Researcher/Scholar Voice 1

Rachael Summerscales – Childhood and Early Education Researcher

Rachael Summerscales is a researcher whose interests broadly fit within the field of childhood and early education, but also overlap into more general areas of professional development and reflective practice. Examples of her areas of research include digital literacy in play, socio-cultural views on outdoor learning and the adult role in developing children’s well-being.

She has also been in an education consultancy role for a local authority for five years supporting and advising practice across early years and primary. Prior to this she worked in a couple of primary schools in leadership roles in deprived communities and those with high numbers of bilingual children. Rachael reports seeing some wonderful practice in her consultancy role that challenges the rhetoric and she sees it as her duty to break through the entrenched pedagogies that exist and shine the spotlight on alternative possibilities and perspectives for a better future for our children. 

Why are you interested in progressive education?

I became interested in progressive education when I began to reflect on the changing early education landscape during my time as a teacher. I felt tension between what I had to deliver, primarily governed by a rigid curriculum encompassing a one size fits all approach, and what I knew was best for children’s development and I realised that the culture at that time in my career did not align with my values; connection, responsiveness and presence. Only now is this further affirmed in my journey into motherhood.

The political culture that existed in teaching at the time of my experience had begun to mould my philosophy, values and practice to suit expectations not of my own. In other words, my practice was evolving in an environment that was tailored towards progress and achievement with little significance given to creating genuine relationships with children and their families. The cultivation of performance and accountability influenced my thinking and actions leaving little opportunity to spend quality time with children in the moment, with no hidden agenda or goal.

I feel we live in an education culture that suppresses young children’s basic and fundamental need to be cared ‘about’, rather than the existing state culture which appears to direct a profession to care ‘for’ children; I am an advocate for educating from the care perspective.

What are the key findings of the research you’ve done into education?

The foundation of all my research and enquiry to date is based on children’s well-being and involvement. When children are given the freedom of choice to construct their ideas and exercise their skills, their attitude and behaviours are positively influenced.

My Masters thesis explored specifically the interplay between the role of the key person in early education and the role of a mother in how we create relationships of value. This was particularly important to me considering my parental responsibilities in a social-political climate that continues to filter preparation to academia as an acceptable means of education for our youngest children. I hoped to discover if tensions that I found in my professional relationships with children were also shared with others in the field, more so to uncover the link between what I perceive to be an output focussed system and the rise in mental health concerns in young children.

Over the past twelve years, professional identities have adapted and evolved to illustrate the growing expectations for children to be school ready. The continuous revisions of government policies and frameworks have diluted the attention and clarity of what constitutes care practices. I captured life stories from a range of individuals who were both mothers and professionals in early years to see how their values influenced their relationships. Here are some shared commonalities:

  • Trust, honesty and communication were valued the most in relationships.
  • Collective agreement that empathy, tolerance and patience are the foundations of children’s well-being.
  • Own experiences with children shaped their future relationships and they treat other parent’s children as if they were their own. 
  • Emotional availability of the adult is seen as paramount.

Here are some collective conflicts:

  • Anxiety around intimacy often as a result of safeguarding.
  • The setting culture dictates the level of responsive care which often leads to less time with children in genuine situations.
  • Political demands contend with values that lead to an imbalance between cognitive ability and emotional competence within professional duties.

The findings of my study conclude that there is a clear conflict of identity between the maternal and professional role for the vast majority of participants. The tensions between participant’s identities have emerged as a result of sociocultural environments and political prescriptions, all of which can be summarised into one overarching conflict between maternal values and education expectations. This conflict encompasses a multitude of misunderstandings as a result of the culture in which participants worked.

In your opinion what are the main challenges of our current school system?

Society has allowed the creation of an education system that is reliant on output rather than process, and so we are faced with a situation that requires success based on merit. That said, I can see emerging in my role as a consultant that professionals at all levels are shifting their community culture to consider children’s needs, interests and passion first and foremost, but this is generally as a direct consequence of a grass roots approach not government agenda. This of course appears to be heightened by the pandemic with more professionals standing up and speaking out about children’s well-being. That said, there is still a lot of ambiguity in light of recent guidance and this causes a disparity in the quality of education.

Many schools in the UK have the freedom and flexibility to create a learning culture under academy status and although many do this well, some cannot relax or release the reigns attached to the historic system of accountability and measures. My point being that there are educators out there in the state system that are beginning to, if not fully functioning in the realm of progressive education it’s just they either don’t realise this is the case because of its grass roots foundation, or they don’t feel confident to hook onto the term. Much of my role is to empower others to see the beauty in child led learning and how the adult role is more observant in nature than directive, which in many ways results in re-teaching educators to see exactly what is in front of them.

What are state schools doing well?

Schools that truly value child-led learning and allow the flexibility of discovery are seen to be going against the grain but nonetheless with traction and interest from others. There is high demand for places in these types of settings but what appears to come first is a need to prove their worth often portrayed in the happiness of the children. Culture is a key driver in these settings and bold they are too, in moving the system to value what are often referred to as vocational interests and putting them at the centre of learning.

What I do see unfolding is an opportunity to harness and cultivate the principles behind early education and apply these across the phases, because if we don’t get it right by the time children are five years old then their chances of success in the current system are significantly less. The counter to all of this is that creative culture underpins early education and the more we highlight the benefits and influence well-being and involvement the greater the need to continue this throughout the system. We should not be shutting down creativity and waiting until children border adulthood for them to re-engage with their passions – it should be a natural continuation of opportunity to evolve and discover.

If you could make changes to the state education system, what would be your top priorities?

The overarching priority must be around re-educating the system to appreciate the capabilities of children. There is an immense wealth of literature that emphasises the need to get it right in early years and so the culture of “schooling” needs to embrace individuality, freedom and creativity.

Adults in the education profession are geared towards doing. They must be seen to be doing, and what they are doing needs to show impact and therefore prove they are worthy. If we trusted adults to follow their instincts and respond naturally without pressure or promise from external bodies then we may well find what the true value of being and doing with young children really is.

We may also find the levels of engagement and involvement increases and the number of exclusions and disconnect to the system reduces. Research tells us that young children need adults to develop effectively and so if we focussed more of our attention on our innate and often paternal instincts than academic measures of success, we may well find a culture that embraces and continues the principles of early education throughout the primary years.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I find inspiration from Sir Ken Robinson who continually points out the obvious.

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