Friday, April 16, 2010

Allan Peachey: The role of Early Childhood education

What is the role of Early Childhood education? This has become a pertinent question given the millions of taxpayer dollars that now go to a range of early childhood educators. Indeed, is it education that is occurring or just supervision?

I really began thinking seriously about this when the previous government, at the behest of the teacher union, introduced requirements for the training and registration of early childhood teachers. The situation was brought home to me when a very experienced primary school teacher, now working in the early childhood sector, came to see me. Her problem was that her primary teaching qualifications were no longer considered adequate for her to teach in early childhood. She was being required to undertake further training to keep a job she had been doing eminently well for several years.

I raised this with a group of lecturers in early childhood education at one of the colleges of education. When I asked them why a trained primary teacher had to now undertake further training to remain in early childhood education the answer that I got set me to thinking even further. Apparently the reason why further training was required related to the pedagogy of play. Primary school qualifications did not include the pedagogy of play and therefore it was not adequate for early childhood education.

I don’t question those in education circles who say that if all children started school at age five with alphabetical awareness the great gaps that quickly open up between children in terms of the ability to read would not appear. So the answer seemed simple to me. Teach alphabetical awareness in the early childhood sector. What could be simpler than that? A lot apparently. When I first entered Parliament I started to float the idea of requiring early childhood centres to teach the alphabet and reading, particularly in light of the increasing amounts of taxpayer money heading in their direction. The response really surprised me. I was told by parliamentary colleagues, people in the early childhood sector and a surprising number of parents that I was trying to destroy children’s childhood. That I wanted to take the fun out of early childhood.

Can anybody tell me how being taught the alphabet and how to read can destroy a child’s childhood? Why can’t learning the alphabet and learning to read be fun? I would have thought that there would have been no more enriching experience for a pre-schooler than being taught the alphabet and beginning to read.

A lot of children learn their alphabetical awareness and the rudiments of reading at home from their parents. And a lot of parents get considerable enjoyment and satisfaction from sharing the pleasure of reading with their children. But that is not the experience of all children and of all families. That is reality and we have to accept that. But that does not mean that we have to put up with the huge divergence that has developed between children at the age of five in terms of reading. Of course it doesn’t. What it means is that we have to take the opportunity to reach as many children as we can before the age of five. I know that not all children attend an early childhood centre but that is not a reason not to work with those children that are there.

Much is made of the socialisation impact of early childhood education. The argument goes that children are prepared for school by learning to live with, cooperate with and respect others. Why not prepare them for school by teaching them alphabetical awareness at the same time. I do not see socialisation and literacy as being mutually exclusive. In fact I see them as supportive of each other.

Children who learn to read at a young age have a whole new world opened up to them, a world far wider than that available to them on television, DVDs and video games. What can be more fun and enriching than learning to read and to share that with others? What more cooperative activity is there than reading to one another? And in books are some of the great stories of our civilisation, full of simple little lessons that children who are able to read remember for life.

Things suddenly start to move quickly once a child gets to school. Those without the advantage of alphabetical awareness at school very quickly fall behind and once behind they too seldom catch up. Large amounts of taxpayer money is invested in an increasingly futile race against failure at school and all the consequences of that. So much better to get full value from the money spent in early childhood centres. The fence at the top of the cliff? Much cheaper to build the fence than to send the ambulance to the bottom of it. Why do we let ideology get in the way of the fence? We pay a high price for that.
I am convinced this country could halve the percentage of children not learning at school by the simple act of requiring the teaching of alphabetical awareness in Early Childhood centres. Then we could really call it education.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree. The "teachers" at the kindy our kids went to did little more than sip coffee while the kids ran amok -- early training for chaos at primary school, I thought.

Artykids said...

Of course we teach alphabetical awareness - it starts the minute any child walks through our doors. It is embedded in the whole curriciulum which has a holistic approach to literacy not one that views it as an isolated individual unit.
I also was a primary school teacher and couldn't understand why I needed to retrain until I did the training and then I realised there was so much to learn about the exciting world of early childhood that I was not aware of previously.

MIchelle Johnston B Ed
Manager/ Teacher
St AndrewsEpsom ECC