On the need for a strong sense of identity, in education and in life


This past week I have spoken at a Public Policy Exchange symposium on the consultative revised Early Years Foundation Stage. My speech and preparations for the question and answer session, from a highly informed and alert audience, have taken up much of my thinking time, have pre-occupied me daily awhile.

I spoke alongside Chris Barnham, Deputy Director, Early Years Quality and Standards, Dept for Education, the most charming and collected of speakers. The morning  session was chaired by the excellent, highly entertaining and eloquent Michael Freeston, Director of Quality Improvement, Pre-School Learning Alliance.

Such illustrious names and I, the humble consultant, trading my wares in the market place, drifting where needed or wanted, sitting betwixt the great and the good.

Back to my post heading and the need for a strong sense of identify, in education and in life. My thoughts, perhaps, should be with the fate of the consultative EYFS document, with other symposium outcomes, with contacts to be made, tentative contracts clarified and secured, with preparations for the next event. But something still lingers in my mind that disquiets, and causes me to ponder how some have so fragile a sense of identity – and with that whole notions of self-belief, confidence, internal value systems – that it is possible for others to ride rough-shod over the remnants of self-respect that linger like dirt in an unshaken carpet.

Of course, I am thinking here, not just of individuals, but of whole groups of people, of the collective identity and nature of the workforce. Specifically, I am thinking of the early years’ workforce, employed in a vast range of settings, with equally as vast an array of qualifications and experience.

Dame Tickell referenced in her recent review of EYFS that it was imperative to move away from a sector largely populated by young, poorly qualified females. I am paraphrasing badly, loathe to peer again in the nitty gritty of policy documents that dominate my sight and attention for much of my daily life, but that is the gist of it, however it is truced up and phrased.

At the symposium, one woman commented that there was a need for those in early years to remember what they were achieving, what was significant about them and their work, or thoughts along those lines. How right she was to make that point, but how rarely that point is raised. I missed my opportunity to say then, what I have thought for some while but not articulated. Ah, the great beauty of blogs and that capacity to set out all our best intentions, our finest words, long after they are needed, so much post the event…

In May 2008 I was commissioned by Ofqual to investigate various matters in the Foundation Stage Profile, as preparation for the introduction of the EYFS in September 2008. For perhaps the first time in my working life, I became involved in visiting a number of nurseries, private providers, school and other settings. It was an illuminating experience, for many reasons, not least that it gave me the background and context and knowledge to complete the Ofqual commission.

For the most part, private providers aside, I will say that I have never met a more humble, compliant, apologetic and demure range of practitioners as I did in that Summer. Every meeting or discussion I arranged, however informal, was preceded by a great series of apologies from my host in the early years setting.

Apologies came thick and fast  – for everything from the size of the chairs for our meeting, the clutter around and on tables, the lack of office space or somewhere suitable to talk, the lack of privacy, the need to be mindful of what is going on ‘over there’, the lack of focus, the surfeit or paucity of evidence or documentation, the presence of paint or food on clothing… I felt oftentimes that my presence was a great threat, or formality, or that I had disturbed somehow the smooth running of the day, no matter how much notice, or how plain the request to speak.

In writing this blog, I am brought to mind of a whole workforce, who live their lives much as did The Borrowers, the 1950s creation of the author Mary Norton. The Borrowers lived their lives discretely, co-existing side by side with the inhabitants of a large family home, ever mindful not to over-burden those on whom they were dependent and to subsist with a creative use of left-overs and ‘borrowings’.

In my work with providers across the great divide of public, private and third sector, I have been made to feel, at times, relatively insignificant, of little worth to the organization and its workforce. At others, I have been treated as a demi-God, or Goddess perhaps, shown the best room, granted the finest coffee and biscuits, treated with a reverence and respect that has made me feel positively regal. It is easy to be swayed by the perceptions of others, by the response we receive from the impression we give, consciously or otherwise.

Despite all that swishing and swaying, I have a relatively secure and strong sense of my own worth, of my value. That value may not be shared by all whom I meet, but that is no great matter. That confidence, sense of identify, sense of worth, is safe intact within me, for the most part.

I do not see that confidence, that sense of identity, as secure or strong in the early years’ workforce and in its individual members. It is that very compliance, that humble demeanour, I believe, that in part has helped create the context within which it is possible for successive governments to impose, demand and impose yet again, the myriad complex demands of the EYFS, from its more modest starting point of the FSP. For that reason, a move towards the revised consultative EYFS is to be welcomed, but still, I fear, it will take a much stronger collective voice within the workforce, to hold fast to what it believes to be true and to understand what it is, that it believes to be true.

In my Ofqual report, I became fascinated by the mission statements of settings I visited and many that I did not visit.

Our mission is to develop… active and creative minds, a sense of understanding and compassion for others, and the courage to act on thier beliefs. We stress the total development of each child: spiritual, moral, intellectual, social, emotiona and physical. (Mission Statement: Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart)

Those settings with a strong internal sense of their own identity and purpose, were far more likely to assimilate the requirements of the EYFS creatively and with sensitivity – or to request exemption.

By contrast, those settings for whom a strong internal vision was not so apparent, were more likely to regard the EYFS as a didactic, inflexible beast, laying bare their own fragile and tenuous sense of identity. Gulliver, in his land of Lilliput, has captured my imagination here. Aren’t the images of our early editions, sublime?

In an extract from the executive summary of my report from July 2008 I state –

“Those settings and practitioners who have a very strong and clear sense of their own collective identity and puprose, are able to apply the curriculum (FSP) creatively and develop practices in line with their own value systems

Where there is a less secure sense of the settings own values, there is more likely to be a drive to adapt or modify the curriculum and elements of practice, to match as closely as possible, assessment judgements, across the six areas of learning. The FSP in this context is transformed from guidance to a prescribed, didactic curriculum.”

In life, we all need a strong sense of identity, an awareness of what is our place in this world, what are our values, what are the beliefs that may support us in the turbulent sea of life.  Without that safeguard, we are as flotsam and jetsam, swept along with the tide.

For some in our workplace, a healthy self-regard, self-belief and a strong sense of identity would seem essential for survival, for peace of mind. Far rather, we are masters of our own fate, it seems to me. That way some sense of fulfillment lies. Who, after all, wishes to be beholden to the devices and desires of another?

Rabbi Hillel, the Jewish Scholar and Theologian, summed up all that I have wished to say, far more succinctly than I, in the space of a few words thrown together. I have them printed out and placed at various points around my study –

If I am not for myself, who
will be for me?
And if not now, when?

Hillel, Jewish scholar & theologian (30 BC – 9 AD)


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