Too late for early learning?

A squeeze on child development courses means that teachers are poorly equipped for dealing with the very young, writes Nick Holdsworth
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Teachers of very young children are being poorly prepared for the rigours of the classroom because child development studies are being squeezed from their courses by the needs of training in the national curriculum.

A new study conducted among early years professionals at universities and training establishments is finding that child development training is being marginalised in many areas, and BEd courses are threatened with cuts of up to one year in length.

Jacqui Cousins, an early years consultant who designed the study for Tactyc - Tutors of Advanced Courses for Young Children - says: "How children develop as learners is of fundamental importance to educators. The compartmentalisation of young children's learning into subject areas may have helped classroom management and organisation but it has ignored the basic principles that underpin early childhood education."

The study has found that in 28 of the 70 replies from training institutions, Tactyc members expected the length of BEd courses soon to be cut by one year. A majority said that child development did, or should, play a "significant part" in their initial training BEd or PGCE early childhood education courses.

The study was launched after a meeting between Professor Philip Gammage, Dean of Education at Nottingham University and chair of Tactyc, and the Education Minister Eric Forth.

Professor Gammage was particularly concerned by the increasing emphasis on narrow subject specialisms in early years training, and challenged the Department for Education's decision to refuse a bid by a consortium of Oxfordshire primary schools to set up a schools-based early years PGCE course with Oxford Brookes University because the course did not fully cover the national curriculum content at key stages one and two - the primary school age ranges.

Professor Gammage says: "The Government sees education as [merely] providing an education. I don't think it really wants independent children. To have that we would have people who tended to ask awkward questions - what they're doing is teaching children to answer questions, but not to question the answers.

"We're being told that to train early years teachers we need to pay attention to KS1 and KS2, which squeezes out the child development aspects. We're virtually the only country in the world that has no pedagogical element in our early years. This government is profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-pedagogical."

At Manchester Metropolitan University's education facility a new part- time BA degree in Early Childhood Studies is entering its second year. The course, headed by Lesley Abbott, principal lecturer in early school education, draws its students from social services' child and family units, nursery and primary schools, and private day nurseries. The course is designed both to support professional development and to train students in child development and optional subject specialisms.

Ms Abbott sees it as an excellent basis for following up with a year's full-time BEd or PGCE for those who want to enter teaching precisely because it enables students to concentrate on child development without being overloaded with the demands of training to deliver the key stage requirements of the national curriculum.

"We feel that it's essential to have child development - unless you know how children learn, grow and develop, you will not be able to teach subject specialisms appropriately."

She says the early years elements of BEd and PGCE courses are "totally dominated" by the subject and content demands of the national curriculum, leaving little room to prepare qualified teachers for the world of coping with children of four or five years of age displaying a wide range of stages of development.

Adrian Townsend, an Oxfordshire first school headteacher and member of the 20-strong primary schools consortium that made a failed bid for pounds 85,000 to set up the school-based Early Childhood Education PGCE course in partnership with Oxford Brookes, said his experience reflected a lack of understanding by policy-makers of the educational needs of young children and those training to teach them.

"We maintain that it is not possible for teachers effectively to deliver the subject content of the early years curriculum - including the national curriculum - without specialist knowledge of children's development," he added.

"This would seem to to imply a value system in which older children's education matters more than learning in the early years - although the foundations of children's learning are known to be crucially important."