A nationwide campaign to ensure children starting school would be ‘ready to learn’ was launched by the Department for Education in February. Disadvantaged children in pilot areas would be given access to ‘high-quality early learning apps’ free of charge. This initiative would, if successful, help close the four months’ development gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.
The DfE had set up a panel charged with developing criteria for assessing the quality of apps described as educational tools for pre-school children. These were published in July.
Parental guidance on using early years’ apps says high-quality software meeting the criteria will appear on the government website ‘Hungry Little Minds’ with a quality mark*. More apps will be added in the future.
A quality mark on a government website suggests government-approval. But the DfE is now rolling back on this apparent endorsement. Yesterday, it published a legal disclaimer. The information on the Hungry Litte Minds website is a ‘guide’ only. The listed apps may have a quality mark but this doesn’t mean they ‘are suitable for use by all types of end user’. Users should use their ‘own skill and judgement’ before downloading.
This makes sense but it’s unlikely many parents will read either the parental guidance or the legal disclaimer in the same way as I rarely read ‘terms and conditions’ when all I want is to buy something online. Parents are likely to assume these are DfE-recommended apps which are good value-for-money (just two of the seven apps currently listed are free).
Apps and websites do have a place. But they come with important caveats. They shouldn’t be used without parental engagement. They shouldn’t displace other activities. And they shouldn’t be used merely to keep children occupied. I’ve seen too many children, many under the age of two, being given a screen to swipe, poke and bash while carers do something else.
The apps section on the Hungry Little Minds website should have come with a health warning not a quality mark. As Sue Cowley, writer on education and experienced teacher, told Schools Week, a kitemark ‘might be an OK idea’ but she wouldn’t want to encourage children to spend more time using screens.
In any case, governments should not be endorsing particular products. It could give rise to accusations of favouritism and conflicts of interest**.
*’Hungry Little Minds Approved’ followed by the year of approval
** See ‘Phonics: the sounds that letters make. Kerching!’ here.