Busythings characters

We have just launched a competition for the school holidays inviting children to design a new busythings character. So we were interested to read about a study of the facial expressions of Lego minifigures undertaken at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand by robotics expert Dr Christoph Bartneck and two of his colleagues.






They found that life in Legoland has been getting tougher. The early inhabitants, who settled there in the late 1970s all had happy faces, but since then their world has apparently become more challenging and is being met with a wider range of emotions: less often happiness, according to the researchers, than disdain, concern, fear, and (ever more often)  anger. In the early days even the pirates of Legoland smiled a lot but today they are more likely to look as if they are out to frighten the pants off you.

Bartnet is reported in Thursday’s Guardian newspaper as having expressed concern about the impact this move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces may be having on children. He urges designers of toy faces to take great care in setting their expressions and encourages them to test the effect the faces have on the children who play with the toys. In response, Roar Rude Trangbæk, communications manager for Lego, told the Guardian that they already do just this. He said that every toy they developed was “tested by a range of expert children, while child psychiatrists, parents and teachers were also consulted.”

The many and various characters who people the busythings site also carry a wide range of expressions, from (somewhat mock) ferocity all the way to gentle bemusement.







For our part, we have not yet felt the need to consult child psychiatrists when designing our figures, but we do listen to what parents and teachers say about them. And we would like to think that busythings children would be classed as ‘experts’ in these matters and so we wait with great interest to see what kinds of expression
(happy/miserable, apprehensive/confident, angry/calm, baffled/enlightened …) they put on the faces of the characters they create for us. It might tell us something about how the children see the world at large and it might help us draw more characters they can identify with!

For Bartneck’s research paper click http://bartneck.de/publications/2013/agentsWithFaces/bartneckLEGOAgent.pdf

For the Guardian article on the paper click http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/12/lego-faces-getting-angrier-study?INTCMP=SRCH

For details of our competition go to http://www.busythings.co.uk/character-competition.php

To see the online entries so far go to http://www.busythings.co.uk/view.php?projectid=66

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The primary curriculum: the shape of things to come

In June the Department for Education published draft Programmes of Study for primary English, maths and science. Since then the programmes have been subject to what the Department describes as an “informal consultation” allowing ‘stakeholders’ to say what they think about them. The Department will re-draft the programmes, taking account of what has been said and re-publish them later in the year for formal consultation. The plan is to introduce programmes in their final form in English primary schools from September 2014 (a year later than originally planned).

What we now know

  • We know that the new curriculum will be organised around subjects, rather than areas of learning (as recommended by the Rose Review) or ‘domains of knowledge, skill, enquiry and disposition’ (preferred by the Cambridge Primary Review);
  • The distinction built into the original 1988 National Curriculum between ‘core’ subjects (English, maths and science) and ‘other foundation subjects’ will remain in place.
  • The requirement for the teaching of all the present foundation subjects (core and non-core) across the primary years will remain. The introduction of foreign languages from age seven is planned. As this involves a statutory change formal consultation is under way;
  • The Key Stage structure will stay as it is, though it is proposed to split KS2 into “upper” (year 5 and 6) and “lower” (year 3 and 4) stages;
  • Programmes of study for the three core subjects will, like the drafts we have seen, lay down in detail the content that is to be taught to children in maintained schools at each stage of their schooling. Although what they are to teach during each Key Stage is to be closely prescribed, teachers will be able to re-jig the order in which topics are introduced and to decide how best to teach them;
  • Programmes of study for the other subjects (which will follow in draft form later this year) will be ‘much shorter’, giving teachers more freedom to decide what they teach, not just when or how they teach it;
  • So that parents can get a better idea of what their children are doing, from September 2012 all schools (including academies) will be required to publish their full curriculum on-line. There are currently no guidelines relating to how much information will have to be provided about the percentage of teaching time allocated to each subject.
  • The current system of levels and level descriptors which give teachers a uniform scale against which to measure each child’s progress through the key stages will be removed and not replaced. Instead the programmes of study for the three core subjects will set out both what is to be taught and what every child is expected to master during each year and key stage. Schools will be required to concentrate on making sure that all children grasp this essential content, rather than using level descriptors to label differential performance;
  • The externally-marked national tests in mathematics, science and English at the end of KS2 will be kept in place so that pupils’ attainment in these key subjects can be checked against government targets and their schools held accountable for their performance. It could be that pupils will be assigned new GCSE-style ‘end of primary’ grades in these tests. Internally-marked tests in English (reading, writing and spelling) and maths at the end of KS1 will also continue;
  • A statutory phonics screening check for all Year 1 pupils was introduced in June of this year. A new statutory English grammar, punctuation and spelling test will be introduced as part of the 2013 Key Stage 2 cycle of tests.

How have the DoE’s proposals been received?

We have worked our way through comments on the draft programmes from educationalists, subject associations, teacher unions and other ‘stakeholders’ and we will be giving a summary of what we have found in our next blog.

You can find the draft proposals – together with a letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates, the chair of the Expert Panel appointed to advise him on the National Curriculum review here:




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e-society update: what are the natives up to?

In an earlier blog we brought together some statistics on the way adults and children are using digital technologies. Most of the data we reported related to 2009. The publication this week of Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/cmr/cmr12/CMR_UK_2012.pdf allows us to update some of the information we passed on.

Ofcom regulates virtually the whole of the communications market , covering television and radio, fixed and mobile telephony, the internet and postal services, but excluding newspapers and magazines). Its annual report on the state of this market is always a large document (this time over 400 pages) presenting and analysing quantities of data about how we as consumers are using the various services on offer. If you have an appetite for statistics it makes for a sustaining read. Here we will pull out the findings that throw some more light on what the digital natives are up to – on the way children are using digital communications technologies.

The Ofcom report is based on interviews with of a sample of 2,012 UK adults (aged 17+) conducted during February and March of this year. The responses give a picture of the digital life of the households in which children are now growing up. In fact, it is families with children that are often the first to take up the latest digital device – the parents or carers claiming, in some cases, that they are doing it ‘for the children’.

The proportion of households with digital devices continues to increase. 97% of UK households now have digital TV. Close to 85% of households own a DVD player; 55% own a games console, 50% a digital video recorder (set-top box). While ownership of an MP3 player appears to have peaked at 45% of households, and of a DAB digital radio at 40%.

However, particularly striking is the pace at which the newer ‘smarter’ (internet connected) technologies are being taken up. One in four UK adults now owns a smartphone, an increase of 12 percentage points over the past year. Similarly ownership of tablet PCs has taken off – up from 2% of adults at the beginning of last year to 11% now. Smart TVs (with internet functionality, used mostly for watching catch-up TV) are currently in 5% of UK households.

It’s the rise of the tablet that grabs our attention, both as parents of young touch-screen adept children and as a company that has begun to release our busythings games in app form. (http://www.busythings.co.uk/apps.php)

The drive to tablet ownership has been led by the middle-aged, the better off and, interestingly from our point of view, households with children (16% take-up at present). It looks set to continue. One in six tablet-free UK households told Ofcom that they intend to buy one in the next year.

Tablets are most often bought for entertainment and because they offer easy access to the internet. As one would expect, they are also favoured for their portability – though the great majority of owners (87%) use their tablets primarily at home. Comparatively few owners (17%) gave ‘work’ as a reason for their purchase and even fewer (4%) use their tablet at work.

Tablet owners typically have what Ofcom calls “a strong relationship” with their new device –nine in ten say they are happy with what it offers them and over a third reveal that they “couldn’t live without it”.

74% of Adult (17+) owners say they use their tablet frequently (more than once a day, every day or most days) to browse the internet, 62% to read or send emails, 46% for social networking, 46% to access news, 45% to play games – and only 23% for work.

Virtually all owners (97%) have apps on their tablet. According to Ofcom’s research, the mean number of apps on a tablet is 17, although 45% say that they use less than half of their apps regularly. Of those with apps, 80% say that they paid for fewer than half of them. The most popular types downloaded are: games/’just for fun’ apps (by 75% of users), weather apps (60%) and social networking apps (58%), followed by maps/navigation, music and books apps, (all around 50%), with shopping and photo/video apps  coming next in popularity (between 40% and 50%) and travel, banking, sports, or education bringing up the rear (downloaded by between 30% and 40% of users).

Owners use their tablet regularly (three-quarters claim to go online with it every day, or most days) but not selfishly (two-thirds of owners share them with family, friends and others). Indeed, 14% of tablet owners gave ‘for my children‘ as a reason for buying their tablet.

So children in most tablet-owning households get to handle the device along with other family members. In fact, 85% cent of respondents with children aged 16 or under said that their child/children had used their tablet. Of these, four in ten (39%) said their children used their tablet every day, or most days. A further 21% said their children used the tablet a couple of times a week.

When asked what their children used their tablet for, parents and carers replied that playing games was by far the most popular activity -s 83% of child tablet users play games on them. Somewhat less popular activities include internet browsing (41%) and listening to music (35%) watching short video clips (32%)looking at photos (30%) social networking (29%) school/college work (28%), watching TV programmes/movies (25%), email (22%), reading e-books or magazines (13%), and instant messaging (12%).

For children a tablet is as easy to use as a television remote control, and it opens the door to a much wider range of experiences. The Ofcom figures suggest that it won’t be too long before it becomes standard equipment for a young digital native.

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#Rethinking ICT: what’s in a name?

Two of us from busythings went last Monday to the Rethinking ICT conference organised at Winchester House School by its head of ICT, Chris Leach.

Some great stuff.

100 or so primary and secondary ICT teachers agonising over whether their subject needs rebranding. This after the Royal Society had declared that the term ICT switches children off and should be abandoned. Even more, the subject itself, which in too many schools has been reduced to teaching ‘how to use office software’, should be disaggregated into Computer Science (the rigorous study of programming languages, algorithms etc) Information Technology (the use of computers in science, industry, the arts and elsewhere) and Digital Literacy (the general ability to use computers –the RS would have us write this in lower case because it is a mere? skill rather than a proper academic subject).

Much discussion, but not a lot of agreement – some arguing that the refocus on Computer Science and Information Technology should be signalled by a change of name (Computer Science, Digital Studies), others saying that the name ICT should be kept (anyway, nobody knows what acronym ICT actually stands for) and attention concentrated instead on what’s in the tin, rather than what’s on the label.

We sensed a general welcome for Gove’s decision (picking up on the criticisms of the RS, Next Gen, Ofsted and others) to ‘disapply’ the ICT programmes of study across the board from this coming September, while its content and place in the proposed new National Curriculum were still under review. This amounted to the declaration of an open season for curriculum designers. We heard about Naace’s new curriculum framework, as well as Computing at School’s draft of programmes for KS2 and KS3 which shows how Computer Science could be integrated into the existing structures. So it looks as if there has been a lot of constructive thinking about how specialist ICT teachers (as well as generalist teachers with ICT skills) can bring Computer Science in from the cold and so help enthuse the next generation of programmers without threatening the commitment to enable all children to become literate (or ‘wise’ – Naace’s word) users of rapidly developing digital technologies. Add to this the abiding problem of persuading digitally challenged colleagues to take up the cause (apparently a sore point with some of the contributors) and it seems that ICT enthusiasts have a lot on their plate.

As members of a (small) team of software designers and developers who have come to the job from a variety of educational backgrounds (in fine art with virtually no computing, graphic design with some, and computer science with more than enough) we found this whole debate about how ICT should figure in schools well worth listening to. We were also much taken with accounts of two projects that encourage children (and their teachers) to become creative ICT users. Julia Skinner’s ‘100 Word Challenge’ asks children to produce a short piece (‘just a 100 words’) of creative writing in response to picture and word prompts. Their work is posted on their class blog, linked to the 100WC.net website and commented on by other children and volunteer adults. Doing this gives children the experience of becoming published authors with an appreciative, if sometimes politely critical, readership. Equally interesting is the Digital Leaders project which invites children to volunteer to take over (under supervision) some of the tasks that routinely fall on the shoulders of ICT coordinators – an ingenious way of shedding some of the load while giving a children the opportunity to upgrade their skills and become involved in the management of what they are doing.

Most of the discussion was concerned with the ‘higher’ end of ICT teaching and learning in schools – with later primary and secondary education. We would have liked to have heard more of people’s views on how, and how early, children should begin their ICT education. We all know that many 5 year olds are digitally active if not yet digitally wise. Ever since the introduction of the National Curriculum, progammes of study for ICT (initially called IT) have been operative from the age of 5 onwards. The recent critics of ICT have concerned themselves with the whole age range from 5 to 16.The RS while stating that “every pupil at key stage 2 and key stage 3 should have the opportunity to learn material that is recognisably Computer Science” also says that “every child should have the opportunity to learn concepts and principles from Computing (including Computer Science and Information Technology) from the beginning of primary education onwards …” So the question of what 5 or 6 year-olds ought to be doing with ICT and what they ought to be learning about it is a very live issue in which we as publishers of early years and KS1 software take an active interest.

Sadly, the new Early Years Framework has little to say on this issue. If anything it took a step backwards – dropping the Early Learning Goal for ICT that had been included in the original Framework that it replaces. True, ICT still figures in the supplementary Development Matters guidance for the early years but this only the sketchiest of help to Reception class teachers who want to find ways of responding to their children’s awakening interest in digital technology.

More useful are the self-help initiatives of a number of ICT teachers and coordinators. The Conference grew out of the efforts of its organiser Chris Leach to devise a curriculum that would serve the needs of his prep school which teaches ICT as a separate subject for all year groups from Year 8 down to Nursery. Another innovator we have been following for some time is Ian Addison, a primary school ICT Coordinator who spoke about an ICT planning aid he developed for the teachers in his school and is now making public. This gives an overview of the tools that are available to Foundation Stage and Primary teachers and shows how they can be used across the curriculum to help achieve learning targets set for successive year groups.

We have come away from this very lively conference convinced that if there is to be some sort of marriage between computing as a set skills and computer science as an academic discipline this is how it will be brokered – through the efforts of those who teach day-to-day and have what one speaker confessed openly to – a passion for the subject. If the union is brought about what name will the happy couple live under? We have yet to see, but for better or worse it will be decided when the National Curriculum Review publishes draft programmes of study later this year. Gove has promised that the new programmes will not be restrictive:

“Disapplying the ICT programme of study is about freedom. It will mean that, for the first time, teachers will be allowed to cover truly innovative, specialist and challenging topics. And whether they choose a premade curriculum, or whether they design their own programme of study specifically for their school, they will have the freedom and flexibility to decide what is best for their pupils. Teachers will now be allowed to focus more sharply on the subjects they think matter – for example, teaching exactly how computers work, studying the basics of programming and coding and encouraging pupils to have a go themselves.”

All in all an enjoyable and instructive day – even for non-teachers like us.


Chris Leach’s Rethinking ICT website: http://rethinkingict.wordpress.com/

The Royal Society report on computing in schools: Shut down or restart?: The way forward for computing in UK schools

The Next Gen report on the computer games and visual effects industries: http://www.nesta.org.uk/areas_of_work/creative_economy/skills_review/assets/features/next_gen

The Naace framework:  Key Stage 1 and 2 ICT Curriculum Proposals

Computing at School’s curriculum for computer science: http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/data/uploads/ComputingCurric.pdf100wc.net/

100 Word Challenge: http://100wc.net/teachers-note/

Ian Addison’s ICT planning site https://sites.google.com/a/stjohnsapps.co.uk/ict-planning/introduction. He has also blogged on the Digital Leaders initiative at http://ianaddison.net/tag/digital-leaders/

Michael Gove’s BETT speech: http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a00201868/michael-gove-speech-at-the-bett-show-2012

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Social Trends is an annual overview of the ‘the state of the nation’ published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It gives us a moving picture of how we are doing. It first appeared in 1970. The latest edition (2011) includes, for the first time, a chapter on e-society, bringing together statistics on how we are using digital technologies – digital radios and TV, mobile phones, computers, the internet – in the home, in schools, and at work.

Its an interesting read. You can download it from  http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-41/index.html

Equally interesting are the results of surveys of media literacy conducted by Ofcom – some of the findings are included in the Social Trends chapter. You can download their latest report on UK Children’s Media Literacy from www.ofcom.org.uk/medialiteracyresearch. As Ofcom puts it, “media literacy enables people to have the skills, knowledge and understanding they need to make full use of the opportunities presented both by traditional and by new communications services. Media literacy also helps people to manage content and communications, and protect themselves and their families from the potential risks associated with using these services.”

Here are some findings relating to home and school use of digital technology and media literacy reported in these two studies that have caught our eye.

Ownership of digital technology

  • UK Households in the highest income group are nearly three times as likely as those in the lowest group to own a home computer, 98 per cent compared with 33 per cent. Ownership of mobile phones and a digital television service are also linked to income, although to a lesser extent. Households in the highest income group are nearly one-and a-half times more likely to have a satellite receiver or a mobile phone than those in the lowest income group.

Use of digital technology

  • According to Ofcom, people who used new technology in 2010 in the UK spent almost half (45 per cent) of their waking hours watching television, using their mobiles and other communication devices such as the Internet.
  • Asked which media activity they would miss doing the most, the majority of adults (aged 16+) across the age groups nominated watching television. However, nearly a third (32 per cent) of those aged 16 to 24 stated that they would miss using a mobile phone the most, compared with 14 per cent of those aged 25 to 34 and only 1 per cent of those aged 65 and over. The Internet would be missed most by around a fifth of each age group among those aged 16 to 54.

Internet access

  • In 2010 73 per cent of UK households had Internet access. This compares with 57 per cent in 2006.
  • In 2008 83 per cent of UK households with dependent children had Internet access.
  • In 2008, households in the highest 10 per cent of the income distribution in the UK were over three-and-a-half times as likely as those in the lowest 10 per cent to have an Internet connection – 96 per cent of households compared with 26 per cent.
  • 69 per cent of UK households have broadband access to the internet, compared to an EU average of 56 per cent, with Sweden ranking highest at 79 per cent and Romania lowest at 24 per cent.

Use of the Internet

  • Over three-quarters (78 per cent) of all those who had accessed the Internet in the three months prior to interview had done so every day or almost every day, while a fifth (17 per cent) had accessed it at least once a week but not every day.
  • In 2010, just under a fifth of adults (18 per cent) had never used the Internet; however, this differed by educational qualifications. Over half (55 per cent) of adults aged 16 and over in the UK with no qualifications had never used the Internet. In comparison only 2 per cent of adults with a degree or equivalent qualification.
  • There are also geographical differences in Internet use across the UK. In 2010 just under 3 in 10 adults aged 16 and over in the North East had never used the Internet, followed by around 2 in 10 adults in Scotland, Yorkshire and the Humber, and West Midlands. Only a little over 1 in 10 of adults in London had never used the Internet.

Online communication and social networking

  • The proportion of Internet users in the UK aged 16 and over who had their own social networking site profile doubled between 2007 and 2009, from 22 per cent to 44 per cent.

Children’s use of new technology

Adults in older age groups are known as ‘digital immigrants’ as they grew up without digital technology and adopted it later. However, children under 16 are ‘digital natives’, since digital technology already existed when they were born, and hence they have grown up with it around them.

  • According to Ofcom, around 9 in 10 children aged 5 to 15 live in a household with a digital television service. Four in five live in a household with access to the Internet through a home computer and 9 in 10 live in a household with a games console.
  • In 2009, 9 per cent of children aged 5 to 7 owned a mobile phone compared with 50 per cent of those aged 8 to 11 and 88 per cent of those aged 12 to 15. Just over a quarter of children aged 5 to 15 owning a mobile phone had first acquired one by the time they were eight years old and just under two-thirds by the time they were 10 years old. Girls were more likely than boys to have a mobile phone by the time they are 10 years old.
  • TV remains the preferred medium for 5-7s (52%), and 8-11s (45%), although there has been an increase among 8-11s saying they would most-miss the internet (15% in 2010 v. 10% in 2009). Children aged 12-15 are now as likely to miss the internet (24%) and mobiles (26%) as they are to miss TV (24%).
  • in 2009 31 per cent of children aged 8 to 11 in the UK and 69 per cent of those aged 12 to 15, used the Internet at home for social networking at least once a week. One in four (25 per cent), Internet users aged 8 to 12 had a page or profile on Facebook, Bebo or MySpace, despite the fact that the minimum age for setting up a profile on these social networking sites is 13 years.
  • In 2009, similar proportions of boys and girls in the UK aged between 5 and 15 used the Internet on ‘most days’ (28 and 29 per cent respectively), or once or twice a week (36 and 35 per cent) for schoolwork or homework. More boys than girls never used the Internet for this purpose – 20 per cent of boys compared with 16 per cent of girls.
  • According to a Flash Eurobarometery report in 2008, 59 per cent of parents and guardians of those aged 6 to 17 in the UK were very or rather worried that their child might see sexually or violently explicit images on the Internet, while 46 per cent were very or rather worried that their child could become a victim of online grooming.
  • There are high levels of agreement and confidence from parents in terms of their attitudes towards trusting their child, the benefits of the internet, and whether their child has been taught about online safety at school. However, 48% of parents think their child knows more than them about the internet, rising to 70% of parents of 12-15s.
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The Nutbrown review of early education and childcare qualifications

Scandal of pre-school carers who can’t read or write

This headline appeared on the front page of The Times on Saturday 24th March over a piece by their Chief Political Correspondent on the publication of Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s interim report on her review of early education and childcare qualifications and career pathways.

Other media reports on the same day echoed The Times:

Nursery workers so illiterate they struggle to read stories aloud (Daily Telegraph)

Childminders barely Literate says DOE – Sarah Teather MP, Minister for Children (BBC News)

Sky News and the Guardian, reproducing a Press Association report, were more temperate but still focused on the same issue:

Concerns Over Nursery Staff Literacy Skills (Sky News)

Nursery staff skill concerns raised in Nutbrown review (Guardian)

Laying aside the fact that Sarah Teather didn’t use the words attributed to her by the BBC–what was it in the Nutbrown report that triggered these lurid headlines? What does the report actually say about the literacy of childminders and nursery workers in England? Cathy Nutbrown certainly expressed ‘substantial concern’ on this and other issues but her interim report sets her concerns in the context of a soberly conducted review of the way the people who deliver childcare and early education in this country are recruited, gain qualifications and develop their careers. These broader findings about the shortcomings (and merits) of the system were barely mentioned in the media reports – and what was said by the more measured contributors was virtually drowned out by the ‘illiteracy’ charge.

Remember, this is an interim report. What we have at this stage is an account of the present state of affairs and of possible ways of remedying its shortcomings based on responses to a call for evidence, what was said at consultation events around the country and the results of an online survey with Netmums of more than 1,000 parents. Criticism is directed at the qualifications system rather than at the personnel who rely on it to equip them with the knowledge and skills to do their job and to help them develop rewarding careers. Introducing her report Professor Nutbrown said that it “sets out the shared concerns among the workforce about their qualifications system, but I also hope it reflects the pride they take in their work and the hugely positive impacts they are having on the lives of our young children.’ Sometime this summer, she will be presenting her final recommendations as to how a more effective qualifications structure can be put in place so as to ensure that people are better prepared for working in the early years sector and have more clearly defined career pathways to follow. In one word, the review is about the professionalisation of the early years workforce. How can this be achieved? What obstacles stand in the way?

The obstacles holding back the drive towards professionalism which are identified by Nutbrown include:

  • The diversity of the 400,000-strong early years work force – it includes homeworkers , owners, managers, employees, and volunteers working in a range of settings (homes, nurseries, children’s centres, nursery schools and reception classes of primary schools) spread across the voluntary, private and public sectors and providing care and early education within the EYFS framework;
  • Low entry levels – this is what triggered the Times and Telegraph headlines. As the Times put it: “Nutbrown found that ‘competence in English and maths’ was often not required to complete qualifications. Pupils with the ‘poorest academic records’ were being steered on to childcare courses as an alternative to hairdressing. She wrote that ‘the hair or care ‘ stereotype still exists for many considering a course in the early years, yet many other sectors have raised their expectations in relation to enrolment”;
  • Considerable variation in the qualification level of the paid staff in childcare and early learning settings – 8% have no qualifications, 50% have a level 3 qualification (equivalent to A-level) and 14% have a qualification equivalent to an Honours degree or above. (The qualification level across the board has been improving over time, but it is not possible to establish how many of the qualifications achieved are directly relevant to early years work);
  • Failure to recruit from across the whole population – in particular, men are hugely under-represented forming only 1-2% of the workforce across all types of early years settings, while black and minority ethnic groups are under-represented in managerial and leadership positions.
  • A chaotic qualifications system – this is Nutbrown’s main concern. There is an open market in early years qualifications. Many of the qualifications on offer are not known to or trusted by employers and are of little or no use to the people who achieve them;
  • The limited content/insufficient length/poor quality of some of the available courses –they do not deliver the core knowledge, skills and experience required for early years work, some tutors are themselves under-qualified and some settings do not provide students with the support and supervision they need while on placements;
  • The lack of clearly marked and progressive career pathways for early years workers;
  • Low status, poor remuneration of early years work – this both a reflection of the other shortcomings and their root cause.

There are a number of factors that work against fragmentation of early years care and education, notably the EYFS and Ofsted’s inspection system. Following the Tickell review a new Early Years Framework will be in operation from this coming September and Ofsted has already put in place a revised inspection framework for the sector. Complementing these initiatives, Nutbrown will be coming forward this summer with recommendations as to how early years qualifications might be upgraded and made fitter for purpose and early years careers made more attractive and rewarding. In this interim report she has identified the issues she will be addressing:

  • Are the present one year courses too short? Should more time be found for students to learn more about child development and learning theories? Do present qualifications try to cover too wide an age range (0-19)? Shouldn’t the content of early years qualifications focus on babies and young children? Can ways be found to ensure that learners are able to gain experience from a variety of settings before they qualify. How can the quality of tuition and placement supervision be guaranteed;
  • Should entry requirements be raised? The Tickell review of the EYFS recommends that level 3 should be the minimum qualification standard for the whole workforce. This could lead to improvements in practice and raise the status of the sector, but ways would have to be found to protect the position of those already in post without a level 3 qualification, particularly members of black and minority ethnic groups;
  • Should students be required to demonstrate competence in English and mathematics in order to complete an early years qualification at any level?
  • Given that the EYFS is the beginning of the education system, should ways be found to recruit more qualified teachers into the early years workforce? Should we go further – despite reservations about introducing formal learning into the early years – and create an Early Years Initial Teacher Education (ITE) route, leading to Qualified Teacher Status, which covers ages 0-7.
  • Finally, should we seek to go the whole way down the professionalization route and, following the example of teachers and social workers (and of the early years sector in Scotland), require all those working with babies and young children to be licensed?

Nutbrown’s interim report:


Newspaper, radio and TV reports cited at the beginning of this entry

Posted in Goverment policy | 1 Comment

Latest Changes to Busythings Explained!

Some of you may be wondering why the busythings interface has had a significant makeover, so I thought I would use our Blog to explain what’s been going on.

We are bursting with ideas on how to ‘grow’ busythings and so we need to fit more on the Main Menu in preparation for this. Rather than ‘crowd’ the Main Menu with new areas we decided to add another menu at the top level. The first impression may be that there has been a big reshuffle but there really hasn’t – all the familiar games are now behind the Areas of Learning button. Teachers, parents and children will find everything in its usual place once they are in this area.  

Re-organising the Main Menu also gave us the opportunity to present Busy Box as an area of equal ‘weight’ to the 130+ games behind the Areas of Learning. Busy Box already contains over thirty quick-fire activities and will continue to expand over the coming months. 

If you don’t like this Main Menu layout remember there are others to choose from. On the Main Menu go to Alter Interface in the top left and have a play with the various options under ‘Organise menus by’. We have also added a new layout called ‘Curriculum-Based 3’ which is quite close to the previous busythings layout, so if you are feeling nostalgic for the old design, give this one a go.  Remember, anything you change in here will only affect the current setup, the idea being that you can customise a setups structure to suit different needs.

You will notice Busy Projects with a ‘coming soon’ badge. This will be an area where busythings users at home and abroad can work on creative projects ‘together’. We don’t want to say too much for now, but hope to get some of you Beta testing towards the end of the Summer term.

On the Main Menu you there is now  an ‘Evidence’ button on the left hand side. Sessions are tracked and learning objectives covered are reported in here. The information can be customised and printed out for reference or record keeping purposes.

Those of you who are logging directly into a setup should logout for a moment and take a look at the setup selection screen. We have added a button in the top right hand corner called Records and Certificates that is worth a look.  We hope the teachers amongst you will use the certificates for your ‘star of the day’. Busythings reward stickers are also in the pipeline!

For those of you using your default login I’m sure you have all noticed we have put up password protection to all teacher areas. Please note there is a check-box to keep you authorised for a whole session, so you should only need to enter a password once. If you want to disable this feature, on the Setup Selection screen go to Tools and Resources and click Change your account settings and then choose Low Security.

There is certainly a lot going on! Not only the development of ‘Busy Projects, but the integration of the new EYFS 2012 and Letters and Sounds Phases 4, 5 and 6 are all firmly on the agenda for 2012. 

Remember, if you need help with any aspect of busythings please call us on 01332 364963.

I think that is all for now. Hope you are all having a nice Easter break.


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Shortage in Primary School places

“There are plenty of potential education policy time bombs primed to go off during 2012: teachers’ pensions, school budgets, university applications and reform of the exam system. But overshadowing them all is an issue that has so far received relatively few headlines, but which it is already too late to defuse: the shortage of primary school places in England. … The Department for Education is watching it happen like a slow-motion car crash. It has thrown some extra money at it recently, but it is too late to prevent casualties.”


So says Mike Baker, formerly the BBC’s education editor, now a freelance education consultant and dedicated blogger (at www.mikebakereducation.co.uk). Professor John Howson, an authority on the teacher recruitment market, agrees with him. Last week he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the shortage of places for five-year-olds was the “biggest problem” facing schools in England. He added that although we have seen the problem coming – after all, the children entering primary school for the first time this September were born four or more years ago – the government’s response has been “tardy”.

Just how big is the problem? What is being done about it? What will it mean for parents, children and schools?

The numbers

The number of pupils in state-funded primary schools began falling in the mid-1970s. With a couple of ups and downs it reached a low point in 2009 but, as result of a rising birth rate and the effect of immigration on the age-profile of population, started growing again in 2010. By 2015 the number of 5- and 6-year-olds in will increase by 10 per cent. By 2020 the overall number of children under 11 in state education is expected to be 20 per cent higher than in 2011 (an additional 799,000 pupils), returning to the levels last seen in the early 1970s. This rise would be sufficient to fill around 3,260 average-sized primary schools or 26,600 classes of 30 pupils.

The latest figures show that that there is some spare capacity in the system, or rather in parts of the system. In 2010/11, before the surge in pupil numbers had really begun, one-fifth of primary schools in England were full or over full, while four-fifths had unfilled places. The number of unfilled places (444,410) was more than ten times greater than the number by which the over-full schools exceeded their capacity (36,850). So there is spare capacity but there are two problems. First, currently unfilled primary school places amounts to only half of what would be needed to accommodate the projected rise in pupil numbers. Secondly, and in a sense worse, such spare capacity as there is, is concentrated in the wrong areas  – the 440,000 unfilled places are not in the areas expected to experience the greatest rises in pupil numbers. The demand for school places is rising fastest in precisely those regions – parts of London, the West Midlands and the South West – where many primary schools are full and Local Authorities are already having to find ways accommodating classes that cannot be squeezed into existing buildings.

What is being done?

Soon after it came to power the Coalition Government closed the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. The 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review cut the Department for Education’s capital budget by 60% over the five years of the current parliament. At the time the government remained confident that it would still be providing enough funding (starting with £800mn for 2011/12) to meet the projected rise in pupil numbers across the school system. However, last year it made an extra £500 million (coming from efficiency savings identified in those BSF projects that are continuing) available for school building in those areas with the greatest need for new places. In the statement announcing the additional funding the Education Secretary Michael Gove said that the total capital grant of £1.3bn for the 2011/12 would be used mainly on small primary school projects by the most hard-pressed local authorities who were already in a position to get projects underway. He added that over 100 LAs would be receiving a share of the extra £500mn, and that future capital allocations to all LAs for basic need and for maintenance will be announced later in the year.

How have the local authorities reacted?

Compare two cases which have attracted media attention:

The Hampshire Chronicle (Hampshire was the main focus of the Today piece) in an article on the ‘Race on to create primary school places’ reported in January that County officials believed that they would need at least 19 more primary schools by 2022 and were drawing up plans to tackle the issue. They and their counterparts in Southampton appeared to think the task was manageable within the present resource constraints. http://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/education/9473796.Race_on_to_create_primary_school_places/

The problem in London looks to be on a different scale. According to London Councils (a cross-party body speaking for the 33 London boroughs) the shortfall in places across the capital is expected to be around 70,000 over the next four years, largely concentrated in primary schools. London Councils contends that the Government allocation of funding is failing properly to take into account the existing capacity of schools in an area to meet any increase in pupil numbers. Because of the much higher pressure on school places in London in recent years, it has significantly fewer surplus places than other regions – already around 11,000 pupils, mainly in Reception to Year 2 classes, are being taught in temporary classrooms. And yet, In 2011/12, London has only been allocated 26 per cent of the available funding for school places despite having 64 per cent of the shortfall in places. If the Government listens to London and changes its funding formula, councils in other pressure areas will feel the pinch. http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/news/current/pressdetail.htm?pk=1281

How will families and schools be affected?

Nationally, capital funding, already severely cut over the 5 years from 2010, will be steered towards creating additional places in the areas of greatest need – meaning that for refurbishments and routine will be even more severely restricted. The impact of government support for free schools is uncertain – only a third of free schools in the pipeline are primaries, and few of those which have so far been opened are in areas with the greatest shortage of places.

In the areas with the greatest gap between pupil numbers and available places there will be an increasing proportion of over-subscribed schools making it more difficult to meet parents’ preferences. There will also be upward pressure on school and class sizes. Opinion seems generally to favour small classes and to be suspicious of larger schools.

Primary class sizes (KS1 and Reception classes averaged 26.9 in 2011) have been falling, but remain larger than in other comparable countries (in the 30 OECD primary classes contain on average 21.2 pupils) – also, unusually they tend to be larger than classes in Secondary schools. In London, Sutton LA has responded to the ‘numbers’ crisis by seeking support from the other boroughs for a campaign to lift the legal cap of 30 on Reception and Key Stage 1 classes. A recent study commissioned by the Department for Education while acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of parents, as well as most teachers and headteachers, believe that the number of children in a class affects the quality of teaching and learning, research evidence shows that “a smaller class size has a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school, but this effect tends to be small and diminishes after a few years.” The report concludes that “increasing teacher effectiveness has greater value for money than reducing class sizes.” http://www.education.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s001012/sfr12-2011.pdf

Given the pressure from Councils and In light of evidence such as this It seems very likely that the Government will reverse the policy of recent years and allow class sizes to start drifting back up, despite parental opposition..

Much the same can be said for school size. In England, the majority of Primary schools have between 100 and 300 pupils (overall average 237), but larger schools have been growing (those with 400-600 pupils showing the greatest rise) while the numbers in smaller schools have been falling. There is, then, already an upward pressure on school size, and this can only increase over the next decade. As David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, says much bigger primary schools are now going to become “less unusual”.

Mumsnet has recently hosted a lively debate on the issue. Here again opinion is divided between those who hold that ‘small is beautiful’ and those who argue that large gives better value for money. See. http://www.netmums.com/coffeehouse/general-coffeehouse-chat-514/news-current-affairs-topical-discussion-12/720355-shortage-primary-school-places-creating-supersize-schools.html

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Smoothing the way from EYFS to Key Stage 1

Three substantial reviews of early years and primary education in England have taken place during the last five or six years. First to report was the Rose Review of the primary curriculum commissioned in January 2008 by the then Labour government (interim report 2008; final report, 2009; new curriculum to be introduced in September 2011). The independently funded Cambridge Review of primary education was launched well before the Rose inquiry, in October 2006, but reported later (final report 2010 – with a special report on the curriculum being brought out in 2009 as a contribution to the debate triggered by Rose). Next came Dame Clare Tickell’s review of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), initiated by the new Coalition government in July 2010, reported in March of last year.

Soon after coming to power, the Coalition Government shelved the Rose report (a move welcomed by the Cambridge group who chose to believe that Rose had been deliberately set up to spike their guns) and in January 2011 launched its own ‘in-house’ review of the National Curriculum – new Programmes of Study and Attainment Levels are currently due to be introduced in September 2014. The report of the Review’s Expert Panel – setting out their recommendations in relation to the new National Curriculum’s framework – was published at the end of last year, as was a summary report of the responses to the Review’s call for evidence from parents, teachers, schools, academics and other interested parties. So the reform of the National Curriculum is still work in progress. The same holds for the EYFS: the Government welcomed its recommendations made in the Tickell report but a revised EYFS framework (to be implemented in September 2012, … or perhaps later?) has yet to be published.

There is one issue addressed by all these reviews which particularly interests us as publishers of software that supports the learning of three to six-or seven-year olds – how do you achieve continuity in learning for children as they progress from home and pre-school through Reception into Years 1 and 2? As the Cambridge Review points out this is a unusually bumpy ride for children in England – in particular, the switch from learning through play to formal classroom teaching comes earlier, and perhaps more abruptly, here than in most other countries. The Review cites the responses of two children to a 2005 study of the transition from the Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1: a Reception class girl who said that she expected Year 1 to be ‘no toys, just work, work, work’ and Year 1 boy looking back at his time in Reception and remarking that sitting on the classroom carpet had turned out to be ‘wasting your life’.

This concern about children in England having to accommodate themselves to a too sudden change in the content and manner of their education was also raised by the respondents to the call for evidence from the National Curriculum Review. Asked to identify the most important factors for the Review to consider in developing the National Curriculum for Key Stage 1 to ensure a smoother transition from the Early Years Foundation Stage, a majority “believed that the biggest issue was the transition between two completely different curricula and the lack of join-up between the two stages”.

What we find particularly telling is the fact that a large majority of those taking this view believed that that the National Curriculum needs to be adapted to the EYFS rather than the other way round.

63% of the 869 respondents to this question said that it was vital for Key Stage 1 to demonstrate continuity with the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) because this would allow for the development of skills through play-based learning rather than an emphasis on knowledge … These respondents believed that this approach would enable teachers to introduce and practice literacy, numeracy and scientific skills in a context that would interest and stimulate children.”

Looking down the other end of the telescope, 15% thought that more KS1-style teaching and learning should be introduced into the Early Years curriculum ”so that there was familiarity at the point of transition between the two”. They suggested that the ‘learn by play’ model in reception year was not adequately preparing children for Key Stage 1 and was inhibiting learning. The respondents believed that there needed to be more structured teaching in the EYFS, which would ensure that all children understood very basic mathematics and English before they started compulsory schooling.”

All the reviews we have mentioned side with the majority on this question.

The Expert Panel frames the issue in a helpful way when they draw a distinction between education as development and education as knowledge acquisition:

“Some educationalists emphasise subject knowledge and discount the significance of more developmental aspects of education. There are also many who foreground the development of skills, competencies and dispositions whilst asserting that contemporary knowledge changes so fast that ‘learning how to learn’ should be prioritised. We do not believe that these are either/or questions. Indeed, it is impossible to conceptualise ‘learning to learn’ independently of learning ‘something’. Our position is therefore that both elements – knowledge and development – are essential and that policy instruments [such as curriculum frameworks and assessment tools] need to be deployed carefully to ensure that these are provided for within education.

However, the Panel goes on to say that “the two elements are not equally significant at every age. In particular, developmental aspects and basic skills are more crucial for young children, while appropriate understanding of more differentiated subject knowledge, concepts and skills becomes more important for older pupils.

The Tickell review places the emphasis in early education on personal development through three ‘fundamental areas of learning’ (Personal, social and emotional development, Communication and language, Physical development) that “lay the foundations for children’s ability to learn and develop healthily across the board”. The basic skills acquired in these areas are applied in four ‘specific areas of learning’ that prepare the way for Literacy, Mathematics, Expressive arts and design, Understanding the world. (Note the cautious use of the phrase ‘prepare the way for’ when it comes to areas learning that correspond to or contain traditional school subjects). The Expert Panel believes that primary education should “pick up this theme of personal development, extend and deepen it, and bridge the orientation of pupils towards the subject knowledge” which becomes the main focus of secondary education. In tune with this philosophy, both the Rose Review and the Cambridge Review argue for the extension of the EYFS approach into Year 1, and both stress the value of allowing subject knowledge to implant itself at this stage through area of learning topics or thematic work.

For what it is worth, we share this understanding of the way the transition from early years to primary education should be handled and look forward to seeing it embodied in the new curriculum frameworks. To go back to the girl and boy in the Cambridge Review, it seems to us a great pity that they have come to think of ‘play’ and ‘school work’ in an ‘either/or’, ‘before/after’ rather than a ‘both/and’ way. After all, look at the Raspberry  Pi computer which has just burst into the news – it is undoubtedly a ‘toy’, but playing with it will help children to learn something that is not, we are told, being sufficiently taught – programming.


The Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum

Link to PDF of the Final Report:


The Cambridge Primary Review of Primary Education

Official website with links to all the Review’s publications:


The Tickell Review of the EYFS

DfE site with links to the Report and other documents:


The National Curriculum Review

Government website with links to the Expert Panel report and the report on the call for evidence:


A useful one-page summary of the Expert Panels report:


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2012 development plans for busythings

The busythings office seems to have been tied up with what our programmers call ‘back-end’ developments since our return from BETT in January. This is work that goes on behind-the-scenes that sadly has no visible impact on your busythings experience!   However, I am pleased to announce ‘front-end’ development is finally underway! You can all look forward to enjoying the results of this, but it may take a while as our plans are not small.  After plenty of discussion it has been agreed to expand busythings further into Key stage 1, with Letters and Sounds activities for Phases four, five and six taking first priority.  All you early years users need not worry though, we are still committed to regular updates suitable for younger pupils.  

There are other significant plans afoot.., but we don’t want to say too much about these yet, as we need a period of research and development before making any formal announcements.

Is there anything you would like to see in busythings? If you have any suggestions for us please let us know your thoughts! e-mail rachel@busythings.co.uk or post a comment if you like…

One final thing.  Our Studio Manager Ian has spent a painstaking fortnight rewriting and laying out our user guide. As always, it looks beautiful – lots of pictures! It would be nice to think some of you will pounce on the opportunity to read it. You can access it and print it out from here. The earlier version was shamefully out of date, and so there are many features explained in this latest version that you may find extremely useful but have been unaware of.

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