KEYU Bolton Conference

A brilliant blog from KEYU's very own EYs Dr Sue Allingham


So on Saturday 12th October the KEYU Team wandered into Bolton.  But we weren’t there to play football.  This Premier Team, plus new signings, had arrived to spend the day at Bishop Bridgeman School to take a tactical look at we can move forward with Early Childhood Education with the current focus on curriculum.  And there wasn’t a referee in sight, virtual or otherwise.  It was a powerful line up of speakers, and there wasn’t a single own goal scored.


Enough of the football analogies.  Our focus for this event was ‘Characteristics and Curriculum – The way forward in Early Childhood Education’.  With so much change threatening to restructure our professional life, we wanted this day to be an opportunity to take stock of what effective pedagogy means and looks like. And what impact it has. We all regularly need to take stock, reflect and ground ourselves in respected knowledge and practice.  If we are well grounded then, whatever changes come our way, we are ready to assimilate them and make them work for us.

As I often say, we are enduring a perfect storm in the world of ECE – everything is hitting us at once with regards to both real and proposed policy changes.  The more we try to get an informed voice heard, the less it seems to be.  Or maybe that’s just our perception?  The fact that Early Childhood Education is constantly in the education news is important and to our advantage.  We must view everything through the lenses of ‘what, why and how’. 

  • What is this about?
  • Why is it important?
  • How can I make the best use of it in my work?  And how will it impact on the children?  How can I make it appropriate?

The speakers today gave us a balanced view of exactly what we need to hold onto to manage change.

We started the day with Anna speaking about the ‘Unique Curriculum’ a perfect reminder that our curriculum is centred on the principle of the ‘unique child’.  The current focus on the word ‘curriculum’, reflected in the new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework, holds the danger of dismissing what we know of the child in favour of a more rigid focus on what is being taught, which then becomes subject knowledge decided by the adults, or bought as a scheme.  Of course, we are all teachers.  We do teach, and we have a very clear curriculum in the Statutory Framework.  We work with and for the unique children to develop knowledge and skills through their schemes of work.  As Anna pointed out – Ofsted has no remit to change the curriculum, so we must make this work for the children.  What, why and how?  Anna finished with a song she had composed – a rousing call to arms which will forever be the anthem of KEYU –


We won’t buy those boring ‘plans’

Which dictate and tie our hands

Each unique child will decide

And we’ll be there at their side


Anna’s opening talk was powerfully followed up by Hannah talking about her beach school.  This is a perfect example of a unique curriculum being built around the principle of the unique child.  Hannah’s leap of faith into developing her dream of opening a beach school is a real lesson in how a truly pedagogical approach enables profound learning experiences for children of all ages.  And of course, there is a curriculum.  The fact that this all takes place outside in such a powerful environment adds to the learning as well taking into account the Chief Medical Officers recommendations that children get at least 180 minutes of energetic, physical exercise a day.  A footnote so often overlooked in the current Statutory Framework.  Hannah directed us to the work of Richard Louv who speaks of children being ‘nature deficient’.

The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”



Of course, none of our teaching is going to become effective learning unless we interact with the children in meaningful ways.  Kym reminded us that communication and language is about so much more than vocabulary.  We are constantly reminded that we have to keep in mind the notion that ‘disadvantaged’ children have a ‘word gap’.  We need to look beyond this.  How are we using our skills as teachers to encourage language?  Do we do all the talking?  Or do we remember that interaction is about –

  • Connection
  • Turn-taking
  • Shared focus of attention
  • Positive non-verbal communication
  • Intonation and expression
  • Equal players in the conversation

Trying to close ‘a gap’ in vocabulary is pointless unless we are skilled in all of the above.  Which all goes back to the principle of the unique child of course.

And this principle was perfectly exemplified by David who spoke next about his well observed book ‘Umar’.  This lovely little story tells the tale of a child he knows who was obsessed with keys.  At first David acknowledged that this was annoying as Umar always wanted to use his keys and help him when he needed to lock or unlock anything.  However, once he had reflected on it, David realised that this was a fascination for Umar and that he should work with it rather than against it.  The picture book he has published demonstrates how much he learnt alongside Umar, his family by respecting what Umar brought to him.  This is the pedagogy we need to drive our curriculum, and an example of a teacher reflecting ‘what, why and how?’

If we don’t question our practice in this way, how will children develop mastery of any learning?  Elaine talked to us about how the word ‘mastery’ has now been hijacked and now suggests more of a regimented approach.  Nowhere is this more obvious than the teaching of mathematics.  There are now many schemes of work that suggest a one size fits all approach, whereas what we should actually be aiming for is

  • Mastering Maths means pupils acquiring a deep, long term, secure and adaptable understanding of the subject
  • Achieving mastery means acquiring a solid enough understanding of the maths that’s been taught to enable pupils to move onto more advanced material


Elaine referred us to Getting it right in the Early Years Foundation Stage: a review of the evidence.  This document was put together by a coalition of Early Years groups including KEYU and written by Chris Pascal, Tony Bertram, Liz Rouse of  Centre for Research in Early Childhood.  One of the findings is -   

There is no evidence to support giving mathematics and literacy greater emphasis than any other areas of learning within the EYFS

A rigid approach to ‘mastery’ runs the risk of capping learning and completely ignores any of the cultural capital that a child brings with them to our settings. 

The latest buzzwords from Ofsted are ‘cultural capital’ and Kathryn talked about how this must be defined as the ‘unique funds of knowledge’ that all children bring with them. It is our duty to make the connections to inform our teaching.  And we absolutely must not see the child as deficit model – there is a danger of doing that if we rely on the Ofsted definition.  Kathryn reminded us that Howard Gardner summed up ‘cultural capital’ as –

Every child has a spark inside him and it’s our responsibility to ignite that spark

The word ‘connection’ and how important it is to connect with children was a constant theme throughout the day.  When Sue spoke after Kathryn it was to reflect on how important it is for adults to connect too.

Sue’s journey as an EYFS Lead in school hasn’t always been easy and she spoke powerfully about the imaginary hurdles we find ourselves jumping over because so many people are telling us what to do.  We have to find a clear path and follow it by understanding what is important and why. She works from the principle of ‘Our children can’.  Sue talked about finding strength and support in KEYU.

This talk resonated with me as I had been the Doctor in the house during each break.  Appointments were made and I talked with people about the point of reading schemes, research projects, the problems of being one form entry, and mixed age classes.  The common theme was different people telling them what to do and giving mixed messages.  It was good to talk and hopefully remove some imaginary hurdles.

Our day ended with Leah talking about leading the Early Years forward.  Kathryn noted that Leah radiated positivity and summed up for us all that we must learn together, share and motivate each other.  The emphasis on connections again.  Like Sue, Leah’s role in leading the Early Years at school is not without problems.  Her response to this is to refer to those who ‘know what they are talking about in child development’ in order to have an informed response.  Remember ‘what, why, and how’?

This was an inspiring day which left us all ready to keep up the fight.  Just as well when the consultation about the proposed revision of the Early Learning Goals has just been released.


KEYU has to be,

KEYU has to be,

KEYU has to be,

Just the greatest group for me