The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown our lives into turmoil – such that we are anticipating life may never be quite as it was before. For many, the last few months have also been a time for reflection. What is important? What matters to me?
Thirty years ago, albeit in different circumstances Bethan Lewis-Powell was forced to think about alternatives. As a teacher in the English state system she had become disillusioned with the quality of the curriculum on offer to students of all ages and particularly the very youngest.
There appeared to be a diminishing focus on designing learning environments that followed and encouraged children’s personal passions and interests. There was little that allowed for exploration, curiosity and genuine knowledge gathering, whilst taking the strongest possible account of individual preference and uniqueness – the process of learning was being overlooked.
In its place was a relentless debate about raising standards of achievement. Educational policy consistently used language related to improving teaching, accelerating student performance and narrowing attainment gaps. Teachers, she felt, had less and less to say about what, when and how to teach.
Children’s holistic developmental needs were being pushed from centre stage and overtaken by narrowed age related measures. Bethan was determined to offer a learning environment that respected children’s ability to be an active player in their own learning. As a result, she founded The Mulberry House School, in north west London now regarded as both high achieving and innovative in its holistic approach to children’s education and care. The Mulberry School was one of the last schools to receive a visit from the Independent Schools Inspectorate before the national Covid-19 lock down in March 2020 and maintained excellent judgments across all inspection areas.
Before modern neuroscience evidenced her beliefs of how the brain blossoms in the pre-school years, Bethan intuitively recognised the critical importance of a child’s earliest years. She sensitively structured the curriculum model for her new school, offering education and care to children from the age of 2 years.
She was aware that this was a stage of child development where parents were pretty much left to work out for themselves how to respond to the needs of their small human charge. The support of midwife and health visitor appeared to dry up as babyhood progressed into toddlerhood. The weight of responsibility was heavy and for some parents, overwhelming.
Bethan wanted parents to experience the absolute joy of being a parent through a nurturing and life affirming relationship with their child. This, she saw, as the strongest foundation for supporting children to see and value themselves as well as their learning. She has always respected the parent as the child’s first and enduring educator.
At The Mulberry House School, from the outset, she invited parents to partner with the school on a shared journey. She trained her teachers to understand that teaching is a relational, reciprocal activity where the power of the human bonds between educator, parent and child are paramount.
She made her case strongly, that effective teaching and learning starts with a deep human understanding of every pupil not the delivery of an off-the shelf curriculum. A child’s fear of making mistakes stops learning dead in its tracks. All teachers at The Mulberry House School fully understand this.
Parents appreciated this approach then and still do. It has not changed and has become so deeply embedded in the mission and values of the School that it is now the way things are around here. This sense of shared endeavour continues to sharpen the School’s vision, catapulting the importance of watching and listening to children to the elevated status of being central to professional accountability.
So, when Bethan heard about the recent launch of the BBC initiative, Tiny Happy People she was excited to explore how this new online platform for the parents of babies and young children could offer them further support and more awareness of how children learn. Described as an early language and communication initiative, the site offers easy access to guidance, resources and activity ideas for parents of pre-school children. These are carefully organised to align with the different stages of child development from babyhood to statutory school entry.
The initiative has the endorsement of the Duchess of Cambridge. She openly discusses both the pleasures and challenges of parenthood and her growing appreciation of the critical importance of the first three years of life. She recognises that over this period children’s brains grow at exceptional pace in response to the nurturing care and stimuli they receive from their parents and caregivers. The fundamentals of personality, self-regulation, language and cognition are well established before children even enter through the school gates.
The site also advocates that children’s physical health, emotional wellbeing and social functioning are inextricably intertwined with their capacity to acquire and use language. This authentically chimes with Bethan’s determination to raise the profile and urgency of understanding how babies and young children develop their early language skills.
In 2017, the Early Intervention Foundation reported that between 5% to 8% of all UK children had some difficulty with language learning, the percentage rising to over 20% for those growing up in low income families. This is echoed by research conducted in 2018 by the National Literacy Trust which estimated that approximately 180,000 five-year-olds in England started school without the communication, language and literacy skills expected for their age. Furthermore, language and vocabulary gaps between wealthier and poorer children become apparent as early as 18 months of age. By the age of five, children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds may start school 19 months behind their better-off peers and struggle to catch up from then on.
Bethan argues that although language is the main vehicle through which children express and have their needs met, speaking and listening to children is often overlooked and underappreciated. Speaking and listening is a whole-body experience. It involves expression, gesture and movement as well as sound to convey message and meaning. Babies and young children like to engage in spontaneous conversations with adults as well as being around when adults are talking to each other, providing such conversations are natural, expressive and gentle. Yet modern technology and toys often promote solitary play with minimal shared interaction.
Adult reliance, particularly an issue over the pandemic period, on technology, can become a real barrier to the effective to and fro turn-taking of reciprocal talk. This is explored in Matthew Lieberman’s 2015 book, Social-why our brains are wired to connect and Erika Christakis’ 2016, The Importance of Being Little. Christakis suggests that simple changes at home and in the classroom can add such value to language acquisition. For example, like Tiny Little People, she advocates strongly for a bedtime routine that includes reading and talking to children, posing questions, debating answers and modelling language structures.
Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson 2011 in the Whole Brain Child, go even further, suggesting that the consistent use of attuned language between child and caregiver is fundamentally important for the development of human empathy. Nothing, it seems, can take the place of exclusive parental attention and attuned closeness.
Bethan is clear that such initiatives as Tiny Little People are to be applauded. They are both timely and hugely relevant. It continues to be tempting for policy makers to think of early childhood learning as a precursor to the real business of education and schooling. Bethan is determined to challenge this outdated view.