remains in adult brains and new synaptic connections can be made on a lifelong basis, rather like renovations on a house. But the basic architecture is constructed in childhood and adolescence, with the foundations being staked in the first seven years of life, as the individual not only stores 'content' but slowly links concepts together in infinite networks through the intricate neuronal pathways that are built through experience within and upon the environment.

As language skills mature, these act as an accelerator, allowing people to share thoughts and eventually think more abstractly, picking their way deftly through sometimes baffling conversations... as long as meaning is shared. Developing shared meanings is a crucial element of early education, as children come into contact with a wider community, outside the family circle. Our Victorian ancestors knew this, even though they did not have access to our level of neurobiological understanding. Here, Lewis Carroll depicts an 'adult' Humpty Dumpty introducing  'child' Alice to the process.


The only way we are able to understand (and laugh at) the video above is because we have learned that words have more than one meaning, and when they are used incongruously in the wrong conversation, the person using them in this way looks ridiculous. This is not something that can be rote taught; it needs to be learned by taking part in rich, organic conversations across the early years of childhood.

The psychologist Suzanne Zeedyk proposes that what happens between infants and carers in one-to-one spontaneous interactions is a type of improvised symbolic 'dance', which she refers to as a 'jazz duet'. This is how children learn to take part in the vast majority of everyday conversations they will later have with others, because these will also be spontaneous rather than rehearsed; human beings have the evolved capacity for this type of deep, symbolic 'intersubjective' communication. Alongside the ability to make and use tools, it is the feature that has made us the dominant species on earth.

To give an analogy, as every jazz musician knows, in order to join in a 'jam' session meaningfully, you must initially learn how to play your instrument, and how to tune into the rhythms of others. But before this can be effectively accomplished, apprentice musicians  need a lot of scaffolded practice with experienced players in authentic situations, which gradually builds the necessary underpinning neuronal connections. 

Our current understanding of how the human brain constructs itself during the developmental period suggests that this happens via what is termed ‘embedded mental representation’- i.e. that we incrementally memorise and co-ordinate our experiences. This generates an increasing ability to organize thought, gradually resulting in the ability to manage incoming information and locate it within memory in increasingly sophisticated neural networks. This results in increasing ‘metacognition’: thinking about thinking.

As we become more expert at this we become able to use such networks to focus attention without becoming distracted by the intrusion of non-relevant thoughts. This requires ‘inhibitory behaviour’ and the younger children are, the more difficult they find this; their thoughts are far more susceptible to interference than those of adults, due to the immature networks across which they travel.

To return to the road analogy, the order in which we construct understanding requires that roads are built on footpaths and motorways are built on roads. Teaching that requires a young child to catch on to small chunks from highly complex concepts and the presumtion that they can be retained in long term memory does not draw upon the way that human brains actually work, particularly when the role that language plays is also considered.

When we further consider the neuronal immaturity of young children, the quest that is recently being undertaken by the British Government, to formulate a ‘baseline’ assessment for four year olds that could accurately predict future progress seems even more ridiculous, particularly when it is considered they intend to base future school rankings upon the data that they are gathering.

This not only suggests that many contemporary early education policies are shockingly ill-informed, but in terms of children’s natural neuronal difference from adults, also discriminatory and therefore contrary to their human rights. This could of course, eventually lead to claims for compensation for psychological damage suffered by a whole generation forced in early childhood into what had, at that time, already been identified as highly developmentally inappropriate situations. But surely, there is still just time to ensure that it does not come to this.


Brown, T. T., & Jernigan, T. L. (2012). Brain development during the preschool years. Neuropsychology Review, 22(4) 313–333.

Crone, A. and Ridderinkhof, R. (2011) The developing brain: From theory to neuroimaging and back. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience 1 101–109

Carroll, L. (1871) Alice Through the Looking Glass. Available at:

DFE (2021) The Early Years Foundation Stage, 2022 handbook. London: DFE. Available at: 

Harvard Centre on the Developing Child (ND) Brain Architecture. Available at

Jarvis, P. (2020) The Myth of Early Acceleration in S. Palmer (Ed) Play is the Way. Paisley: CCWB Press.

PBS (2012) The Secret Life of the Brain: the baby’s brain. YouTube. Available at: 

Piaget, J. and Inhelder, B. (1969) The Psychology of the Child. Basic Books, New York.

Tierney, A. L., & Nelson, C. A. (2009). Brain Development and the Role of Experience in the Early Years. Zero to three 30 (2)

Zeedyk, M.S. (2006) From intersubjectivity to subjectivity: the transformative roles of emotional intimacy and imitation. Infant and Child Development. 15 (3).

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Reggio Emilia: A Triumph for Maternalism

Maternalism in the Present 

I reached one of those sad watersheds in my life in February: my mother died. She didn’t have covid; she had Alzheimers for nearly a decade, she was ninety-two, and her passing was not unexpected. But as always, such events give rise to reflection. In 2010 as she first began to decline into her final illness, I dedicated my book ‘The Early Years Professional’s Complete Companion’ to her, commenting

‘My mother was born two days after British women finally achieved the franchise on the same basis as men: what a long way both you, and we have travelled in your lifetime.’

Optimistic words. But how far have we really travelled, as women, particularly in our role as mothers?

This is something I explored in one of my chapters in ‘Everyday Social Justice’ in 2019, from the perspective that while women engaging in paid work outside the home gradually became more normalised by socio-political changes in the last quarter of the twentieth century, they still faced a formidable level of social control, particularly in their role as mothers, feeling squeezed between the demands of paid work and family labour, whilst being relentlessly evaluated in both roles; an issue that has grown with the advent of mass online media and social media.

In 2019, Yinka Olusoga and I questioned:

‘A culture of performativity and compliance... make[ing] teachers, children and parents alike feel that they are compelled to comply with its demands...broadcast[ing], in the manner of Star Trek’s Borg collective, ‘Resistance is futile’ – a message designed to ensure mass capitulation.’

McRobbie writes of a “mediated” maternalism which has resulted in ‘previous historical affiliations between social democracy and feminism which aimed to support women as mothers [being] dismantled and discredited’ (McRobbie 2013, p.128).

“Maternalism” (Koven 1993) is a communal alliance between those who work together (including men) to support the well-being of young children, particularly those from socio-economically deprived backgrounds. Its origins track back into history; but at one point in the past, it briefly burned brightly on the national stage, before sinking back into near oblivion in the wake of the Great Depression.

Maternalism in the Past 

During the early 1920s, as the rights of women were being hotly debated in Parliament, Inverness-born Margaret McMillan, the founder-manager of an internationally celebrated nursery school, brought together an alliance of apparently powerful women- Queen Mary (1867-1963) and the first two women to serve as MPs in the House of Commons, wealthy socialite Conservative Nancy (Lady) Astor (1879-1964) and committed feminist Liberal Margaret Winteringham (1879-1955) to put the case for state-funded nursery schools on the national agenda (Jarvis and Liebovich 2016).

But despite the apparently high status of this alliance, the venture proved to be perilous, and forms the basis for the insecure status that many early years settings endure in the present. McMillan’s efforts to re-create her practice in a national network of nursery schools did not meet with success due to lack of funding forthcoming from the government, and her sense of failure blighted the final years of her life (Jarvis and Liebovich 2016)

In 1932, the year after McMillan’s death, her ex-student, Miriam Lord, Superintendent (head teacher) of Lilycroft Nursery in Bradford led a protest against Bradford Education Authority’s decision to impose a limit of one-third of a pint of milk a day upon children in their nursery schools. It is a situation that continues today, nearly a century later, in the £20 per week benefit cuts recently imposed by another Conservative government, in an era where 31% of the nation’s children are officially designated as ‘poor.’

Lord’s nursery was located in an area of great socio-economic deprivation where poverty-related childhood illnesses such as rickets were rife, and for several years she had been allocating one pint per day to each child, to use with cereals and to drink throughout the day.

She appealed to Nancy Astor, to put her case to Parliament. Astor obliged, but was over-ruled by the government when the Conservative chairman of the Bradford Elementary Schools sub-committee appealed to the wholly male leadership team of the Conservative government. Lord’s biographer, Ruth Murray (1993, p.12) commented ‘on reading through Hansard one can practically hear the groans of dismay ... whenever [Astor] raised the topic of nursery education’.

Miriam Lord was subsequently left to the mercy of Bradford politicians, who demoted her from superintendent of a nursery school to assistant mistress of a nursery class located within an infant school, a post in which she remained until her retirement in 1944 (Jarvis 2016; Murray 1993).

So, has maternalism ever won any resounding victories? For this we have to look to a different historical era, to an education system that arose from the ashes of World War II, conceived and actioned by female activists in Northern Italy, seeking a better future for their young children.

In the aftermath of war: a triumph for maternalism
Five days after the Nazi surrender in 1945, the women of Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy determined to build a school for their young children between the ages of three and seven. They were members of two organised associations of women, the Union of Italian Women (UDI), an anti-fascist association founded in 1944, and the Catholic Italian Women’s Centre, created in 1945 (de Haan et al 2013).

Together with young teacher Loris Malaguzzi, the mothers of Reggio Emilia formulated a plan to create their own early years education system in which their children were not required to passively and obediently memorise and regurgitate ‘lessons;’ but to develop self-awareness, intolerance of injustice, a sense of equality and the confidence to stand up to an overbearing state or religious institution (Wortham 2013). In this way, they proposed, Italians would never be subjugated and led into disaster as they had been by Mussolini’s fascist regime.

Over several years, the mothers and teachers of Reggio Emilia worked together to produce a model of a child as strong, powerful and competent, confident to develop and explore original ideas and theories in collaboration with others, under the guidance of adults. Children aged between three and seven brought their own original questions into the classroom, from which teachers launched a programme of research around a topic agreed by the group. For example, a question like ‘how does the water get into the tap?’ would result in a range of discovery activities around plumbing, rainfall, water treatment centres and a study of the history of sanitation, amongst other potential lines of investigation.

The Reggio Emilia early years framework, which endures and has spread around the world, has no standardised testing system or fixed curriculum; teachers work by researching topics and learning about them alongside the children. The children are fully aware that adults don’t know everything, but that their greater experience enables them to act as lead researchers in project work.

Teachers’ professional evaluation is conducted on the basis of portfolios produced on the topics that they have researched with the children, which includes examples of children’s work. Adults work collegiately within the Reggio Emilia system, with additional input from parents and local communities, who are welcomed into the classroom to share existing expertise.

What now for Maternalism?

As a contributor to Scotland Upstart’s ‘Play is the Way’ manifesto (currently a candidate for a Nursery World award) and an emerging fiction writer currently in the process of publishing a novel rooted in my Scottish ancestry, I am now increasingly hopeful that a similar early years revolution may be emerging in Scotland, rising from the ashes of Brexit and Covid and fuelled by the movement towards Scottish independence.

Scotland has made plans to adopt the UNCRC into their policy for children and families, which has sadly but predictably been challenged by the UK Government, which has now all but lost the leading role it played in children’s rights in the post World War II period. A United Nations challenge to the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities report stands to have a heavy, negative impact on equality and diversity policies for children. There are also plans afoot for September 2021 to introduce a new Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum in England which emphasises rote memorisation, and an entry SAT for all England’s four-year-olds. ‘Baseline’ is a highly flawed data-gathering exercise, which will negatively impact on the youngest pupils in a year when families will still be recovering from the ravages of the pandemic. Sadly, the Westminster government has lost its way.

Scotland, by contrast has already explored the Reggio Emilia framework, and how it might be applied to a new nursery education phase for three to seven year olds. Is it possible that Scotland will provide a beacon in the British Isles, rekindling the flames that were previously extinguished by “malestream” politics? I would like to think, the journey that began for women, and for their young children, at the time of my mother’s birth is still alive in the land of our ancestors and will continue to shine the light that shows the way for those still stumbling in the dark.

What Now For Childhood?

As we now hopefully leave the era of extreme lockdowns behind us and reflect on the huge disturbance that has impacted on England’s education system, due to its excessively rigid curriculum, the time has come to reflect very honestly about issues of school, curriculum, pedagogy and ‘not school’ in children’s lives. And in a world where we will have to learn to live with Covid, we need to rethink what patterns of provision will best serve children and families’ needs, going forward. Hopefully, parents and older children’s voices will be strongly heard in such a discussion. It is after all, the parents’ tax money that is being used for state funded children’s services, and the children’s future that is at stake in terms of the way that they are cared for and educated.

I have written many referenced pieces around this topic, most recently about the nature of and history of pedagogy and issues emergent from the ways in which children’s behaviour is dealt with in schools. I’ve written a blog about some feedback I received from parents relating to their children’s engagement in learning activities on lockdown, and another about my acute concerns about the ways in which a curriculum for older children is now being used to remould the current early years framework. This is not going to be a blog of this nature. It is going to be a short commentary on a key issue for children’s services in England in a post-COVID-19 world, and an invitation to discuss.

There have been endless discussions about the nature of pedagogy dating back into antiquity. On social media, these have evolved, like many other fundamental questions about human life, into a format in which individuals take entrenched positions and use it as a topic around which to rage, and through which to evoke political rhetoric.

Perhaps then, we could take a step back and consider that ‘school’ was only a feature in a few highly privileged children’s lives prior to the industrial revolution, just over 200 years ago. This is not to say that school is not necessary in a modern rapidly advancing technological society; it most certainly is. But all our discussions about what children do from day to day seem to have become fixated upon what they do at school. This seems quite dysfunctional when we consider what human beings actually are: linguistic primates who have evolved to learn, particularly in early childhood, largely through play.

The out-of-school elements of children’s lives in the UK prior to the last two decades of the twentieth century were very different to the lives of contemporary children. Whilst the schooling of the past was frequently boring, mechanical and encased within harsh disciplinary regimes, children had another arena that they inhabited during their everyday lives which was at least as important to them as school, and sometimes more so. The vast majority of them engaged in many hours of collaborative free play in streets, wooded areas, beaches and etc around the area in which they lived, using features of the environment as ‘loose parts’. The folklore of children’s play in the past has been extensively studied, notably by Iona and Peter Opie who, during the mid-twentieth century, wrote many books about children’s free play and folklore.

But things gradually changed over the 1980s and 90s. As Upstart Scotland proposes:

‘There isn’t one simple reason that children don’t play out anymore. The build-up of road traffic, break-down of local communities and changes in parents’ working patterns are all implicated, as are the ready availability of indoor sedentary entertainment and a generally more fearful climate (probably related to occasional horrifying media stories about abduction).’

Upstart Scotland (2018, online)

The emphasis on highly adult directed behaviour and learning that grew slowly since the advent of the National Curriculum in England in 1988, and gathered speed under the post-2010 Department for Education in England also had the result of reducing breaks in the school day in which children could play in relative freedom within their school playgrounds. This is a phenomenon also seen in the United States, in response to similar initiatives.

In 2007, American educational researchers Henley, McBride, Milligan, and Nichols from Arkansas State University commented:

‘The playground at Maple Street Elementary School is quiet these days. The only movements on the swing sets are a result of a strong west wind edging the swings back and forth. The long lines that once formed for trips down the sliding boards are empty. There are no softball or kickball games nor are there any games of tag or duck-duck- goose being played…. No, Maple Street Elementary School is not closing. It is squeezing every minute of the school day to meet the mandates of the [2001] No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)... Maple Street Elementary School is a metaphor for elementary schools across the nation.... With all the diversity among Maple Street’s student body, the one commonality is that each student has affective and social needs that, according to some, are being compromised.’

The collective result has been that, even prior to Covid-19 lockdown, contemporary children in these societies are far more inclined than their ancestors to move from one adult organised activity to another, and particularly in the recent pandemic situation, spend many hours online, associating with each other in artificial, programmed environments in which a lot of human signalling in communication is missing. This is problematic for both social and physical development, and of great concern when it comes to increasing obesity amongst children.

The emergent question is therefore whether the holistic development of modern children is far more constricted by ‘exam factory’ schooling than that of children from previous generations. This is a crucial issue that is seldom raised in the endless discussions about what schooling should and should not be. Perhaps then, our most important consideration is more fundamental: the possibility that the pursuit of a healthy human life should not make school the entire focus of children’s lives, any more than it should make working life the entire focus for adults.

It may be because ‘school’ has increasingly filled the frame within which we discuss children and childhood that we are not looking at all potential answers to the increasingly polarised debate in which we find ourselves. A way out of this deadlock would be not to begin with the concept of school, but with the concept of childhood. From that point, we would gain a wider perspective from which to discuss what parts school and other pursuits might play in producing adults who have a highly fluid, problem solving approach, an ability to think ‘in the moment’, to work well both independently and in collaboration with other people, and to remain calm, courteous yet robust in competitive situations.

It is important to understand that children’s peer interaction experiences must include opportunities to develop the ability to decipher primate signalling such as facial expression and ‘body language’. We need to be mindful that many of these abilities are emergent from independent participation in collaborative free activity; they do not emerge from sitting in a classroom, closely tracking a teacher and memorising ‘facts’, or through adult social ‘training’ initiatives or harsh disciplinary interventions. One of the most important lessons we need to learn as human beings is how to flexibly collaborate, cooperate and compete with each other in fast moving, organic situations. These can only emerge from independent interactions with other human beings in childhood, in which learning how to regulate our own behaviour amongst peers plays a very important part in the development of essential social skills.

If we could fully recognise our own humanity in this way, we would be able to consider services for children and families with a greater degree of clarity. While school- and teachers- are inevitably an important piece of the jigsaw of childhood development and learning, there is far more to holistic child development. Mass schooling is only a few centuries old. And while it will continue to be a significant part of a modern childhood as preparation for a literate, numerate and technological society, it will never be able to supply everything that developing human beings need.

We need to look back to our roots as linguistic primates who heavily rely upon complex social skills to thrive in the collaborative and competitive cultures that we create. From this perspective we will be more able to realise that a childhood spent being closely directed by adults whilst sitting at a school desk and communicating with peers remotely in online environments where all but word-based signalling clues are missing simply cannot address the full spectrum of human developmental needs.

Once this point is clear within our collective consciousness, we will be more able to effectively discuss how to facilitate the best possible childhood for the nation’s youngest citizens, and through this, to nurture mentally and physically robust adults to manage their lives within a complex globally networked society.

The Narrative of Curriculum

As the 2020-2021 school year draws to a close, early years settings are making their final preparations to engage with the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for England, from the beginning of next term. It contains many amendments that have caused a furore amongst the Early Years community. I have already raised my overall concerns with the trajectory of England’s Early Years framework towards a highly top-down emphasis in another blog on this site, so here I would like to raise a specific and more abstract concern: that of narrative.

Where the 2017 EYFS proposed that children should ‘develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events’ (p.11), its equivalent in the new framework is ‘demonstrate understanding of what has been read to them by retelling stories and narratives’ (p.13) and ‘show an ability to follow instructions involving several ideas or actions’ (p12). And while the 2017 document considers stories as an important part of children’s education in the context of ‘experiences…stories or events.’ (p.10), the 2021 document places more emphasis upon children ‘retelling’ stories (p.13) ‘perform[ing]’ songs, rhymes, poems and stories’ (p.15) and more generally constructs knowledge as emergent from reading rather than from practical experience. It also ignores multi-media engagement, as technology has been completely dropped from the Early Learning Goals and, indeed, from the EYFS document entirely; it had six mentions in the 2017 iteration, but none in 2021.

The way the term ‘narrative’ is used in the 2021 document seems to indicate that those who wrote it believe that the term is interchangeable with ‘story’, but this is a grave error. While narrative is overarching, stories are more local and specific. This misunderstanding is at the heart of cultural narrowing by the most dominant echelons of society, muting less powerful voices via a mainstream focus on ‘retelling’ and ‘performance’ of their own cultural interpretation of events, pushing other communities’ interpretations to the fringe. This process is explained in detail by David Olusoga. This is highly relevant to early years practice, because one of the roles of early childhood education in a multi-cultural society reliant upon an international, technologically connected economy must be to take children on the first steps of a journey to the complex understanding that there are many stories within the shared narratives of the ‘global village’ that they will inhabit as mid twenty first century adults. It is therefore very worrying to see that the new EYFS is highly likely to erode this process.

My PhD was focused upon narrative and storying. I studied rough and tumble play in children aged four to six; a spontaneous activity in children that evokes the physical play styles of earlier primate species. However, human beings add cohesive narrative to make ‘human sense’ of the activities in which they are engaged (Jarvis 2007), because we are a linguistic species whose survival depends upon making sense of the world through narrative and ‘storying.’ This is reflected in the fact that the ‘once upon a time’ concept is present within nearly every human language on Earth. Chasing and catching games are found amongst children across the world, for example in societies such as that of the Zhun-Twa (!Kung) hunter-gatherer society in the Khalahari Desert and amongst the diverse, ancient cultures in Oaxaca, Mexico. The game is familiar to generations of British children as ‘he’, ‘tig’ or ‘tag’, depending on regional origin, to Spanish children as ‘El Dimoni’ and to Japanese children as ‘Oni’, both of which translate to ‘demon’, signifying the underlying play conflict in the game.

In summary, the chasing and catching narrative endures through time and from culture to culture, but the specific story that children attach to the activity varies. For example the children I observed commonly scripted their play as ‘superheroes catching bad guys’, whilst such play I recalled from my own mid twentieth century childhood was commonly scripted with stories created around Allied and German armies fighting in the two world wars. Only one generation later, this story had entirely disappeared, but the chasing and catching narrative endured, underpinned by more contemporary stories. The process of narrative constancy amidst story fluctuation is illustrated over time in many other ways; for example, the ever-changing face of the hero within the perennial ‘hero’s journey’ tale. One of the first European written versions relates to Odysseus sailing the Aegean in wooden ships, which then moved through many guises in many cultures over the centuries to the most recent American story of Luke Skywalker traversing the galaxy in his X-Wing fighter and the Millennium Falcon, which has only just reached its conclusion in the final Star Wars film.

Given the wealth of knowledge that we have about the rich, ancient process of human storying, why would the new iteration of the EYFS seek to restrict young children to ‘retelling’ ‘following instructions’ and ‘performing’? For this we have to focus upon the ways in which it has been aligned with the current iteration of the National Curriculum, which is firmly rooted in Michael Gove’s understanding of the theories of American education academic E. D. Hirsch. This is somewhat confusing from the start as ‘the best which has been thought and said’ which is often quoted by policy makers in connection to Hirsch is in fact a quotation from the writings of the Victorian British poet Matthew Arnold whose name does not appear in the index of any of Hirsh’s most commonly referenced books. However, it is most certainly the case that Hirsch created a list of ‘what Americans need to know’ in the appendix of his book Cultural Literacy (1988, pp.152- 215). It is interesting to peruse, then to consider which elements of the content would or would not be what Britons ‘need to know’ (if indeed, ‘Britons’ can be lumped together under one umbrella in this manner). And from that premise, a fundamental problem thus emerges from narrowly specifying what counts as ‘essential knowledge’, particularly with respect to the arts and humanities.

Hirsh’s proposal created a storm in the US as soon as it was published. Estes et al. (1988) commented:

‘Hirsch’s major argument is based on the assumption that the foundation of literacy is the ability to recall and associate a superficial level of knowledge… Hirsch inadvertently represents the basis of literature as the pursuit of trivia… Before a person can acquire culture from information, however, that information must be set in a context.’

This is particularly so for the youngest children in educational settings, who are only just emerging from the family and community into which they were born to enter the wider community. To eventually become competent adults within this milieu, it is essential that they learn about the diverse, globally connected culture that they will inherit. This process starts from a teacher engaging with the stories that are present within the environment from which the child originates, and subsequently supporting him/her to connect these to the wider narratives of national and international society. This is accomplished via a process that is known as ‘sustained shared thinking’ (SST) within early years practice, which I have explained at length in another article, also considering the problems created by the fact that SST is a term conspicuous by its absence in OFSTED documentation for early years practice.

Long before the advent of curriculums or even of schools, the Xhosa people of Southern Africa developed a process whereby people engaged in creating new stories by drawing upon underpinning narrative in their traditional oral storytelling tradition called iintsomi. The purpose of iintsomi is to create an original, cohesive, engaging story from pieces of existing folklore: ‘there is no concept of a fixed or correct text in the iintsomi tradition’ (Gough 1990, p.205). In this way, Xhosa children are supported to draw upon existing narratives and develop original stories rooted within them, from the basis of their own experiences. If only the current English curriculum was so inclusive and enlightened, rather than so tightly focused upon ‘teaching and absorbing’ (Hirsch 1988). Indeed, Hirsch’s concept of ‘validity in interpretation’ (1967) requires extreme passivity in the learner, negating the importance of creative engagement with the contents of a story.

So, the existing literature indicates that the human impetus to actively engage with story and narrative begins before children start to read and is present in oral storytelling within non-literate societies. The ability to re-interpret a narrative, to ‘story’ is a fundamental, biologically primary skill, which develops within individuals, within groups of playing children and thence within cultures as part of our unique individual and collective human development process (Jarvis 2007). The removal of this process from the national early years framework is therefore a very serious issue, because being apprenticed within the natural human capacity for storying within a community is a fundamental and ancient component of a natural human childhood.

What does Hirsch himself have to say about the way in which his theories have been utilised in the English National Curriculum? In 2015, the TES interviewed him, reporting that Michael Gove, then Secretary for Education had in fact never spoken to Hirsch during the time in which he was developing the 2014 ‘knowledge’ curriculum that has now clearly extended its tentacles into the EYFS. Most worryingly, Hirsch proposed ‘I have ended up being a poster boy for the Right and that is worrisome…From the very first day, I was misinterpreted by both the proponents and the adversaries.’

Hirsch proposed to the TES that universities should be in charge of curriculums rather than governments. He is quoted as saying: ‘it would be astonishing to me if there are schools that are just pumping knowledge into kids by rote…’ The evidence therefore suggests what is happening here is a similar process to that which I recently described in a TES article outlining the simplistic misappropriation of psychological theories in education, and the negative effects upon the hapless theorists who are misquoted and misunderstood by policy makers.

The Schools Minister Nick Gibb calls for ‘a society in which we all understand each other better’, but is currently pursuing a route which will lead to young children being programmed to ‘retell’ ‘perform’ and ‘follow instructions’ rather than bestowing them with the full human capacity of ‘connecting ideas and events’. It will therefore not have the result that he proposes. As Estes et al., (1988) propose:

Telling is not teaching, told is not taught… if learning is defined only as those things that objective pencil and paper tests can measure, then only teaching that produces successful scores on those tests is relevant…[but] a dictionary of associations and a test of achievement will not enable students to create a context, it will only exacerbate their inability to do so.

Story sharing in order to learn more about one another and to explore cohesive, shared underpinning narratives such as truth, honesty and justice is the route to deep social understanding. Human beings, as inherently social creatures, must be actively engaged in this process within their first years in education to feel that they belong to one another, and that all are equally valued in the wider community. This is the concept with which New Zealand began to construct its highly successful early years framework ‘Ti Whariki’ (1996), a Maori phrase which translates to ‘a woven mat on which all can stand’.

As such I implore the Department for Education to withdraw this poorly conceived EYFS document forthwith and to reissue it in an iteration that fully recognises our rich, multi-cultural society and its intricate connections with the wider world. The very best that we can do for our youngest citizens is to bestow the gift of iintsomi upon them; the ability to independently and creatively ‘story’ within an underpinning narrative. In an increasingly uncertain world, we need to open our children’s horizons to independent, creative, problem solving thought, not narrow them to ‘retelling, performing and following instructions.’ This will prepare them to weave their own generation’s mat upon which all will finally be able to stand as fully equal citizens, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, culture of origin, disability, belief, sexual orientation, age or gender.


Gough, D. (1990) The principle of relevance and the production of discourse: evidence from Xhosa folk narrative. In B. Britton and A. Pellegrini (Eds), Narrative Thought and Narrative Language, pp.199-218. New Jersey: Laurence Ehrlbaum.

Hirsch, E. D. (1967) Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy. New York: Vintage.

Hirsh, E.D. (2006) The Knowledge Deficit. New York. Houghton Mifflin.

Hirsh, E.D. (2016) Why Knowledge Matters. Cambridge, MA. Harvard.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

School, Stress and Poverty: a psychobiological reflection

As time goes by, we see more and more initiatives funnelled into education to ‘close the gap’ between children who live in families with incomes that place them into the ‘disadvantaged’ category, and again and again, we find that very modest returns leave politicians disappointed.

Perhaps, then, we should be looking in a different place: at the environments that children inhabit before they even enter the school gates. The effects of stress upon young children have been most famously outlined in Felitti’s 'Adverse Childhood Experiences' research, at the turn of the twentieth century. Families who live in socio-economically deprived conditions, in which ongoing poverty and its associated insecurity frequently experience a complex, interrelated and circular set of stressors within the household. In 2009, Jensen proposed an effect he dubbed “Cognitive Lag.”

Children raised in poverty... are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance.

Jensen 2009 online.

But how does this actually work in practice? The neurological evidence suggests that stressed children’s brains cope with a much heavier load than those who live within less difficult environments. A basic analogy can be made with an old PC getting slower and slower as it becomes overloaded with files. Children who live in households where insoluable problems constantly arise use cognitive resources to process these, and consequently, have less ‘mind space’ to give to other things, including learning.

In the early 2000s a range of research found that when infants were placed in stressful environments, they were likely to exhibit abnormally raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The action of cortisol in the body mobilises the 'fight or flight' response, during which the body's glucose stores are made available to the creature's muscles to either fight or flee, hence cortisol disturbances in young children can consequently lead to suppressed growth, anxiety, depression and less memory capacity available for intellectual development, as resources are diverted elsewhere to cope with what the brain processes as immediate ‘threat’.

It is useful to imagine stressful experiences as a cumulative 'load'. Some amount of stress is a normal feature of human life and can prevent boredom and inertia. But constant stress, particularly rooted in ongoing, unaddressable problems, particularly paired with low levels of physical activity, can severely impact upon human beings' internal resources, causing them to become chronically anxious. Long term anxiety can in turn become a contributing factor to physical and mental illness.

This is currently the situation in which nearly a third of children live within the UK; 34% of all children are officially categorised as living in ‘poor’ families, and proportionally, children are the most disadvantaged demographic group. Poverty is unequally distributed around the UK with higher concentrations in inner city areas; for example 55% of children in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets are officially designated poor- the majority of children who live in the area.

So what actually happens in the brains of children who live under significant stress? Recent research in neurophysiology is beginning to reveal how the brain responds to stress, and why it creates such problems for the processes of learning.

The main brain structures that are affected by the chronic secretion of stress hormones during childhood (hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala) are differentially involved in various cognitive functions (e.g., memory, emotion regulation, encoding of emotional memories). High cortisol levels have been linked to poorer ‘executive functioning’ across three cognitive domains: self-control, flexibility and emergent metacognition (the ability to reflect on one’s own thoughts).

Executive function is an umbrella term that refers to:

-The functioning of working memory, which impacts on the capacity to retain and manipulate information over short periods of time.

-Inhibitory control which includes the ability to pause and think before acting.

-The agility of cognition that underlies the ability to ‘multi-task’ in an organised fashion.

The initial calibration of the stress response system occurs in the early years of life, rather as one might set up a new central heating system. If the thermostat is set to ‘max’ at this point, that puts a great stress on the whole system, particularly the ‘boiler,’ which will quickly become liable to breakdown. High levels of cortisol within the brain increase the cognitive load, as resources are drained by a constant state of hypervigilance, which impels the individual to continually scan for evidence of threat. The mind therefore has reduced capacity for other, less biologically important functions, for example, maintaining on-task focus on school-based activities.

No amount of extra input can compensate for a brain that is too loaded with stress to learn, and in fact, it may create precisely the opposite effect, actually increasing the stress that is impacting upon the child’s daily life. The indications are, therefore, that we are looking in the wrong place for solutions, and imposing the wrong remedies.

The answer to under achievement amongst deprived populations does not lie in further increasing the cognitive load upon children in the school years, but in decreasing the source of that load in the early years of life. And the most direct way to do that is to ensure that families with small children do not become emotionally unstable pressure cookers in an ongoing struggle to achieve social, emotional and physical equilibrium below the poverty line.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Storm, Stress and Algorithms: Youth in the time of Covid

I don’t have that many pictures of myself when I was 16. This is because I didn’t like posing for cameras. I wasn’t that sure about the way I looked; my life was a series of experiments. This is one of the rare pictures that does exist, and it is a cut out from a larger shot. Even though I appear to be looking at the camera, I wasn’t actually aware at the time that it was being taken. I was on my way to becoming what would be known at the time as a ‘New Waver’, not quite punk, and not quite Goth, but somewhere in between. I also wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up going to college and taking a course that I did manage to pass in the end; but I realised halfway through that I didn’t want to spend my life doing the job for which it was training me. It wasn’t all bad though- a lot of the social experiences were fun, and I grew up a lot during that time.

My parents, who had previously gone through the days in which my older brother had grown his hair longer… and longer… and longer just sighed and generally let me get on with it. My father had been sailing on Merchant Navy convoys when he was 17, being shot at by U-boats, whilst my mother had been dodging doodlebugs in London’s Dockland. They were happy to let us have our very different, and from their perspective, far more tranquil youth.

In the end, I didn’t decide what I wanted to do with my professional life until I was in my late twenties, by which time I had three small children. It was then that I started my studies in Psychology that would eventually lead me all the way to a PhD. As my children grew past the early years stage I became a teacher, and worked with many sixteen to eighteen year olds who had very similar concerns to the ones I had at the same age.

Even in those days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a culture had already begun in education that communicated to young people of that age that if they didn’t find what they wanted to do at this very early stage in their lives and quickly knuckle down to it, they would somehow be a failure. It greatly concerned me that this generation seemed far more pressured by societal expectation than I had been at the same age.

This became of even greater concern to me as the 2000s turned into the 2010s and neurobiology began to reveal that full neuronal adulthood did not actually begin until sometime around the twenty-fifth year, in particular that a considerable amount of ‘rewiring’ takes place in the pre-frontal cortex over the period of adolescence, creating heightened social and emotional vulnerability. Concerns about Exam Factory schools were increasingly expressed over the 20-teens, particularly when teenage suicide and self-harm statistics were considered.

Then as the first year of the 2020s unfolded, an entirely unexpected event intervened to greatly increase anxiety among the whole human race: COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown, in order to reduce contact between people to reduce infection rates. Reduced social contact comes down extremely hard upon adolescents, programmed as they are to build their fledgling personalities in interaction with their peer group (be that hippy, new wave, goth or hip hop).

And then, education ministers gave them something else entirely to deal with. As sixteen and eighteen-year-olds were unable to take their end of programme exams, the government decided to apply an algorithm based on previous cohort attainment to teacher grade predictions. This has resulted in some baffling results, with some students, particularly those studying in large city-based institutions receiving significant downgrading, thus losing the conditional offers they had received from universities, making them feel ‘really useless and incapable.’

While this is not an uncommon feeling for young people to experience in what earlier generations described as the ‘storm and stress’ of adolescence, as they begin to chart a course for the as yet unmapped journey of their lives, it is not a feeling that we would expect an ethical education system to actually foster in the inherent ways that it operates. As such it seems baffling that ministers have not now acted to stop this speeding juggernaut, which is now on track to smash the dreams of the nation’s sixteen year olds in the middle of next week, when it is predicted that two million sixteen-year-olds will have their GCSE results downgraded.

Why would a nation choose to treat its young people in this way? When and why did we start treating our children in such a harsh and unyielding fashion? These are all questions that we need to deeply reflect upon as we start to build a Post-COVID-19 society. But in the meantime, why can ministers not prevent the downgrading of these young people who are not even yet old enough to leave education, and allow them to proceed onto their post-16 choices on the basis of the predicted grades that their teachers have provided? Do they value propping up a seventy-year-old exam system, which has widely been slated, even by members of their own government, as unfit for purpose above protecting the mental health and well-being of all the sixteen-year-olds in the nation? If this really is the case, we urgently need to look to what a dysfunctional society we have now become.

Message in a Bottle

  At 21.55 on Wednesday 1st December, I posted this tweet. I had been idly browsing the BBC news website and seen a reference to the Daily...