Newsletter Four

Newsletter Eighteen, Spring 2002

 
This edition of the Network Newsletter is a special Early Years edition and reports in depth on interesting practice and on the debates and discussions generated at the recent Ethos Network event. The Early Years material includes a detailed look at the 2001 Ethos Award Winner, Haddington Infant School in East Lothian and its 'international sharing' project. The newsletter is edited by Christine MacLean and produced by Gina Reddie. Additional contributions from Alison Closs, Margaret Johnstone and Miranda Miller. Photographs by Douglas Robertson, Photographer, Edinburgh.
Seen and Heard - early years special!

Continuing the theme of pupil participation, this issue of our Newsletter features the active contributions of young children in early years education. Organised in partnership with Fife Council, the recent early years Roadshow demonstrated practice from Fife, Stirling, Edinburgh, East Lothian and beyond.

In the Roadshow keynote address, Linda Kinney of Stirling Council's Children's Services, drew on Stirling's work with children as partners. 'Respecting children, taking them seriously and encouraging their participation is more than just a priority for Stirling, it is fundamental to the way in which we wish to work. So, when we are consulting with children, supporting their participation, reflecting on our own practice and our understanding and learning as well as that of children, it is not just a set of activities, but more about a way of being.' Linda explained that she believed the integrated service approach adopted by Stirling Council had achieved a real focus on children and not just Linda Kinney'department' perspectives on education or social work.

Children are sending powerful messages all the time, and adults have a great deal to learn, but are very selective about what they want to hear. Aiming to gather more information about how children learn, the Stirling 'Documentation Approach' is a process of making visible how children explore and how they are making sense of their everyday learning experiences in and around an early childhood environment. The approach is a shared experience, where the adult supports the child in representing and describing individual responses to the learning environment and recording the experience with the child in a range of ways.

The less oral language children have, the more alert the adults around them need to be. Opportunity to record responses can be offered in a variety of ways including, through photographs, children's own comments or drawings, or from feedback sessions in nursery or at home. Linda believes the Council's Documentation Approach has led to greater engagement with children and increased knowledge of how they learn. Children receive more regular feedback and acknowledgement and all partners in the process are able to build on their confidence.

Moving from pre-school to primary school is a transition to a new context and one where the ability or opportunity to consult may have traditionally proved more difficult. But with major changes in early years primary through the more active and participative practice of Early Intervention, Stirling is one of a number of Councils that has found successful ways of offering young primary children a voice. Circle time, pupil councils and personal learning plans are important channels for P1/2 input to whole school and classroom concerns. Some schools are opening their pupil councils to the youngest representatives often with older children acting as buddies or scribes. Young children who have had the opportunity to participate as active partners in pre-school settings are demanding to be seen AND heard!

Responding to your feedback that requested more time at our events to reflect on practice and discuss the issues, our latest event offered the opportunity to participate in group discussion and in a final plenary session led by a panel. This article attempts to bring together the most pressing issues and views from the workshops and plenary, including those that remained open to further debate. We hope this debate will continue in staff rooms, meetings with parents, school assemblies, School Board and cluster meetings and that there may be some useful starting points for discussions with colleagues, parents and - above all - the young people with whom we work. If the concept of fuller participation of young children in their education is to gain credibility and be put into practice more, then it has to be discussed and accepted at all levels.

This debate was thought to be particularly necessary if teachers were to get over the 'big BUT' that co-existed with widespread enthusiasm for fuller participation of children. The 'but' seemed to arise from teachers' worries about losing control, about not being able to make the decisions, about giving up what they had thought of as part of the essential role of being a teacher. Many participants recognised that the extent to which children could increasingly be involved depended on the process being in small planned steps rather than in one big jump in at the deep end! A more gradual approach would suit both teachers and children and lead to growing mutual feelings of competence and ease. Participants also favoured starting the process and taking it forward in ways that were suited to particular establishments. In general, however, there was a widespread agreement that young children could be more involved than at present and across a wider range of issues than were currently seen as 'suitable'.

What should we consult children about?
Many possible topics were suggested as things in which young children should have a voice and be involved in, More Early Years Info!from the physical environment, commenting on school lunches and the structure of the school day to more personal matters such as relationships and behaviour guidance in school. No particular topic limits were established although some participants felt that for young children to be satisfied, some topics had to offer the possibility of children's views being acted upon. It was not enough just to listen to children, or even to take action but not feed this action back to the children. Research findings in fact show that children want a reasoned and well-explained response to their views, a sense of genuine dialogue and negotiation and of being valued, even if their views had to be amended subsequently or even turned down. Gearing this kind of discussion to the appropriate levels of comprehension, but without under-estimating even very young children's competence, requires high levels of inter-personal skills and professional judgement.

Barriers to young children's participation
One of the issues that some felt might constrain the number of topics addressed or the extent to which children were included was teacher time. This was accepted in relation to starting up the process, finding out about good practice and planning how to begin in any establishment. However, the reality was that, once staff were committed and children and staff developed their experience, there was not a conflict between developing participation, self-esteem and a positive ethos on one hand, and attainment on the other. One aspect supports the other, participation effectively comes part of education, enriching curriculum delivery, and enhancing children's motivation to learn.

Methods of consulting
The suggested methods used to involve young children, to facilitate their expression of views and to ensure optimum participation were many and various! Role play; skilled questioning (not interrogation); un-chaperoned taping, using a preferred intermediary who might not always be a child's teacher and could be another person around the school such as an auxiliary or the janitor; use of pictorial or symbol choices, and skilled observation of children's choice behaviours and preferred means of communication were all identified. The use of expressive arts, so well demonstrated in the Roadshow by the various groups of Fife youngsters, could be both a form of participation and a way of expressing views. Peer facilitation and encouragement was seen as a positive means of involving more diffident children, including some who might have special educational needs.

Moving on to school
On the issue of transition from pre-school to P1, there was a large number of suggestions about how children's participation in the process could also improve it. There was a general impression that children should be asked more about what they wanted or needed, that circle-time could assist this and that more links between P1 and nursery children could be built up. The usual visits were invaluable but there were other ideas: establishing buddy schemes, P1 children preparing a display for the nursery children to explain what 'big school' was about, getting nursery children to list their questions in whatever way their real feelings and concerns could be tapped, and preparing 'all about ME' books with the children themselves selecting what they wanted in them. Most P1 teachers and other primary school staff were now very skilled at listening to parents' views of their pre-school children, but children's own views might, even at that age, either differ of add a new dimension.

Participation is not getting what you want
A challenging question about adults' potential to manipulate children's participation to suit themselves brought an admission that within even the best teachers there is a 'shaper' of children's responses! However, the panel believed that in teachers who understood the developmental purpose of participation, this 'shaping' would be motivated to enhance children's participation not to use or abuse it
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