Let's have a look at this panel, then
Before I continue, I'd better clearly state that - unlike the panel members - I am not claiming to be any kind of an expert. This is just me, my search engine and some fast typing. If I get something wrong, it's not because I'm trying to bully or to intimidate anyone. Indeed, if you're on a panel of experts being paid to debate the lifestyle and children's futures of a whole swathe of the population, whose findings may (probably will) affect future legislation, then you're in an immensely powerful position as opposed to the swathes in question. So they're not really in a position to bully you, whatever they try to do.
But if you spot an inaccuracy here then please say so, either in the comments box or by email and I will either correct or remove it straight away, as I did before. Google, I suppose, isn't infallible and neither am I.
So, why do I want to write this post? I'm not quite sure I do, but I think it needs doing. Eleven people, sitting around a table (one assumes) deciding what's to be done about us. Twelve, counting Mr Badman (about which, more later.) A significant number.
We need to try to work out on what basis they're considered to be experts about us, and what position - based on opinions previously stated - they might be taking at these panel meetings. I'm not sure how close a bit of googling might get us to these answers, but I think we've got to start somewhere. So I'm starting at the top of the list, and working my way down. Then I'm off out to mow the grass.
Here's a page about Professor Melhuish, which includes:
For several years Professor Melhuish has been a Principal Investigator on the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) and Effective Pre-school Provision in Northern Ireland (EPPNI) projects based in England and Northern Ireland, which are following 4,000 children from 3-7 years of age. These studies are investigating the effects of family, community, and pre-school experiences (and their interaction) on child development.
I've found the Effective Pre-school Education report [opens pdf] and I see that another familiar name also appears in the list of authors: Kathy Silva, who was in our original review panel line-up. Perhaps just helping to compile a social science report for government is enough to qualify one to attend an expert panel in something that might be vaguely related to one's field of expertise. They're even listed as authors in that order: "Kathy Sylva.. Edward Melhuish.." If he'd have said no to the invitation, would we have got Pam Sammons, whoever she may be? I'm detecting an air of slightly panicky - or maybe just lapsidaisical - hotchpotch in the bringing together of this panel, which is absolutely not reassuring. Is there, I wonder, a formula that leaders of government-commissioned reviews are advised to follow? "Find a panel of reputable experts from various vaguely related fields to advise you. You can work through the attached list of co-authors of government-commissioned reports if you don't know enough people to ask..."
I'm going to quickly read this pdf, anyway, because it seems necessary to do so. I'm not going to fisk the whole thing, tempting though that is, because there are ten other panel members to get through and I've got grass to mow! And - you know - children, whose full-time autonomous learning doesn't obediently stop on Sundays. Right now (7am Sunday morning: I started this post yesterday) they're all still asleep. But I do want to try to glean the essence of it.
The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) project investigated the effects of preschool education and care on children’s development for children aged 3-7 years old.
The Aims of EPPE
EPPE explored five questions:
What is the impact of pre-school on children’s intellectual and social/behavioural development?
Are some pre-schools more effective than others in promoting children’s development?
What are the characteristics of an effective pre-school setting?
What is the impact of the home and childcare history on children’s development?
Do the effects of pre-school continue through Key Stage 1 (ages 6 and 7 years)?
Is your heart sinking? Mine is.
Many sources of data have been used in statistical analyses to explore the ‘value added’ by preschool after taking account of a range of child, parent and home background factors.
I did statistical analysis at college and learned that you can get it to say absolutely anything you want it to say. My pedantic, highly principled and undoubtedly naïve, 17 year-old self was in a state of shock about this for weeks.
Ohh, I'm fisking it already! Let's skip to the findings. Well, depressingly, there's this:
Key findings over the pre-school period
• Impact of attending a pre-school
-Pre-school experience, compared to none, enhances all-round development in children.
-Duration of attendance (in months) is important; an earlier start (under age 3 years) is related to better intellectual development.
-Full time attendance led to no better gains for children than part-time provision.
-Disadvantaged children benefit significantly from good quality pre-school experiences, especially where they are with a mixture of children from different social backgrounds.
- Overall disadvantaged children tend to attend pre-school for shorter periods of time than those from more advantaged groups (around 4-6 months less).
• Does type of pre-school matter?
-There are significant differences between individual pre-school settings and their impact on children, some settings are more effective than others in promoting positive child outcomes.
-Good quality can be found across all types of early years settings; however quality was higher overall in settings integrating care and education and in nursery schools.
• Effects of quality and specific ‘practices’ in pre-school
-High quality pre-schooling is related to better intellectual and social/behavioural development for children.
-Settings that have staff with higher qualifications have higher quality scores and their children make more progress.
-Quality indicators include warm interactive relationships with children, having a trained teacher as manager and a good proportion of trained teachers on the staff.
-Where settings view educational and social development as complementary and equal in
importance, children make better all round progress.
-Effective pedagogy includes interaction traditionally associated with the term “teaching”, the provision of instructive learning environments and ‘sustained shared thinking’ to extend children’s learning.
But I'm going to cling optimistically to the final point in that section, which is:
• The importance of home learning
-For all children, the quality of the home learning environment is more important for intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income. What parents do is more important than who parents are.
And, a little later:
Pre-school, whilst not eliminating differences in social backgrounds, can help to reduce the disadvantage children experience from some social groups and can help to reduce social exclusion.
This says something I've long suspected: that state education programmes and policy, especially for the early years, are more about solving the perceived problem of social exclusion than they are about what's actually best for each individual child.
The issue of 'sustained shared thinking' - so much a feature of most home educators' daily lives - is number one in the report's 'six identified areas that are particularly important':
1. The quality of adult-child verbal interactions. More ‘sustained shared thinking’ was observed in settings where children made the most progress. ‘Sustained shared thinking’ occurs when two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend the understanding. It was more likely to occur when children were
interacting 1:1 with an adult or with a single peer partner and during focussed group work.
So Professor Melhuish - whatever his politics - must understand that what most home educators do for their children's learning is a very good thing. But does he also, I wonder, perceive the negative effects that monitoring and regulation would have on it? I think this is unlikely, unless he has ever electively home educated an autonomous learner - which sums up our whole problem with this review. None of the people concerned seem, to date, to understand precisely what it is that they're reviewing and what the effects of such a review on the children in question might be, because this hugely successful and beneficial process of natural learning depends entirely on the parents' ability to protect it from outside intervention, however well-meaning. For curiosity to completely thrive it has to be free to find its own way, and fed in the right time and the right way, and then a phenomenal amount of learning can take place.
The Effective Pre-school Education report [opens pdf] recommends "an equal balance of child and adult initiated activity," which might be similar to what happens naturally in the home.
According to his Birkbeck résumé,
Professor Melhuish is Executive Director of the National Evaluation of Sure Start and his work undertaken to date has addressed many issues relevant to Sure Start including cognitive, language and behavioural development of young children and the role of family factors, home environment, childcare and pre-school experience upon children's development.
and here is the homepage of 'NESS', the National Evaluation of Sure Start.
NESS looks like it was (still is?) a huge project and a quick look around the site tells me that I'm not going to learn much from it about Professor Melhuish - apart, perhaps, from this: On one of the Frequently Asked Questions [opens pdf] pages, there is one of the most splutteringly astounding examples of failing to answer a direct question that I have ever seen:
Is this a mandatory survey?
Again, we hope that you will come to see this as a useful experience after you begin to see the results and feedback from our study. It is impossible to understand Sure Start in one individual site alone; a national context is absolutely necessary in order to get a broad perspective of the varieties and similarities between and among programmes. For Sure Start to continue, we have to know what Sure Start is all about across the country! Your help in this endeavour is invaluable.
If I had posed such a question, reading that reply would probably make me want to bang my head against a wall.
I've got to stop there for today, before our too-long grass grows into a jungle and this post grows into an unreadably-long epic. I do hope Professor Melhuish doesn't feel picked upon (any more, at least, than home educators have felt recently by the process with which he is now voluntarily engaged) to be the only panel member featured in this post. It wasn't deliberate: I had hoped to cover at least a few of them before the day got underway in our house. But the children woke up and wanted a long story read to them, and now Tom needs driving to a job. I've also got a busy day tomorrow, but hopefully we can look at at least one other panel member then - hopefully, more than one.
We've now been told that the review's findings will be published in May as originally planned and not in June after all. This therefore gives us a matter of weeks in which to say anything else that needs saying. I am feeling a sense of urgency, to match my previous senses of futility and anxiety. Anyone got any others to add to that?