Is datafication destroying children’s right to play?
The playfulness of childhood is evident to anyone who has spent any time with young children; the way a dinner fork becomes a sword, or the pavement transforms into a version of hopscotch.
As an early childhood educator, I have been privileged to observe young children playfully explore their worlds first hand. Although play is essential for young children (see OHCHR, 2014), through the systems of schooling across England play is being pushed out of the lives of young children in favour of targets and tests.
Children as young as four years old are assessed against benchmarks through the Early Learning Goals (ELGs), again through the Year 1 Phonics Assessment and again with the end of KS1 exam- all before a child has reached the end of her seventh year.
Play and the problem
The centrality of play in the early years setting has been widely accepted with much research concluding that when children play, they learn. When we take play away from young children, we remove their right to learn about their world in the language of learning they know: play.
Whilst early childhood education in the UK is legislated and widely accepted to be broadly play-based (DfE, 2017 – see Section 1.8) there are tensions between the research-driven, play-based modes of education and the demands of national policy frameworks and curriculum goals (Wood, 2014).
The EYFS Framework itself presents challenges to the child-led and play-centric learning it espouses. It calls simultaneously for sensitivity to children’s differing processes of learning and development whilst also requiring that all children meet the ELGs by a set date in their Reception year, thus creating a somewhat contradictory target-centred curriculum.
In addition to this end of stage achievement deadline for England’s four- and five-year-olds, there is also significant impact from the ‘cascade’ of the data production burden in Primary making its way into the EYFS setting.
Having taught Nursery and Reception classes over a number of years, it is starkly evident that the pressures of the Key Stage 1 data targets push themselves down into the EYFS classroom.
In his research, Robert-Holmes (2015) acknowledges the pressures applied, implicitly and explicitly, by senior Primary leadership to ensure good Reception data, as well as for phonics input to be a focus for EYFS teachers. Children as young as three-years-old are being streamed into ability groupings and regularly assessed in their phonics knowledge in attempts to make them ready for passing the phonics screening they will face in Year 1.
The process of ‘educational triage’ (Youdell, 2004) that teachers find themselves in the process of enacting, has become a feature of the EYFS classroom whereby teachers must strategically hone in on particular children, offering directed support in order to play the data game, along with Primary and Secondary colleagues across the country.
As an EYFS teacher the linear notion of children achieving the same target at the same time as their peers sits ill within the ethos of the child-centred profession of which I am a part.
However, the cascade of ‘datafication’ (Roberts-Holmes and Bradbury, 2016) has crept in to become a frighteningly dominant feature of the EYFS classrooms of today. The competitive, data-driven targets often seen in the market-driven world of commerce are evident, which are totally at odds with early years education’s ethos and values. The subtlety with which these data-pressures trickle into the lives of our youngest students must be carefully observed.
Towards a policy of play
Although many of the concerns raised stem from the systemic data game that schools are subjected to across the board, it is vital for us all to be proactive in protecting the learning of the youngest children in our schools.
With others, I would argue that play has a place in the education of all young children, in Key Stage 1, and beyond.
But for now, let my argument remain that we have a duty to ensure that the children in our EYFS settings are protected and enabled to enjoy their rights as children; to play and develop at the pace which is best for them, not that which is best for us and the data which so often becomes our driver.