Respectful Educators – Capable Learners: Children's Rights and Early Education


Edited by: Cathy Nutbrown

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  • Dedication

    For the children who are special to us …

    David, Vanessa, Peter, Heather, Adnan, Katharine, Lauren, Georgia, Chevelle, James, Abigail, Alice, Jamal, Francine, Eleanor, Hazel, Sarah, Tamsyn, Liam and Bethany –

    with our love and respect


    View Copyright Page


    In any venture that is worthwhile there are people to thank, and I am privileged to be able to thank a good number because I have been supported, helped and encouraged by so many. Saying ‘thank you’ is important to me, so …

    Marianne Lagrange from Paul Chapman Publishing has, as ever, provided advice and action when it was needed. The contributors to this book responded to my initial invitation to participate with an enthusiasm that confirmed my conviction that such a book had a place in the literature of early childhood education. They wrote their chapters during the long hot summer of 1995 and though we all write personally there is a common thread of reflection and anticipation in the field of early education and children's rights. I want to thank each one of them for their commitment to this book and their part in a collaborative effort.

    The cover design is from original drawings by the children of St Ives Nursery-Infant School, St Ives, Cornwall: my thanks to the children and to the headteacher Irene Tanner for permission to use this work.

    I have some special colleagues too, who, in their various ways, have supported my work, listening, commenting, encouraging and knowing when to say nothing! So I say ‘thank you’ to Margaret Fitter of Sheffield LEA, to Peter Hannon and Elaine Millard at the University of Sheffield and to Dorothy Rouse-Selleck of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children's Bureau for several conversations that helped to shape my thinking and endorse my convictions.

    In writing, reading and thinking about children and childhood I have, this summer, recalled many of the experiences of my own childhood, so now is my chance to thank my mum and dad for the childhood they created for me and the early years of love and learning and family that were my rich beginning. So, to my mum and dad, who answered some questions and let me find my own answers to others.

    As well as remembering my own childhood I have been watching my daughter's childhood as it unfolds. She is the best teacher I ever had, her lessons are profound and her insistence on finding out and challenging what she thinks is wrong are a privilege to share. She accepts my offerings and forgives my mistakes, and she made certain that the summer of 1995 included swimming and walking and watching and talking and laughing (as well as writing) so, Bethany Martha, my love and thanks to you. And Andrew, for your consistent encouragement, love and support, I thank you too.


    About the Contributors

    Gerison Lansdown is Director of the Children's Rights Office, which is working to promote the case for a statutory Children's Rights Commissioner. Previously, she worked as Director of the Children's Rights Development Unit, which was created to promote the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the UK. She is currently on the management committees of the Family Rights Group and Child Poverty Action Group and has also been on the management committees of One Parent Families, Maternity Alliance and Day Care Trust. She has published numerous articles on the subject of children's rights as well as contributing to a number of books on the subject. In 1994 the Children's Rights Development unit produced the UK Agenda for Children, a comprehensive analysis of the state of children's rights in the UK.

    Jean Ensing is a specialist adviser for the early years. A late entrant to teaching, she taught young children for fifteen years, eight as a headteacher. After her school was inspected she joined HMI. Some five years later, in 1989 she became the HMI with responsibility for under-fives matters. This role included liaison with government departments, voluntary, private and maintained sector providers and the many groups with an interest in the education of young children. After the creation of OFSTED, Jean also trained registered inspectors and from 1993–4 was the HMI observer on the review of the National Curriculum for five-to seven-year-olds.

    Iram Siraj-Blatchford is Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of London. She has researched and published widely on early childhood education and teacher education. She has had the privilege of working with young children and parents as a teacher and governor.

    Wendy Scott has spent eighteen years as an early years teacher and head of a demonstration school. She has been a senior lecturer in initial teacher training and course tutor for a multidisciplinary advanced diploma, and is now an external examiner for a primary B.Ed. course. She has worked for many years as an early years and primary inspector in London, and is now welcoming the opportunity of gaining experience in many different education authorities through OFSTED inspections. Wendy maintains a range of national links through her membership of the Early Years Curriculum Group and the Advisory Group of the Early Childhood Unit of the National Children's Bureau. As Chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, she is active in promoting high quality early education across the country.

    Cathy Nutbrown has considerable experience of teaching young children and working with parents, teachers, nursery nurses and other early childhood educators in a range of group care and education settings. Her research interests include children's early learning and development, their literacy and work with parents. Many publications include her first book Threads of Thinking – Young Children Learning and the Role of Early Education (PCP, 1994). For four years Cathy has been Vice President of OMEP (UK) (1991–5) an organization committed to promoting optimum conditions for children's living and learning; she has represented OMEP (UK) in several European countries and the USA. She is currently the Development Officer for the Sheffield University–LEA REAL (Raising Early Achievement in Literacy) Project, in Sheffield. Respectful Educators – Capable Learners grew out of a conviction that young children are entitled to respectful attention in all they do and that their educators must collaborate to examine their work and beliefs in order to ensure that the rights of the youngest children are secured.

    Elaine Herbert has worked in the home setting alongside families and their preschool children with possible special educational needs for more than ten years. At present she is combining her role as Deputy Head of Solihull's Preschool and Home Teaching Service with a part-time secondment to work with the LEA's Parent-Partnership scheme. Her experience has reinforced her belief that in order to maximize the effectiveness of any early intervention programme, it is essential to work closely with parents and other colleagues. She is engaged in research for a higher degree at Warwick University, looking closely at the reactions of fathers to the births of children with special needs.

    Jenny Moir began her teaching career as an English teacher in a comprehensive school. A concern for her own young children's development led to an interest and involvement in the playgroup movement. She then joined a team of teachers working with preschool children in special educational needs and finally took up her present appointment in charge of an LEA nursery. Her professional commitment is to enable children to become independent learners and thinkers. Her personal commitment is to work ‘to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve’ (Quaker faith and practice, 1995).

    Audrey Curtis was for may years Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Education in London where she was responsible for the early childhood programmes. Since her retirement she has become actively involved with the Council for Awards in Children's Care and Education, working as an external verifier for the national vocational qualification and the new Specialist Teacher Assistant courses. She has also been developing further her interests in the training of early childhood workers overseas. As the European Vice President of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education she travels widely throughout the region lecturing and advising on various aspects of young children's care and education.

    Kath Hirst is an early years teacher and researcher. She has been part of the Early Years Advisory Team in Sheffield as an Area Co-ordinator for Under-Fives. She has considerable experience both in teaching young children and in-service training for teachers, nursery nurses and other under-fives educators in a variety of settings. She is committed to working with parents both in school and the community. Her research interests include home–school links, working with parents and early literacy with bilingual families.

    Tricia David is Professor of Early Childhood Education at Canterbury Christ Church College. Tricia's publications include Child Protection and Early Years Teachers (Open University Press, 1993), and she believes child protection work should be underpinned by a children's rights perspective.

    Starting Points

    Work began on this book because I believe that the early years of education present a yet to be developed arena for work on children's rights and remarkably few early childhood educators know of, and fewer still are conversant with, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children, from birth, must enjoy their rights and their parents, close adults and educators, working with and for children, must bear some additional responsibility for them and gradually teach them about the responsibilities that accompany rights and help them to learn how to assume and shoulder responsibility. To argue that because young children cannot shoulder responsibility they must not have rights is the position only of someone who continues to seek to deny children the citizenship that is rightfully theirs.

    This book is for people who want to address some difficult and penetrating questions such as ‘What does a respectful service for children look like?’ and ‘How do respectful educators behave?’ It is a book for people who want to reflect on their own practice and think about their own beliefs.

    Views of Childhood

    The famous and talented sculptor Barbara Hepworth is quoted at the start of this book and I am using her words to affirm the importance of childhood as a time of thinking, formation, foundation and crucial beginnings. Childhood is a time when the path of one's life is influenced and perhaps the course set. It can be a time of active decision-making, engaging relentlessly with minute-to-minute experiences, and making one's mark upon the world, a vital time in the life of every human being.

    There is another view of children and childhood which the observations of some individuals, societies and media reports may suggest is still held. Some see children as passive recipients of knowledge, as necessary burdens, as ‘adults in waiting, ‘adults in the making’, ‘unfinished’. Hazareesingh et al. (1989, p. 18) considered this when they wrote:

    This concept of the child as an ‘unfinished’ adult shifts the focus away from the child's own intentions, attachments, and strivings – which might in fact open up many learning horizons for the adult, on to an end-product notion of adulthood which is unwisely equated with ‘achieved knowledge’. It might be said that this represents a specifically western, ‘rationalist’ approach to both childhood and learning which by separating the mind from the heart, effectively denies the essential unity of the child.

    Perspectives on childhood that include the concept of children as ‘adults in waiting’ do not value children as learners and therefore create systems of educating, and design curricula, that can be narrow minded rather than open minded and which transmit to children rather than challenge children to use their powers as thinkers and nurture their humanity. Kakar (1981, p. 18) has described the view of childhood in some Indian, Chinese and African cultures ‘as a fully meaningful world-in-itself with its own way of being, seeing, and feeling’, and it is further argued that ‘Indian philosophies, for instance, stress that the child should not simply be “brought up”: there is an accompanying responsibility for the adult to enter into the child's mode of experiencing the world.’

    Such is the case in some European countries too, in Denmark, for instance, the Children's Welfare Commission has four goals for a policy on children (Villen, 1993):

    • to respect the child as an individual in the family and in society;
    • to give the child a central position in the life of grown-ups;
    • to promote – in a wider sense – the physical conditions in which children grow up;
    • to promote equal opportunities, in the conditions of life of children, both in a material and in a cultural sense.

    They are still working to achieve those goals but when I visited two kindergartens in Copenhagen as part of an OMEP (Organisation Mondiale pour l'Education Préscholaire) visit I saw children who were valued as children and adults who were respected for the work they did with children. This was evident in beautiful and exciting gardens with ropes hanging from trees, huge sandy areas with planks of wood, crates and tyres for make-believe play on a large scale; garden sheds which were child size so that children could get a bike, a pram or whatever, when they wanted it, and be responsible for replacing it after use. Adults were valued to the extent that their staff space (kitchen and rest room) was beautiful too – matching cups and plates, thought-out colour schemes, comfortable and matching chairs, space to relax with colleagues, to discuss and to work. To be a pedagogue (kindergarten worker) was a much sought-after and valued job for men and women. In China the one child per family policy gives us a different perspective on childhood. Such a policy can be seen to deny children the experience of siblings and, it could be argued, overwhelms the single child with adult attention from grandparents, parents and other close family members because this only child is so precious. Durkenheim (1994) has written of the demands made upon children by society and Mayell (1994) explores a range of perspectives on children's lives and considers children's rights in different social contexts.

    So society's and individuals' views of children influence the ways in which they are cared for, provided for and educated in their early years. It is important to question the seriousness with which the UK considers children. Does it respect children as people, citizens, able learners, powerful thinkers, feeling human beings? Equally important are the questions to be asked of educators. Do educators watch children's actions and listen to their voices with wide eyes and open minds, or are children seen as ‘adults-in-waiting’ with no real rights, not yet real people, not yet able to think for themselves, no rightful place in the world? Do educators decide for children, working with their eyes closed and minds too narrow to accept the view that they are working with powerful and able people, however small and however young they may be?

    We must recognize the motivations which drive us to work with and for children and ensure that children's interests are served first and not, as Oldman (1995) argues to be the case, allow this work to become dominated by the interests of adults.

    In September 1995 the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority issued for consultation a document describing the desirable outcomes of preschool education (SCAA, 1995). This indicates and is shaped by particular positions on and assumptions of what childhood is and what, at a certain stage in childhood, should be accomplished. The importance of this document was acknowledged both by the chief executive of SCAA, who in the accompanying letter wrote: ‘This is an important consultation. There is a lot at stake for all children’ and by Sir Ron Dearing, who, in the foreword to the document, said: ‘In this consultation we are taking the first step on a matter of much importance to children themselves and for the future of education. The quality of children's early education influences their development and achievement.’

    Views of childhood are important when policy decisions affecting a child's childhood and future are being taken and it is interesting (perhaps disturbing) to note that when adults try to make plans for children and the future they sometimes cast blame in the wrong place. An article in the Guardian (12 September 1995) entitled ‘What a mess to clear up!’, reporting the launch of the SCAA Preschool Education consultation document, began like this: ‘The hordes of four year olds piling into nurseries and playgroups this week are far too busy with the paint and glue and sand and water to worry about the mess they are causing. But Gillian Shepherd has a lot of clearing up to do.’

    They, the children, have caused no mess at all, but this characterization of children as the problem is an important one to note. That same article forecast a fierce debate between progressives and traditionalists. Well, perhaps this is one situation where we can confidently say that traditional nursery education is progressive. The traditions of learning through play and observation of children begun and developed by the Macmillans and Isaacs are the very strands of nursery education which are now being cast as child-centred and progressive.

    This book represents a hope for further progression in the development of educational provision for young children. The contributors highlight what is good in current traditions. They discuss the place of, and progress in, children's rights through topics including: inspection; equality; curriculum, observation and assessment; special educational needs; training early childhood workers; work with parents; and play. The final chapter discusses one article of the UN Convention posing a series of questions for educators to debate in relation to their own work with children. I hope that those who read Respectful Educators – Capable Learners will look forward to how things might be if, as individuals and as a nation, we further take account of the need to respect children, their capabilities and their rights and help them to reach their potential.

    CathyNutbrown January 1996


    Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood and the rest of one's life is spent in trying to say it.

    Barbara Hepworth

    Educaré … to cherish the growth of the young.

    Christian Schiller

    The well being of children requires political action at the highest level. We are determined to take that action. We ourselves make a solemn commitment to give high priority to the rights of children.

    Seventy-one heads of state and government World Summit for Children, New York, September 1990


    pay heed to; relate to, be directed to or concerned with. Regard with deference, esteem, or honour; avoid degrading or insulting or injuring or interfering with or interrupting, treat with consideration, spare, refrain from offending or corrupting …


    showing deference …


    having reference to …


    having the ability or fitness for …

    gifted, able, competent


    Power of … power for … power to …

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