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Do little ones need formal lessons? [UK]

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Education, The Independent
Wilce, Hilary
Publication Date: 
28 Feb 2008

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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 early-childhood experts from around the world are backing their cause.

The latest of these is educational psychologist Aric Sigman, who, in a research paper commissioned by the campaigners, sets out the 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, which sets out a detailed learning framework for the under-fives. Everyone who works with young children, be they childminders, play assistants or nursery teachers, will be required to use it from this September. The framework stresses that although children develop at different rates and young children learn by play and exploration, it lists 69 goals that most children should attain by the age of five, and outlines how children must be assessed against them.

But protesters are objecting to the framework being made compulsory, and say that it puts pressure on children to start reading and writing too early. Among the more contentious goals is expecting children to "use their phonetic knowledge to write simple, regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words". The campaigners also warn that the framework will hamper free play, cause stress and lead to early-years workers ticking boxes instead of interacting with children.

Steve Biddulph, the Australian educational psychologist and author, told a recent early-childhood conference 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. It's 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 enthusiasm for reading, she said. "You have to ask: what's best for children's long-term development?"

Foundation-stage 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, which need to be treated with respect", to the academic "find one more or one less than a number from one to 10". Also among the goals are the technology-oriented type 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's spokes-woman on schools and families, has tabled an Early Day Motion objecting to the prescriptive nature of the framework, and demanded 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."

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

The campaign does not object to a framework of guidance for the early years, she says, but to the fact that early foundation stage 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 because of fears for their jobs.

"I've seen it," says 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 that the framework is rigid, however, and says the majority of early-years providers and parents back it.

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 some of the protesters believe that adults should not extend children's play.

But we know, for example, that children's reading 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 its 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.

For 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 Steinthal, who believes in small-scale, holistic-based 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' &em; 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 to be able to read. In fact, they are mostly ahead of where they should be on the curriculum."

Skeena Rathor, whose daughter Zahra, four, is at the kindergarten, says that every stage of life should be valued for what it is and not just seen as a preparation for the next stage. "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 in a particular direction. It has a completely different feel for that child."

Steinthal adds: "They say the framework is all about balance, but you don't need balance at this stage &em; you just don't need literacy and numeracy."

- reprinted from The Independent

Entered Date: 
29 Feb 2008
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