Teacher/Educationalist Voice 5

Polly Cheer – SEN Teacher and Early Years Specialist

Polly Cheer is a supply teacher for nurseries, as well as schools for children with special educational needs (SEN).

She has broad experience in education and Early Years. After qualifying as a primary teacher in 1994 Polly managed her own Montessori nursery. Then following a short time teaching in mainstream, she specialised in education for children with severe and complex learning difficulties. 

She has also been an advisory teacher at a Sure Start Children’s Centre where she was focussing on the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and training nursery staff in new initiatives.

More recently Polly headed up a unit for SEN children within a secondary school, after which she became Early Years Partnership Officer which was an advisory post within the Local Education Authority.

Why have you chosen to teach nursery age children specifically?

Initially I could work in mainstream (from 1994-2001) but as the years progressed – and testing increased, and health and safety policies started affecting a teacher’s freedom to leave the classroom, and paperwork increased – I became increasingly unsatisfied with mainstream schools.

Due to the formal nature of Reception classes, (generally, there are some exceptions) I now only teach in Nursery, where children are free to learn in the way they need to learn – that is in a completely unstructured and informal way and doing important PLAY.

It is important that learning is through genuine ‘play’, as opposed to what many practitioners term ‘play-based learning’, as this can be badly interpreted.

I also work in SEN schools as they are also more flexible in their attitude towards learning.

In what way do you think play-based learning can be misinterpreted?

Some nursery teachers and Early Years staff organise structured, goal-based learning sessions, eg. “Let’s all make the same Mother’s Day card” and tick the ‘arts and crafts’ box in the curriculum, and then once they have finished the adult directed activity, they can ‘play’ as a reward. They then call their curriculum play-based, but it’s not truly child-led, like Reggio Emilia would be, where children choose their own activities and resources for the whole session.

Why are you interested in progressive education?

Since the age of 16 when I attended a Danish School for year – and then going on after my teaching qualification to run a Montessori nursery school – I have held an alternative view to the mainstream model.

When I was at school in Denmark, I experienced first hand a better education system, one in which:

  1. All teachers were called by their Christian names including the head teacher.
  2. There was no uniform.
  3. Children started formal education age six and were in the same school from 6-16 years.
  4. School started and finished earlier, (1.30pm) which allowed more time for after school activities, which were regarded as equally important as the education itself, e.g. homework clubs, sewing, embroidery, sports, etc.
  5. Exams at age 16 (and no tests before then) were up to four hours long and you could bring food and drink in with you, and certain dictionaries if you needed support (as I did as I spoke Danish as a foreign language).
  6. Languages were taught from age six.
  7. Discussion within class was regarded as one of the most important forms of learning.
  8. Kindergarten was completely free, mainly outside, so children were ready to learn in a more formal way by age six, and had had many years of practising their skills through play and using gross motor skills to master movement which is a pre-requisite to being able to use fine motor skills e.g. writing! (The reason why many of our young children struggle with writing is because they haven’t had nearly enough physical activity, running, balancing, playing freely with a variety of natural materials etc.)

Since my time in Denmark in 1985, I specialised during my primary degree in early education, which included child development. I then studied Montessori methods of learning, SEN courses, sensory education, Autism PGCE, Reggio Emilia methods of learning, neuroscientific development, attachment, language development in depth, outdoor education, forest school learning, birth – three training etc.

In 2006-2010, our Sure Start Children’s Centre teacher team were at the cutting edge of Early Years in the UK. We taught Reggio Emilia, the WOW factor, Creativity, Risky Play etc across Manchester and integrated this with the Every Child Matters campaign and Letters and Sounds, and we supported the introduction of the EYFS.

From 2014-2016 I was also the lead Early Years Partnership Officer across the Moray Local Authority and I wrote the Early Years Strategy for the local council. This document was supporting the changes which occurred in the Children’s Act (Scotland) 2014, and included more integration of health and education services within the Early Years Sector.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges of our education system?

  • Changing a culture. Always hard, and takes time! “This is the way school has been since the 1900’s, why change it?” Some parents are screaming out for change though – see the Facebook Group, “Not Fine In School”. These are the forgotten children. I want to change the system for them, and for all future generations. It’s been a lifelong ambition.
  • Secondly, not all children can cope with or find a self-directed approach works for them. Eg many autistic children need a definite structure and process to support their learning. Therefore, what is needed is a multi-faceted approach to learning which supports individuals. One size does not fit all!
  • To move the focus from academia to wellbeing. To fully support the emotional and social health of the child and their family.
  • To work in partnership with parents (and guardians). Let them contribute, let them pop into school any time of the day. They are vital to the wellbeing of the child.
  • Political ideology, value systems… What kind of adults do we want our children to be? Many disagree on the answer to this question. The Government generally may not want our children to be questioning, curious or confident to make changes! However, industry does want this kind of creativity and curiosity.

    What are state schools doing well?

  1.  ‘Growth Mindset’ is a new focus in mainstream and does look at mental health a bit more……not nearly enough, but it’s a start.
  • Children’s Rights are discussed more and seen as ‘trendy’ but again this is paid lip-service to, and children really don’t have much say in anything unfortunately.
  • Some schools have made some radical changes and are really forward thinking. For example, one school in Edinburgh has trained all of its staff team in ACE education (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and as a result they are working more closely with parents, and children are happier and are learning more as a result.
  • Outdoor Education and Forest Schools are more popular, but mainly in the early years.

If you could change the education system, what would your top priorities be?

  • Show teacher teams an alternative vision through delivering ‘think out of the box’ training, and deliver it to parents as well.
  • Interview children. Show adults the videos of their answers! That would be a very powerful message and method of change. E.g. Ask a child: “What do you like about school?”, “If you could make changes what would they be?”
  • Reach out to parents. Parents are powerful – as demonstrated by the group of parents who set up the website, Not Fine In School who are starting to get lots of media coverage.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Think about your own experience of school. What has changed? What did you like? Not like?

What do companies like Google and Facebook want from employees? Do they wear uniform? Do they call those in charge Sir or Miss? Do they sit and listen without discussion for hours in a day?

You can read an excerpt from Polly Cheer’s book, “Children Love to Learn” in our Articles section.