Education: The worst years of their lives?

Are we asking four-year-olds to do too much?
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Last week the academic grip on nursery education strengthened with the publication of new proposals for a nursery school curriculum. They are tougher than the rules already in existence and they beg an obvious question - are we pushing our youngest children into a formal education too early?

There are plenty of early-years specialists who would say we are. They quote anecdotal evidence of stress among four year-olds placed in busy primary school reception classes - bed-wetting and refusal to go to school, being classic examples.

Marian Whitehead, a former lecturer in early-years education who became a consultant so that she could speak her mind more freely, says: "I feel very sad when I go round and see what is happening to some of our very young children. I think parents are beginning to see the results of the pressure which is suddenly being put on them."

She is, she says, just as committed as the Government to providing the under-fives with a good pre-school education. Her reservations are about the way it is being done.

There are three distinct problems with current under-five policy, identified by experts such as the British Association for Early Childhood Education: firstly, the school starting age - at five the lowest in Europe, where most children start school at six or seven - has been effectively lowered for many children to four. The DfEE says that last year 55 per cent of four-year-olds were being taught in primary school reception classes rather than in dedicated nursery facilities. The Government's widely welcomed commitment to provide all four-year olds with "nursery education" has been met to a large extent by putting the under-fives into primary schools.

The second, overlapping problem identified by early-years experts concerns the appropriate curriculum for under-fives. Here both reception class and nursery teachers find themselves under pressure from the inspectors of Ofsted and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to push young children into formal learning at an age many believe is too young.

And the third problem is that the under-fives are now being included in the testing system which has come to dominate English education. Last week saw the publication by the QCA of a consultation document on tougher revised desirable learning outcomes for children when they start school. These include social, emotional and physical goals, which Ofsted inspectors last year reported were "secure" in most pre-school settings, but they also lay down specific targets for literacy and numeracy, including phonics, which many say are out of line with what most four-year-olds should be expected to achieve. Ofsted has found these areas much less "secure", and many early-years teachers are not surprised at that. At the same time base-line assessment is being introduced in a way that implies that it is setting targets which children must achieve, in spite of the fact that the original schemes were designed simply to give reception-class teachers some idea of where children moving into primary school had got to.

Liz de Keller, an early-years advisory teacher in North London, says : "I think the pre-school expansion has resulted in an enormous muddle in which parents are actually being conned. Children are being denied properly trained nursery teachers both in playgroups and in reception classes where many teachers do not have pre-school experience and are being expected to implement a curriculum which is simply not suitable for many four-year-olds.

"There is no respectable basis for pushing children of this age into formal phonics and early reading. Children are becoming restless and fidgety and grumpy by the end of the day. It is the worst possible start for them, but nursery staff sometimes find it very difficult to argue with Ofsted inspectors."

Marian Whitehead complains that she sees four-year-olds in classes of 30 being put through the new literacy hour. "They switch off or become totally dazed by it. It is far too long for them, and many four-year-olds have not learned that when a teacher is talking to the group she is talking to them individually." These children will be expected to take on the numeracy hour next year as well.

The official guidance on the literacy hour deals at some length with reception-class children, but it makes little distinction between a traditional reception class of five-year-olds and a "new" reception class which may consist mainly of four-year-olds. They quote a teacher who receives her whole intake in September , spends the first two weeks settling them in, begins to introduce the literacy hour in the third week and has the whole structure in place by the first half term. Given that the oldest children in that class will be five in September, the rest will be four when they start, and the youngest only just four.

It is natural for parents to assume that learning to read early will help children right through their education. However, the research evidence from around the world is largely against pushing children in a formal academic direction before the age of six or seven.

There is no doubt that nursery education boosts children's long-term success, but trained teachers and the nature of the teaching also seem to be crucial. Studies in America following children into adult life show that formal teaching at the pre-school stage is less useful long term than informal nursery schooling or approaches like the "high-scope curriculum", which encourages children to plan and review their own activities.

Some children do learn to read precociously early, largely on their own initiative, and this is an advantage right through school. But researchers have found that such children are generally from highly literate homes and have had little formal instruction. Otherwise children who are formally taught early gain an initial advantage, but by the time they are eight those who have been taught later have caught up regardless.

European experience would seem to bear this out. The three school systems studied for a Channel 4 programme The Early Years, screened late last year, all offer pre-schools which concentrate on oral language, attention and memory skills, social skills and literacy and numeracy preparation such as rhythm, rhyme and concepts of space. The teaching is highly structured but emphasises confidence building and specifically protects children from any sense of failure up to the age of six or seven. Children have little problem learning to read and write at school and all three systems are very successful in international comparisons of achievement.

Professor Christine Pascal, of University College Worcester, one of this country's most respected early-years experts, is just launching a major study into the most effective ways of ensuring that children not only begin their school careers well but become life-long learners. "There is lots of new research coming out from medicine and neuroscience which tells us how the brain develops in young children and how children learn. What is very clear is that you cannot separate out social, emotional and intellectual development for young children. If early schooling is to succeed you must pay attention to all three strands and provide an appropriate curriculum."

If you want long-term progress in school and afterwards, Professor Pascal says, the most important aspects of early learning are to do with socialisation, motivation, and building children's self-esteem, self-confidence and aspirations - the so-called super-skills of learning.

"Nursery education should be rigorous and well planned. But it must be positive for the children, they must be able to take control of their own learning and take pleasure in it. It certainly should not be simply about a narrow set of targets. That is more likely to be counter-productive than produce the flexible, responsible, creative life-long learners the country needs."

THE REQUIRED STANDARDS

BELOW ARE the basic standards that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority would like most schoolchildren to be able to achieve by the end of school reception year.

READING

Hear and say initial and final sounds in words, and short vowel sounds within words.

Link letters and sounds, naming and sounding all letters of the alphabet.

Read a range of familiar and common words, and simple sentences, independently without any prompting.

Show an understanding of the principal elements of stories, such as main character, sequence of events, openings, and how information can be found in non-fiction texts.

WRITING

Hold a pencil correctly, and form recognisable letters, most of hich will be correctly formed and recognisable.

Write simple regular words, and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words on the page.

Write their own names and labels, and form sentences, sometimes using punctuation.

Attempt writing for various purposes, using features of different forms such as lists, stories and instructions.

MATHEMATICS

Count reliably, up to the number of 10, everyday objects.

Recognise the numerals 1 to 9.

Use language such as "more" or "less", "greater" or "smaller", "heavier" or "lighter", to compare two numbers or quantities.

In practical activities and discussion, begin to use the vocabulary involved in adding and subtracting.

nFind one more or one less than a number from one to 10.

UNDER-FIVES AROUND THE WORLD

FRANCE Almost 100 per cent of French three- to five-year-olds attend the ecoles maternelles which offer a largely academic preparation for primary school at six. Classes are relatively large and teachers enjoy the same training and civil service status as other French teachers.

USA Pre-school provision in the USA is fragmented and varies in quality. The best known approach is the "high-scope" programme for deprived children, which encourages them to "plan, do and review" their own activities. This has been shown to have long-term educational and social benefits.

JAPAN Provision is divided between private, part-time yochien which prepare three- to six-year-olds academically for primary school, and government- subsidised full-day hoiku-en for families "in need" which offer a wider range of experiences. Ninety per cent of Japanese children attend pre-school but children from less affluent families perform better in school if they attend the hoiku-en and gain little benefit from the academic pre- school yochien.

HUNGARY Pre-school children follow a highly structured programme emphasising attention, listening and memory skills, group behaviour, the understanding of concepts of size and shape, and phonological awareness. The programme is taught entirely orally, using music where appropriate.

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