As a former teacher, I am still deeply passionate about education. In 2013 I took a submission to the then Federal Minister of Education called Stop Stealing Childhood in the Name of Education because I was so deeply concerned about what I was hearing from teachers, allied health professionals and parents. Absolutely nothing happened and to be honest, I never even received more than a cursory acknowledgement – and I had funded my own flight to Canberra to present it to one of the minister’s staff.
Since then I have continued to listen to the voices of concern, which have just simply grown louder. The Australian education system presents the same concerns of other Western countries – our children are leaving school with lower literacy and numeracy capacity, and definitely less prepared for life outside of school.
Dr Glenn C. Savage, Associate Professor of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia wrote an enlightening article for The Conversation earlier this month and I felt finally there was hope for reform that will really make a difference. His article was entitled – Want to improve our education system? Stop seeking advice from far-off gurus and encourage expertise in schools.
Dr Savage challenged the rhetoric of Federal Education Ministers who make grandiose promises of improving Australia’s educational standing. Given that these standards have been falling for quite some time, and the same messages have been rolled out by several ministers about how to revolutionise our schools, Dr Savage argues they obviously are not working at all. Sadly, the rapid fall of PISA rankings (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment) is just one sign of our failing education system.
Adult literacy levels are also concerning. In Australia:
- about 44% of adults read at literacy level below 1, 1 or 2 (a low level)
- 38% of adults read at level 3
- about 15% read at level 4 to 5 (the highest level).
People at a reading level 1 read at a primary school equivalent level, so basically then can understand short sentences.
We also have roughly one in five young people not completing year 12, and we have continuing “intolerable gaps” in the outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Further, the race for university positions, according to the demographic makeup of students who get the highest tertiary entrance is dominated from young people from wealthier backgrounds. Given the incredibly high levels of government funding to the private education sector, is it any wonder these inequities continue?
When I shared Dr Savage’s article on my Facebook page it ignited plenty of interest and after reading the responses, I wanted to write some of my reflections down. As the ‘queen of common sense’, I am going to explore some possible ways of improving the educational outcomes for all children who are transitioning or beginning big school in Australia via mainstream schooling.
The pressure for “too much too soon” needs to be challenged.
Let’s start with some concerns that need to be addressed. Our children are turning up as 5-year-olds less capable and less resilient than previous generations.
According to the Australian Early Development Census the national average of children with developmental vulnerabilities is 21.7%, however it is much higher in communities of lower socio-economic status and much lower in wealthier communities.
Long-term early childhood educators have been telling me for a while that today’s 5-year-olds are noticeably arriving in our school systems with these four challenges:
- less oral vocabulary
- poorer fine and gross motor skills
- poorer self-regulation
- an inability to initiate and sustain play with other children.
It seems these challenges are appearing across the board not just in our more vulnerable communities. There are many complex reasons why these things may be happening but one of the glaring ones is likely that our children are not playing enough in the physical world with other children. Also they are not being spoken to and read to at the same levels of previous generations and yes digital distraction of parents does appear to be an issue here. How can our education experts and bureaucrats think that less capable children can cope with more formalised learning at the age of five?
Let’s begin with some common sense about human development and human needs.
Humans are biologically wired to survive first, to seek being smart and happy second. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy – ensure children feel safe and cared for before we can work on making them grow cognitively, creatively and physically.
For many children in Australian schools their beginning years of school are full of stress, fear and/or boredom.
The first five years of a child’s life is when so much of this primary biological wiring and processing takes place. A child’s capacity to pick up language, culture, social norms, emotional capacity and self-regulation, creative thinking, self-preservation and a healthy sense of self takes place in the first five years of their life. These vital early years are also when the stress regulating systems for children are laid down and formed. So many of today’s children struggle due to a chaotic, busy modern society that forgets that young children need time, endless hours of caring connection with significant adults — and even more endless hours being an explorer and an adventurer working out how the world works — to build a brain that allows them to grow into being an independent, capable, resilient caring human being in adulthood.
The ridiculous pressure to make our kids smart before we ensure they are able to get on with others, communicate and be understood, have hours of joy and delight as kids, learn to cope with disappointment and setbacks and enjoy the freedom of being a magical child under seven is making our children sadder, sicker, fatter and more disconnected than any other generation of children.
There has been a disturbing increase in the number of 4-6-year-old children in Australia being suspended and expelled for inappropriate behaviour and a large percentage of these are boys. Formalised learning steals much of our little children’s fundamental need to move their bodies and to be as physically active as possible. Finland, a country that consistently maintains a high standard of educational outcomes, does not start formal learning until children turn 7.
For the children who may take more time to develop a readiness for decoding sounds and letters, having a little more time may make a lot of difference.
Occupational therapists have been expressing concerns about the lack of vestibular and proprioceptive awareness in today’s children. These are vital sensory processing components of early childhood development and they need a lot of movement in order to grow in a healthy way. Some of our children find it difficult to sit in a seat and I have been told some even fall out of their chairs because of a lack of this development.
One teacher wrote on my Facebook page: “Not every 5-year-old is developmentally ready for literacy. Forcing academic learning on a child who is fundamentally not ready fosters feelings of shame and alienates them from learning when the time is right.”
Unrealistic Expectations – my first-hand view from remote learning with my granddaughter
There is no question that we have pushed down formalised learning at least 12 months if not 18 months for children in mainstream schooling. It must be noted this change has been mandated from above and many early years educators are struggling with stress, burnout or leaving in despair. Gabbie Stroud’s book Teacher: One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching explored this reality in depth.
These changes in curriculum expectations have not been created by teachers and they have set up an unrealistic and unhealthy competitive perception that the earlier children start formal learning (especially around reading) the better for all children. In short, there is little or no evidence that pressuring children to read at five rather than seven improves their later reading; in fact there is much concern that it is damaging.
My four sons attended for four half days as 5-year-olds and spent most of the time playing in the sandpit or climbing trees. This does not mean that their highly experienced early childhood educator was not weaving phonological awareness and numeracy into their activities! World-recognised early childhood educator Teacher Tom loudly advocates that child-directed play is the absolute best way that our children learn all the basics they need before formalised schooling.
Our expectations for 5-year-olds has me extremely concerned especially as I’m a former high school English teacher. I have been supporting my 5 ½ year old granddaughter with her online learning experience and I was unpleasantly surprised to see that not only did she need to understand her graphemes and phonemes (yes this is important), but she was also expected to understand how to construct and write a story using adjectives even though she is still practising how to write her letters! Learning about adjectives is helpful however when done with much explicit intruction rather than through playful conversations and interactions it can certainly dampen the enthusiasm of the brightest young students let alone those with developmental vulnerabilities. Explicit instruction was formally known as ‘chalk and talk’ and is an important part of learning however when it is used too much and with material that is developmentally beyond many students, it can have a negative impact on the love and enthusiasm for learning per sé. I can assure you that helping students to construct stories using effective adjectives and teaching how to write effective essays was something that many of my high school students needed much support and practice to do well.
How can a 5-year-old be expected to write stories while they are still trying to practice how to form letters on the page?
And certainly don’t start me on the maths…
There was one activity where we needed to help my granddaughter with her subitising skills! I have to confess that I had to look up what that word meant and I am university educated! Another activity that we were given was how to understand algorithms! My granddaughter has two university educated parents, and she has been read to from the day she was born if not before and these expectations were still unrealistic.
I want to emphasise that my granddaughter goes to a lovely public school – it’s not the school or teacher who’s setting this curriculum, it’s the government. Fortunately, she has a fantastic, caring teacher who makes learning fun and engaging and remote learning is not how most children learn. My concerns around these unrealistic expectations, is that I think we are setting up a percentage of our children to fail. The assumption is that the end of the year a child turns five, they will be able to do all of the things in the curriculum. The research is strong that if you struggle in the first years of your schooling, you are more likely to struggle throughout your education life.
My suggestions for reform
Suggestion one: A foundation year
Let’s have the first year of full-time schooling, the year children turn five, to be a foundation year where children have opportunities for endless conversations and stories, fun with the spoken word and sounds, structured and autonomous movement and play that can improve gross and fine motor skills, where teachers can identify unique challenges and have those challenges addressed within the school system. And let’s not forget the wonderful power of music to support our children’s development in terms of fine motor skills, and emotional and behavioural development.
Social and emotional learning is often a challenge for even our brightest children and having a foundation year can help them to grow in these areas as well. Play-based learning is still learning and experienced early childhood educators are well-placed to create an engaging environment for this to happen. Director of Early Childhood Education at Murdoch University in WA Dr Sandra Hesterman has been a leading advocate for returning play to its rightful place in early childhood.
Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis from New Zealand quotes longitudinal research to say there is absolutely no advantage for learning to read at five compared to learning to read at seven. He shares my concern about the pressure to hurry up early childhood development to suit some random curriculum outcome-driven schedule and the possible damaging effects of doing that.
Finland understands this well. Michael Lawrence in his book Testing 3-2-1: What Australian education can learn from Finland explores this in great depth and writes:
“ Finnish teachers looked at me as if I was a child molester when I describe the NAPLAN test given to children as young as eight.”
Given that I had many barely literate students in my high school classes who struggled with their sense of self, their self-esteem and finding their place in the world, maybe we need to listen to classroom teachers and early childhood educators rather than listen to supposed education experts especially from overseas who have no experience with the wide variance of Australian communities.
Suggestion two: Get support into schools early
In the Facebook post I mentioned, teachers made comments about the lack of support for students who are struggling as they transition into school. In many states, it is extremely difficult to get an education assistant to support a teacher who has high-needs students mainly because of funding issues. Other teachers suggested that we need to be able to access allied health professionals in the school setting and to make that completely free. Wouldn’t it be brilliant to be able to refer a child struggling with their speech, or sensory processing concerns or being neurodivergent and needing some family support to have someone who visits the school promptly to address the vulnerabilities. In schools with significant learning challenges, having an OT and speech pathologist on site would be even better.
In many states of Australia however, especially Western Australia, access to paediatricians or child psychiatrists has become very difficult with extremely long waiting lists. Parents are looking for guidance and support as soon as possible. Having a new system that identifies children who have the highest needs, may help shorten these waiting lists so that children can get the help they need or the diagnosis they need, so that the school can employ an extra education support.
One teacher expressed it clearly:
“As a teacher, I feel that maybe they need to listen to teachers to find some of the answers and develop the system from there. Most teachers are passionate about their students and would do anything for them. Modify programs, deal with anxieties, try to find fun interesting content, but still many days you feel like there is just a whole heap of boxes to tick to prove everything is being done. Some days it’s hard to be inspiring when you are uninspired by the system.”
Suggestion three: Wellbeing matters. Having healthier students and staff can improve outcomes.
There needs to be opportunities to consult with early childhood educators and classroom teachers about the challenges they are experiencing to meet the needs of the children who are coming into their classrooms. We must respect and listen to these voices, because they will offer the genuine pathways that need to be addressed so we can improve the wellbeing and the educational outcomes of our children. You can’t have one without the other!
What would then follow is the reality that schools need to have flexibility in the transition years to allow students to have more time. What would make this REALLY SIMPLE is if we allowed all children across Australia to start their foundation year of school (which is currently called Prep, Kindy, Pre-Primary, Reception or Transition) while they are at least 5 and, with the flexibility to wait until they are 6 if their parents feel that is best for them.
Universal, free access to childcare and preschool would make this much more possible for many families financially too as currently, childcare fees are a factor for many families in decision making.
Consultation on reforming our education system needs to possibly start at the grass roots with classroom teachers who are working in an overloaded curriculum with unrealistic expectations of accountability. Teachers are stressed and they need to be heard. Finland has minimum assessments and less class time that is broken up with breaks to play and be active and, again, their results speak for themselves. Their teachers also receive dedicated hours each day for professional support and development, and far more autonomy within curriculum guidelines.
That’s not how most Australian teachers I speak to feel.
As one teacher expressed: “Maybe because teachers are required to do a million other things instead of designing and preparing great lessons than actually teaching them. Over the last 20 years the workload has increased tenfold but the number of classes allocated to each teacher has stayed the same.”
Suggestion four: Improve parent education and making it as accessible as possible
There were many teachers who expressed a concern that some parents were needing more education and guidance about the importance of physical movement, and play, and reading to your children especially in this digital age. Also the displacement effect needs to be a part of parent education showing that the first five years is when development through the sensory system matters enormously and hand-held screens are compromising this vital development. Just ask Molly Wright, one of the youngest ever children to give a TED talk, she explains it beautifully.
There has been a significant increase in childhood anxiety and that was before a global pandemic. There are many excellent programs that are available, however, maybe more work needs to be done to see if these programs are reaching our most vulnerable communities and families. Funding also needs to be guaranteed so that these programs can continue as many only have funding for a couple of years and then they end. Maybe a quality parent information pack could be a gift following the birth of every new baby. This could include free access to parenting resources, including free picture books to read to the baby and again fully funded by the federal government. And this could then be followed up with free access for parents to consistent general programs/resources that they access via early childhood centres and schools about what their children need, and helping them with some common concerns.
Suggestion Five: Free, universal access to high-quality care
To help students address the concerns that early childhood educators have expressed, we must prioritise free, universal access of at least 15 hours a week of high-quality care and interaction for 4-year-olds. This needs to be in every community and it needs to be funded by the federal government. I know it’s not simple but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Suggestion Six: Bring back play
Play needs to return to its rightful place in childhood and this needs to be a national and community driven process. Playful learning can coexist with increased academic standards, but our powers that be need to agree. I have visited schools that are still very child friendly with lots of play, especially nature-based play, nature time, music and art, and their students are doing well academically. Yes, they even have children with phonemic awareness without doing phonics in isolation, repetitively and out of context. Some teachers have mentioned the Walker Learning Approach, based on the work of Kathy Walker as a good example of this. I have had primary teachers tell me they have children reading, however, with no comprehension of what they are reading and I would argue that never happened before the ‘push down’. The rise in aggressive behaviour being exhibited by many younger children, mainly boys, may be a sign they are unable to cope with environments with no opportunity to play, no fun, little movement and developmentally inappropriate tasks. We then penalise these children by suspending or expelling them! We are failing them – they are not failing preschool or kindergarten!
There is a growing trend towards more democratic schools that are embracing the importance of play, especially nature-based play and hopefully in time this will become normalised. Engaging play spaces in our school grounds and more time to play does help children become more engaged learners in the classroom. Stressed brains do not learn well and once we attend to having developmentally appropriate expectations, we need to look at ways that especially our younger students can enjoy being in school environments, and play is the best way to do that.
Developmental psychologist Dr Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, is excellent to explore in this area. Independent scholar, advocate and consultant on childhood Tim Gill in the UK, is also a great advocate for prioritising play and risk in our children’s lives. He writes about the changing nature of childhood at rethinkingchildhood.com/
The diminution of play as a priority in kindergarten and preschool can be damaging to our children’s ability to function as social beings – which is still our key biological drive. David Whitebread wrote that there is ‘powerful evidence’ of the value and importance of play in young children’s development, especially the value of extended periods of playful learning before the start of formal schooling.
Creative, emotional and social intelligences are, in the early years, the most important areas for an educator to support and facilitate, but when teachers feel they are required to ‘produce’ high scores for assessments, then their needs as professionals are not being met either.
For Indigenous children, for the vast majority of our boys, for children who have English as a second language and for children who have additional needs, we are creating environments that make it impossible for them to do well. Dr Mona Delahooke in her book Beyond Behaviours: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioural Challenges has explored how stress impacts behaviour and how we can better support children who struggle.
The return to nature-based play especially in WA that has allowed children to get dirty, take risks, be creative and engage deeply in nature with its well-researched restorative qualities is a sure sign that things can be changed.
Suggestion Seven: We need to abandon the notion that one-size-fits-all can bring true reform in education.
We do not live in a homogenous country or society and so the expectations that we can have one common, effective plan that will work in all schools is not only problematic it has been shown that it fails miserably.
As Dr Savage argues, “What works best in a remote public school in Broome is highly unlikely to be the same as what works best in an elite private school in Darlinghurst”.
The one-size-fits-all approach to education in Australia is extremely problematic for this reason. Communities and schools differ in many ways and recognising this in meeting the unique needs of the students in our schools is surely where reform needs to start.
Surely the smartest people who make decisions about education in Australia, can see that whatever we’ve been doing for the last 10 years is not working and we need to start seeing things differently and seeking alternative ways of ensuring we can have more students graduating Year 12, higher levels of literacy and numeracy, and happier and healthier students and staff.
Effective reform needs authentic consultation with those living and working with our children, not just grandiose plans often from politicians influenced by education experts with little understanding of the unique reality of early childhood development in multicultural, diverse Australia. We need to collectively question the need to ‘hurry up’ formalised learning for 4-6-year-olds. And we need to stop seeing our little children as brains on seats or sources of endless data and instead see them as whole beings who deserve to be respected and valued.
I will leave the final say to Dr Savage:
“Rather than approaching education reform as technicians seeking to make ’the machine’ to work better, perhaps we should think and act more like gardeners seeking to build the ecosystems needed for diverse things to grow and flourish.”