Education: A good reception for the young ones

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The Independent Online
Jason and Samantha sit side by side fitting together a brightly coloured geometric puzzle. The pieces have been neatly divided between them and Samantha is having the most success putting things together.

Without a word she reaches across Jason and tries to take his pieces. He protests and guards them closely as she continues to try to get them. It spurs him to action and he manages to put in the final pieces. They both smile at the finished article.

Any parent, playgroup leader or nursery school teacher will recognise the egocentric behaviour of a pre-schooler who has yet to learn how to collaborate with another child.

But Jason and Samantha are not pre-schoolers. They started school last September hard on the heels of their fourth birthdays. Samantha will be five in July and Jason a month later.

They are pupils at Leighton Primary School in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, which takes children into the reception class in the September of the education year in which they become five.

Jason's uniform trousers, grey pullover, shirt and tie make him look more the part of the schoolboy, but Samantha, in her non- uniform pink corduroy skirt and top, looks more like a visiting younger sister. Watching these two tiny children in class, it is easy to see how admitting such young children is no cheap solution to filling the holes in the patchwork of pre-school education in Britain today.

In common with most children in the class, neither Jason nor Samantha has been to playgroup. It is either too expensive for low- income parents who predominate in this new town suburb or it is not valued. So they have missed out on vital social and play skills. They need plenty of individual, adult attention.

On his first day in school Jason did not even want to commit a drawing to paper and it took time for him to understand that he was included when his teacher called the children to gather around for a story.

Two terms on and both pupils have made tremendous strides. Their drawing and writing books burst with pictures and the shapes that will lead to writing. Jason has just finished a keenly observed picture of a daffodil in which even the frilly edge of the flower's trumpet has not been ignored.

They have progressed mainly because the school commits staff and resources to the reception year. The reception unit takes almost 100 four-, five- and six-year- olds in four parallel mixed-age classes of 24 or 25 children with four full-time staff, a learning support teacher who is there half the week, four other support staff and parent helpers.

The ratio of adults to children is better than the 1 to 13 minimum for nurseries. These low numbers have a cost higher up the school, where classes are nearer 30.

Jason and Samantha's classroom has a lot more space than a typical reception class - little children need more - and there is a large wooden car to play with, little use of formal worksheets and an emphasis on developing communication skills. Outside, reception children have a playground separate from the older children. The youngest start part-time.

Mary Neighbour, the reception unit co-ordinator, believes that mixing four-, five- and six-year- olds benefits all abilities. Brighter children can work at the same level as older pupils.

Malcolm Stevenson, the headteacher, says: 'My eldest started school just after his fifth birthday in a class of more than 30. My two youngest came here and their strengths and weaknesses were identified much more quickly and the right resources put to their use.'

Cambridgeshire finances 80 per cent of children to start school in the September of the educational year in which they turn five. Extra funding is being provided to raise that to 100 per cent from this September. Parents are not compelled to send their children to school early, but most do.

But there are parts of the country where children who have just turned four are being admitted to reception classes of 30 or more with one teacher and no special resources because local authorities are not providing them.

Dorothy Wedge, the county's adviser for services to young children and families, says: 'A teacher who has a class of 30, including young four-year-olds, can't possibly give them all enough.' Jason and Samantha are lucky.

(Photograph omitted)