Underpinned by scienceResearch has established unequivocally that the future success of every child is largely determined before he or she turns eight, and that optimising this particularly sensitive period of development requires applying special pedagogical principles. We have devised our own ‘best practice’ approach, built on our focus and experience over decades with ongoing innovation and injection of the latest available science.
Why is ECE so crucial?
In the early years of a child’s life, the brain is particularly sensitive and develops at a dramatically rapid pace. Importantly, all domains of the brain develop – not just the physical and cognitive ones as traditionally emphasised in educational settings but also the social and emotional ‘soft skills’ as well as, crucially, the self-regulatory (also referred to as executive function, EF) skills.
An extensive research base has demonstrated that early advances in EF skills naturally lead to superior academic attainment as early as during the ECE period. In turn, this attainment and early advances in EF skills are remarkably good predictors of cognition and performance at GCSE level. Essentially, bar traumas, once a child is ahead, they will stay ahead.
The importance of early years
“The science is clear. In the first few years of life, a child’s brain develops rapidly, driven by a mix of experience, environment and genes. Children will continue to develop throughout childhood and into adulthood, but in the early years their brains are particularly sensitive.” (From ‘Lighting Up Your Brains’, a scientific briefing from Save the Children and the Institute of Health at University College London, 2016)
“Consider this: The future success of every child is in many ways determined before he or she turns eight. During those early years, how that child learns and develops – mentally, emotionally and socially – is critical. This isn’t a theory. It’s a fact, based on decades of research on the positive effects of quality early-learning experiences on children’s lives.”(NationSwell, 2014)
Early synapses ‘blooming’
Although newborns have roughly the same number of brain cells as adults, their neurons are disparate and virtually unconnected. Following birth, synapses, the electro-chemical connections linking them neurons, form at an extraordinarily rapid rate of up to one million a second, reaching a peak at about 2.5 years old, i.e. just the age at which children can start in our Kindergarten.
Onset of rapid ‘pruning’
Once synapses have peaked at about 2.5 years old, a process of ‘pruning’ starts, through which the number of synapses is rapidly pared down to eventually half by adulthood. Synapses which successfully participate in a circuit are strengthened, while those that are not utilised are eventually eliminated. The motto here is “use them or lose them”, just like paths in a forest.
In essence, the young child’s brain is being “live wired” to its environment through a complex interplay of genes and world‑life experiences. Therefore, it is critical that the child learns in an ideal, stimulating environment which allows consistent reinforcement of what matters most.
The all-important executive function (EF) skills
EF skills essentially enable a child to regulate their attention, memory, feelings and behaviour. They can be grouped into inhibitory control, working memory and mental flexibility. Although they continue to develop in adolescence and into adulthood, the rate of development is by far the greatest in precisely the ECE period.
EF skills have become increasingly recognised as being critical for future school and life success. Indeed, an extensive international research base has demonstrated a robust, positive relationship between young children’s EF skills and their academic outcomes in maths and literacy already in the ECE period, Crucially, these early advantages have a lasting impact and lead to predictably superior results at GCSE level (UK research) or at age 15 (US study).
How we optimise ECE at Herne Hill School
Extensive research has established the following, statistically relevant characteristics for the ideal early school learning environment:
Settings which ‘integrate’ education and care, i.e. they aim to develop ‘the whole child’ and view all domains of development as complementary and mutually supportive, and with:
- well-qualified teaching staff;
- high adult-child ratios;
- well-planned, high-quality educational programmes which follow a largely play-based learning approach; and
- parent involvement.
Besides choosing the most appropriate setting for their child, parents can further contribute to their child’s future success through the following, also statistically relevant key success factors:
- enabling attendance from ideally two years old (but not earlier), on a part-time basis (full-time is not required as it is the duration in months from two years old that is statistically relevant); and to
- providing environmental continuity for their child in the same setting through the entire ECE period. In these years, the child’s extraordinarily rapid development benefits substantially from familiarity with people (both adults and classmates), predictability of interaction patterns based on a consistent ethos, as well as a sense of safety and security.
At Herne Hill School, we meet absolutely all of these criteria.
Our learning environment
As explained elsewhere, the crux for optimised ECE is having the best possible learning environment. At Herne Hill School, we carefully create ours to be as follows:
“Secure, loving and responsive human relationships, in a stimulating space that is conducive to learning, leveraging all of our expertise and experience – under the overarching cultural umbrella of Love • Care • Excellence.”
Achieving this requires successfully combining multiple crucial elements:
- our amazing, expert staff who establish the essential ‘secure, loving and responsive’ relationships with the children
- an age-appropriate physical environment enriched with playful resources in which the children feel safe and stimulated;
- our organisational expertise, stemming from decades of experience focusing on ECE;
- the consistent values and behavioural guidelines provided by our strong ethos.
Bespoke, ambitious curriculum
We have created and refined our own five-year continuous curriculum which goes way beyond the statutory requirements of the English EYFS and KS1 national curriculum. It builds on our substantial expertise and experience gained from years of focusing solely on teaching our age range and incorporates best practices from many international Early Childhood Education and Development programmes such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Forest School or New Zealand’s Te Whāriki.
Fundamental pillars or our curriculum include:
- Developing ‘the whole child’ since we are well aware that all domains of a young child’s brain develop in a highly interrelated and mutually supportive manner. To that end, we provide our children with extensive opportunities to foster all of their talents and skills.
- Navigating the many critical transitions the children face as they go through the ECE period (from home into school, from entirely play-based towards more formal learning, from the EYFS to KS1, from curriculum stage to curriculum stage and literally your group to your group) and preparing them for their next schools at 7+.
- Centering much of the teaching around our nine Golden Rules and the nine characters personifying them, providing the children with a behavioural and moral compass to guide them through their time with us and beyond, through/for life.
- Individualising all learning to meet the sensitivities, interests, personalities and developmental needs of each child through expert staff interventions.
Fun, fun, fun
Perhaps the greatest hallmark of our approach is that we want to nurture the children’s innate curiosity and enthusiasm for learning and for them to have fun. The ECE years are magical, and we want to preserve that magic!
Since 1976, our experience has taught us that young children learn best when they are happy and have fun, and that an important key for this is that they learn by doing what they love most – playing. Research has now also proven that child-led, exploratory, play-based learning is particularly conducive to stimulating synaptic activity and the development of the all-important EF skills.
As a result, our teachers constantly strive to deliver our curriculum in an exciting, engaging manner. To achieve this, they rely heavily on our termly school-wide, cross-curricular topics. They not only unite the school under a new creative theme each term but also help to keep our teaching fresh and relevant. Most importantly, they provide a means to creating inter-related, exciting and enjoyable learning opportunities and to nurture the children’s creativity, curiosity and interests. We have no doubt that one of the reasons our children attain so well in the more academic ‘core’ subjects is that they often don’t even realise they are doing them!
Maturity and responsibility at 7+
We are aware that many parents who have experienced our provision for their children would like us to ‘go up’ beyond Year 2. However, after up to 5+ years at Herne Hill School and arriving at the end of the ECE period, during which continuity is so important, 7+ is the right time for the children to move on. It is a natural next stage in the English education system and at a time they benefit positively from a change of environment.
Therefore, we embrace guiding the children to graduate from Herne Hill School at 7+ and make a big virtue of them becoming the ‘big’ children at the school. This represents a huge opportunity for them to develop extra social and emotional sills which would not be available at a ‘through school’ where they would remain among the youngest children for several more years. Indeed, we are able to bestow our Year 2 pupils with special leadership responsibilities such as being School Councillors, playground buddies or eco warriors in addition to being the oldest ‘role model’ children in assemblies, plays, school ambassadors at open mornings, etc.
We have no doubt that these opportunities contribute significantly to our 7+ graduates being fully prepared emotionally and academically for their futures and a key reason for the special Herne Hill spark and confidence so often commented on when they move on.