Reading’s Institute of Education recently held its fourth Early Years conference for teachers of young children. The focus of this year’s event was sustaining change in early education, and included a discussion of avoiding ‘learned helplessness’ in young girls and how to best encourage outdoor learning. Conference organiser Professor Helen Bilton explains more.

So, the University of Reading Early Years conference is over – and I vow to never do one again. It’s so hard, so much stress and there is so much to think about to make it all run like clockwork.

One of the workshop leaders, a deputy from a school, tells me a day before the conference that they cannot present after all as the Ofsted call has come and it’s all hands to the deck making sure Ofsted have everything they want for the school inspection.  The microphones decide to fail half way through the ‘in conversation’ part of the conference, so we three speakers are sharing a clip-on microphone!

But then the delegates are gone, the evaluations are in, there is a load of fruit left over from lunch and I have time to reflect. So what did everyone gain? What has been the impact? Was it worth it?

The evaluations tell me that people were inspired, had their beliefs affirmed, could not wait to get back to their schools to try things out and that they feel they are not on their own and how great it was to simply have the time to talk to fellow teachers. So different people gained different things and from a variety of sources – the presentations, a particular workshop or a chance conversation.


Some people have come to every one of the last four years’ conferences. They say they wouldn’t miss it, that it was the highlight of the year and that it reminds them why they are teachers of young children. I am not sure how I can measure a ‘highlight’, or a ‘wouldn’t miss it’ or a ‘reminder of why I do what I do’. But I am sure that we need to be careful not to assume that impact is easily measurably or recorded.

I may never know when I was questioning the speakers about ‘learned helplessness’ or how we can help girls be stronger, who in the audience was provoked. These were considerations from my own recent research and reading that had been brewing in my brain and something I wanted to share with the audience.

But I do know that someone will have been provoked and they will have been influenced to change their practice. And I know this because after 36 years of researching in the field of early years education, being an advocate for early years education and gaining a reputation for caring and knowing a lot, that I do have impact.

Sometimes people let you know straight away and sometimes you don’t know for years. Recently, I was running an inset course and someone bounced up and explained they had built a hill because of what I said at a course they had been on 10 years before! And then they went on to describe the impact of that hill on children’s development.

At the conference, one of the speakers, Anna Ephgrave, shared that I had ‘changed her life’ and she is now a very important figure in early years education. I am glad I changed her life: for her, for young children, for their families and for staff in schools.

This year’s early years conference has, I hope, helped the attendees appreciate the need to stand strong on what they know is important to young children; my impact is about giving them power to believe in themselves, and for them to influence others. Is that easily measurable? I don’t think it is. As a good colleague explained:  ‘Not everything is objectively measurable, more often, what is measurable is a distraction from the meaningful.’

So what I can say is the Early Years Conference was a thought-provoking and meaningful day and may be a life changer for some.

Here are some key messages for all staff we came up with from the ‘in conversation’ section of the conference:

  • understand and use the levels of involvement for children
  • understand child development
  • remember the why of what they are doing
  • understand the centrality of the environment for learning
  • believe in what they do know.

Watch the video of Professor Helen Bilton in conversation with speakers Ruth Moore and Anna Ephgrave at the Early Years conference, 7 March 2018, at the University of Reading:

Professor Helen Bilton is widely regarded as the UK’s leading educational specialist on outdoor education and author of the book ‘Playing Outside. : Activities, Ideas and Inspiration for the Early Years’.

Read more about Helen’s work