Knowing what excellent quality practice looks like

Earlyarts continues its exploration into quality in early years creative practice with an in-depth interview with Creative Minds Yorkshire Ltd's Creative Consultant Sarah Gordon.

Is quality important when it comes to young children's creativity?

Absolutely, yes. My job is to raise quality across all early years settings such as day nurseries, children's centres and schools among others. Sometimes I find that that the creative element in settings is poor, largely due to the lack of understanding as to what is required. Additional programmes at the moment focus on literacy and numeracy, largely because there hasn't been the same level of training in creative practice and as a result people have a fear of creative practice. The creative element needs to fit and be knitted into the early years curriculum by taking it further into Key Stage 1.


How do we know what excellent quality practice looks like?

For quality to be achieved, the breadth and depth of practice needs to be there. In the past I have used audit tools to help understand things like; what is the quality of provision / level of interaction? Are the children interacting with their own environment? One such tool is the EYQISP tool that outlines an approach to quality. Many organisations put more effort into adapting the environment provided. In Calderdale, for instance, we have scale points that focus on different sections, so we look at things such as management of staff, the room and children. Then, as we go through section by section they would score points, and as a team we would help them improve on certain areas that might be anything from story building to water play. We adapted EYQISP into our own framework, so I can now independently look at various tools, and look for the best one to use with the setting and school, for example the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ITERS-R) and the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-R)

For those looking for what quality is, it is important to know that the information is available, it is just a matter of searching it out, which is becoming easier as some regions such as Suffolk and some London Boroughs now have some really good, easy-to-use tools.

What ideas about quality practice did you take from the UnConference?

I visited a children's centre in the afternoon, it was great to see them working properly and how it was set up to run. In my area there is always a struggle with getting to the level of quality required, and seeing it in Birmingham was really refreshing. It was great to see the ethos of very good early years education in practice. In the room, for example, they had done a lot of work on the documentation of children's learning in very calm neutral colours throughout. Talking to the Head Teacher as an early years consultant reinforced what I knew was very good early years practice and gave me the direction to offer more early years support when I came back to my own setting, from seeing in situ how it can practically be applied for everyday use. The teacher was very honest, and admitted that it is not always best having an artist in the setting- this was an example of great practice and what it should be like. I feel it is very important for people to see things in practice, the UnConference is great for show casing art, and it is equally important to see it in practice.

How will this change your practice?

It would be great to be part of a strategic working party that focusses on early years tools and the development of settings, and explores the creative side of both to see how we can dove tail this together and find ways to get creative training in to our settings. The Nutbrown report will hopefully show the path of working in early years much more clearly. I trained myself in creative practice and I don't think it should be like that, I think it should be a basic part of the early years curriculum. I know there is some great practice and not so great practice, and I need to see how we are going to have a greater impact. For me it is frustrating not knowing how we do it. I'm looking to meet and work with people who can influence that or make this more concrete.

More recently I have been doing a lot of music work, and the impact is greater as I'm embedding it into the early years curriculum, by tying it into language for example and by doing this I can show the instant impact; it gives them something very concrete to get hold of in terms of their learning development. Once creative practice is in the curriculum we can have arts for arts sake, but at the moment there is a lot of pressure to improve language and literature skills which means the creative curriculum is often the first to go. Therefore we need to make it as important as language and literature by knitting it in - only then will people get used to using it on a daily basis and there will then become a much deeper appreciation of the arts. It can't be woolly, it needs to have a function and it needs to link to children's learning and development. OfSted are looking for innovation and new ways for improving children's development, so you can think outside of the box when it comes to including creative practice.

If we want children to have a higher level of learning then creative and critical thinking is key. More training for staff in this would be great which would lead to a move away from tick box learning to alternative approaches.

What advice would you offer to other early years, arts and cultural professionals in developing quality in their work with young children?

Look to what's already out there but don't reinvent the wheel. Look to what others are using to be able to speak the language of what is going on. I see a lot of teachers and practitioners being scared of the arts, they're not familiar with it and don't use it as a teaching tool, but if the two could meet halfway that would be really powerful. I would advise talking to people who go out to settings to provide quality training. It is a huge area though and it is not just about art its about higher level learning skills, and there is already a lot out there that needs to be taken on board and looked at.

Creative and critical thinking shouldn't just be a snack at certain points in the day for children, it should be a day-long activity with much more depth, and only then will children's learning and development improve. A lot of children in early years seem to be failing already and I don't know of any child that has failed at a creative curriculum, it is a gateway for children who do not have an academic approach and that is not always the right pathway.

Sarah Gordon was a delegate at the UnConference 2012 and is a Creative Consultant with Creative Minds Yorkshire Ltd.