Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Do little ones need formal lessons?

Published By: The Independent - 28 Feb 2008

Hilary Wilce

War has broken out over the under-fives. As the Government moves to bring in a compulsory “nappy curriculum” for pre-schoolers, thousands of protesters are lobbying to keep children’s early years out of the hands of Whitehall bureaucrats. Their case is being brought before Parliament, and childhood experts from around the world are backing their cause.

Latest of these is educational psychologist Aric Sigman who in a new research paper commissioned by the campaigners sets out the mounting evidence that early computer-based learning, which the new curriculum explicitly encourages, has a negative effect on language, maths, reading and brain development. “Parents and the educational establishment should in effect ‘cordon off’ the early years of education,” he concludes, “providing a buffer zone where a child’s cognitive and social skills can develop without the distortion that may occur through the premature use of ICT.”
The cause of the furore is the Government’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) which sets out a detailed learning framework for the under-fives. Everyone who works with young children, whether they are childminders, play assistants or nursery teachers, will be required to use it from this September. The framework stresses that children develop at different rates and that young children learn by play and exploration, but lists 69 goals that most children should reach by five, and outlines how children must be assessed against them.

Protesters object to the framework being compulsory, and say it puts pressure on children to start reading and writing too early. Particularly contentious goals include things such as expecting children to “use their phonetic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words.” They also warn that the framework will hamper free play, cause children stress and lead to early years workers ticking boxes instead of interacting with children.
Steve Biddulph, the Australian educational psychologist and best-selling author, told a recent conference of campaigners that he felt “horror” for the framework “which goes against everything I understand about early learning…Any attempt to force or structure learning in the under fives actually backfires. Its like ripping open a rose to get it to bloom.”

And Lilian Katz, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois and a leading figure in early years education, told the same conference that “just because children can do something doesn’t mean they should.” Being able to read early was not the same as developing an enthusiastic reader, she pointed out. “You have to ask: what’s best for children’s long-term development?”

EYFS goals range from the obvious “respond in a variety of ways to what they hear, see, smell, touch and feel”, through the ambitious “understand that people have different needs, views, cultures and beliefs, that need to be treated with respect”, to the academic “find one more or one less than a number from one to ten.” They also include the kind of technology-oriented goals disputed by Sigman -- “find out about and identify the uses of everyday technology and use information and communication technology and programmable toys to support their learning.”

Annette Brooke, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on schools and families, has tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament objecting to the prescriptive nature of the framework, and demanding an independent enquiry. “It just cannot be good for any child to be rushed into things before they are ready,” she says. “I want them to give it all a good check through.”

Protesters also claim that the framework will deny parents choice about how their pre-schoolers are educated. The campaign, which is being coordinated by Richard House, senior lecturer in psychotherapy and counselling at Roehampton University, is backed by a number of supporters of Steiner and Montessori education, who fear their approaches to schooling will be compromised.

But Margaret Edgington, a prominent early years consultant and one of the campaign’s steering group, says “We are not a small, rebel, alternative fringe group. We have broad-based support from maintained education settings, from independent ones, from child-minders and parents.” Five and a half thousand people have signed the Open Eye petition, she points out, while the EYFS only received 1,800 responses at its consultation stage.

The campaign does not object to a framework of guidance for the early years, she says, but to the fact that EYFS includes goals relating to formal reading and writing. It also believes that the agenda of goals and assessments is already having some negative effects. There is anecdotal evidence that child-minders are quitting because of it, and that some early years workers are being encouraged to set targets for children, although workers are reluctant to speak out about it because of fears about their jobs.
“I’ve seen it,” agrees an early years consultant from the north-west. “Targets are being pushed down and down. If people know their field and are confident about what they’re doing, that’s fine. But not all early years workers are sufficiently well trained or experienced to resist it. “

Beverley Hughes, the children’s minister, denies the framework is rigid and says the majority of early-years providers and parents back it.

Bernadette Duffy, head of Thomas Coram Children’s Centre, in central London, agrees that early years workers like its principles, and like having its guidance to work with. “I think people are getting confused. Only some of it is statutory, the rest is guidance. It’s a resource -- if it’s not useful, don’t use it. And the assessment need not be a burden. There’s actually less emphasis on paperwork than there has been in the past. Now you can do it with a digital camera or something like that. It’s important that we treat the youngest children with real seriousness, and we have seen in the past that unless things are statutory they just don’t happen.”

Iram Siraj-Blatchford, professor of early childhood education at the Institute of Education, points out the framework has evolved out of earlier guidance and is nothing new. “We have already been doing it for eight years. The objection is to making it statutory, and that some of the protestors believe that adults should not extend children’s play. But we know, for example, that how children read at 10 is predicated on their vocabulary at three, and an awful lot of children don’t have the sort of rich early environment that others enjoy. I’m for what benefits the most children the most.”
But even, supporters agree that the framework needs adjustments and that the phonics-linked goals, in particular, need to be revised. “I do think the Government has been over-anxious about reading and writing,” says Siraj-Blatchford.

To those unfamiliar with playgroups and nurseries this might all seem like a storm in a sandpit, but what happens between nought and five lays the foundation for everything that comes after. A good preschool experience helps children to make the most of their education and later lives, a poor one poor drags big personal and social costs in its wake. For Lilian Katz it is all about developing children who are well-disposed towards listening, learning and understanding the world. “But dispositions once damaged,” she warns, “are very difficult to put back in.”

'Three-year-olds develop at a very different pace from government documents'

At Educare Small School, a tiny independent primary school in Kingston Upon Thames, play is firmly on the agenda for its 15 three- and four-year-olds. The school was founded 11 years ago by head Elizabeth Steithal, who believes in small-scale, holistic education.

“I have no problem at all with being given advice,” she says, “but it’s when it becomes statutory, and they are saying ‘a four-year-old will be like this or that’, then I have a problem. Three- and four-year-olds can develop at a very different pace from government documents.

“Our main aim in this kindergarten is to help them develop social and emotional skills. It is important to get these in place before anything else. The children do work with letters and numbers, but there is no formal teaching, no recognising of words or trying to write sentences. And when they do start to show an interest, later on, it all falls into place very quickly. I’ve never known a child here not be able to read. In fact they are mostly ahead of where they should be on the curriculum.”

Every stage of life should be valued for what it is and not seen just a preparation for the next stage, argues parent Skeena Rathor, whose 4-year-old daughter Zahra is in the kindergarten. “At this age teachers should be talking with them and being creative. If it is going to be about ticking boxes, it will be bound to take things in a different direction because children know instantly when an adult is trying to steer play into a particular direction. It has a completely different feel for that child.”

“They say the framework is all about balance,” says Steithal, “but you don’t need balance at this stage, you just don’t need literacy and numeracy.”

She hopes that, come September, the school will find a way to fit its kindergarten practice into the new statutory framework. She has no intention of letting the framework shape the practice.