It was dubbed the "nappy curriculum" – the controversial requirement that children must master 69 writing, counting and problem-solving skills by the age of five. But now the question of when children should begin their formal learning is to be reopened.
For years, the education community has been split over how early to start formal education and testing. Two years ago, Labour introduced the widely criticised Early Years Foundation Stage. EYFS covers all pre-school children – whether they attend nurseries, playgroups or are cared for by childminders – and assesses whether they can form simple sentences, use numbers to make calculations, and understand the world around them.
But in an interview with The Independent, Sarah Teather, the Children's minister, revealed that there is to be a wide-reaching review of EYFS. She is concerned that the framework is overly rigid and puts too many burdens on carers, which has led childminders and nurseries to complain that they are spending less time with children and more time ticking boxes.
Ms Teather said: "It is a review of content. We need to ask: what should three- and four-year-olds be learning? We need to look again at what the latest evidence tells us about how we get the best development for young children. We also need to look at how we reduce the burden of bureaucracy. Some providers – childminders and also small nurseries – have told us that they have found the burden very difficult to manage. We need to trust the profession more. Professionals deserve to have the freedom to do their jobs and not have to deal with unnecessary bureaucracy."
The review, to be carried out by Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of the children's charity Action for Children, will also consider whether all early-years settings need to be governed by the same regulations, and whether young children's development needs to be formally assessed. Currently every child is assessed against 69 learning goals at the end of their reception year at primary school.
The previous government had planned a review of the EYFS this autumn to evaluate the first two years of the scheme, but Ms Teather said there would be a more "open-ended" and "wide-ranging" review of the system than was previously planned. She said she hoped that parents and early-years professionals would also submit their views and experiences to the review, which will report next spring, with any proposed changes due to be introduced in September 2012.
"These are issues that the public has strong views about – what should three- and four-year-olds be able to do? I hope that people will tell us about their own experiences of their own children at nursery," Ms Teather said. "The most important thing for us as a government is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds get the support they need and that they are in a position to learn and to benefit from every opportunity on offer.
"We are introducing a 'pupil premium' to help these children at school but if children are coming to school a long way behind that is a lost opportunity. This is a priority right across Government and we believe that the early years is absolutely essential for achieving this," she added.
Schools, nurseries, playgroups and childminders have been legally required to follow the EYFS since 2008. Critics have campaigned hard against it, claiming that it deprives young children of the opportunity to play, damages their long-term development and makes them anxious if they feel they are not meeting the goals. They also warn that it forces children into inappropriate learning too early and will have a detrimental affect on boys and children from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not be developmentally ready for such a formal approach.
Kim Simpson, a Montessori headteacher and a founder member of the Open Eye campaign against the EYFS, welcomed the review but warned the coalition Government not to repeat the mistakes of the past administration. "I am concerned that both the past and present government seem to think that if you want to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children you have to target them with learning. That is not the way to go," she said.
"What disadvantaged children need is love and to be in an emotionally warm nursery environment that will nurture their self-esteem. We do not need government targets about what they learn or what they need to start school. We are eroding childhood by always concentrating on what comes next, and not on the here and now."
Ministers have been concerned at reports that childminders and smaller private and voluntary nurseries and playgroups have been forced to quit or close because of the EYFS. Nearly 900 nurseries and playgroups in England closed down last year with many citing the introduction of the "nappy curriculum", saying it had driven teachers out of the profession, while inadequate state funds had made running a nursery financially untenable.
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 childminders quit the profession in the first year of the curriculum, with many saying that it was because of the bureaucracy involved.
There are 69 "early-learning goals" that four-year-olds are expected to master by the time they start school. They should be able to:
*write their own names and other things, such as captions, and begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation;
*maintain attention, concentrate, and sit quietly when appropriate;
*speak clearly and audibly with confidence and control and show awareness of the listener;
*have a developing respect for their own cultures and beliefs and those of other people;
*attempt writing for different purposes, using features of different forms, such as lists, stories and instructions;
*show an understanding of the elements of stories, such as main character, sequence of events and openings and how information can be found in non-fiction texts to answer questions about where, who, why and how;
*link sounds to letters, naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet;
*use a pencil and hold it effectively to form recognisable letters, most of which are correctly formed;
*begin to relate addition to combining two groups of objects and subtraction to "taking away";
*travel around, under, over and through climbing equipment;
*explore colour, texture, shape, form and space in two or three dimensions.