Nursery wars and bald beginnings: back to the future for early years?

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


    In December 2017, the early years association TACTYC published a critical report entitled Bald Beginnings (2017)in response to Bold Beginnings (2017), Ofsted’s most recent bulletin on early years practice. OFSTED requested a meeting with TACTYC to discuss differences in viewpoint, and subsequently proposed that Bold Beginnings should be seen as one component in a set of complementary reports. Jarvis (2018) undertook a review of all four reports to consider their cumulative overview of early childhood practice, with a particular view to considering the concept of ‘sustained shared thinking’ which, while in 2013 had been included in the Early Years Teacher Standards, did not appear in Bold Beginnings. She found that ‘sustained shared thinking’ was not mentioned by name in any of the documents reviewed, nor was any implicit indication given that the authors had effective understanding of the concept. All four documents constructed ‘play’ and ‘learning’ as highly separate activities: ‘there is no hint of practice on a continuum from free play through sustained shared thinking to adult direction which...suggests that sustained shared thinking was a concept entirely missing from the authors’ professional and theoretical repertoires’ (Jarvis 2018, p.307-308)

    At the birth of the modern nursery school concept in England, during the 1920s, similar dichotomies arose. An ongoing debate between the president of the Nursery School Association, Margaret McMillan and the first secretary Grace Owen eventually led to McMillan’s resignation from the presidency (Jarvis and Liebovich 2015). Recently retrieved archival evidence from one of the innovators of the modern American nursery school, Abigail Adams Eliot (1892-1992) indicates how bitter these debates were. Eliot came to England to study at McMillan’s Deptford nursery for three months in 1921. Her letters to her sponsor, Mrs Henry Greenleaf Pearson written during this time narrate the differences underpinning the debate, indicating that it was largely emergent from an education-care dichotomy in which McMillan felt that Owen did not fully understand the nurture needs of young children, while Owen felt that McMillan’s focus was too heavily skewed to the care of young children, obscuring the educational focus. Eliot’s position in the debate heavily favoured Owen’s direction of argument, which made her time at McMillan’s nursery somewhat fraught. When she returned to the US, she became a nursery pioneer in her own right, becoming a founding member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association for Nursery Education in the US.

    Echoes of the issues that caused division between McMillan, Owen and Eliot can be discerned in the debates that arise in this century, in terms of both emergent from factions drawing on a slightly different construction of the young child; both recognise the infant in need of care and socialisation and the emergent learner requiring a focused pedagogy; however disagreements arise from different emphases applied to each feature. The proposed paper will discuss the ‘battle’ for early years practice with reference both to past and the present, including the construction of early years practice in the recent OFSTED Education Inspection Framework (2019) and with some reference to plans for the ‘Baseline’ testing of 4 and 5 year old Reception class children (Jarvis 2017) While no definitive answers will be presented, the paper will suggest some lines of reflection that may help early years teachers and leaders to consider from whence this dichotomy emerged, and how it might be more productively discussed in the future.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusUnpublished - 10 Sept 2019
    EventBERA conference 2019 - University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
    Duration: 10 Sept 201912 Sept 2019 (Conference website)

    Academic conference

    Academic conferenceBERA conference 2019
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
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