Leading article: Small children need to have fun

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The Independent Online

A note of caution should be sounded about government plans to improve services for primary school pupils and the under-fives. First, ministers launched the foundation stage curriculum - an attempt to ensure that childminders and nurseries are providing enough stimulation for the children in their care. Most of the newspaper headlines concentrated on the need for early years staff to look out for whether babies (aged 0 to 11 months) were communicating effectively.

However, there is a more serious point to the Government's proposals. It wants to make sure that parents can be confident that any early years setting they choose for their children is of a sufficiently high standard. The danger is that that the plans will create a tick-box mentality among staff because they will have to check children in 13 areas on a nine-point scale before their transfer to primary school. That is likely to mean less accent on fun and play for the children, possibly making their time at pre-school less enjoyable. The Government, therefore, needs to lighten up on the amount of assessment it expects from staff.

On the second announcement that the gifted and talented programme - whereby the top 10 per cent of pupils are singled out by teachers for special "master-classes" to stretch their ability - is to be extended to primary schools, a further warning is needed. Under the plans, teachers will be choosing pupils for special attention from the moment they start primary school at the age of four or five. It is true that gifted children can often become bored with the curriculum because not enough time is spent on meeting their needs.

The Government must remember that four-year-olds who fail to show talent may have been deprived of a stimulating environment at home before starting school. They are just as much deserving of special attention as those earmarked to succeed in education - if not more so. There is a danger of creating a feeling among them that they are not going to succeed, which could lead to them switching off education. Moreover, it is extraordinarily difficult to assess ability in very young children. They develop at different rates. Some learn to read young, a sign of intelligence, but others don't. Are the latter going to be written off because they were slow to learn to decode words?