You can't treat a tot like a teen

Overwhelmed by the blanket demands of a national curriculum, the idea of infancy as a transitional learning period has been lost. Geva Blenkin examines the effects on our most vulnerable pupils
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The Independent Online
The pruning of the syllabus to be covered in key stage one, the infant school stage of the national curriculum, is to be welcomed as signalling an acceptance on the part of the Government that schools, teachers and children have been suffering from curriculum overload.

This change, however, has been concerned with the scale rather than the nature of the curriculum now offered to young children. Yet one of the worst effects of the national curriculum on the provision of early childhood education has been the loss of the concept of infancy.

This represents a turning away from the human tradition, evident in most other societies, of recognising infancy as a unique stage of human development, a time when young children are very vulnerable, impressionable and dependent on adults. It is a period for which most societies seek to make educational provision that combines both care and appropriate support for the child's adjustment to school learning.

In our own culture, there has long been a similar tradition. It finds its expression in the very fabric of the19th-century Board Schools, whose gates are clearly marked "Boys", "Girls" and "Infants". We are thus reminded of the concern of our ancestors to protect the under-eights from more boisterous older pupils.

In creating infant school, the Victorians recognised the need to provide teachers of young children with adequate training of a kind that would enable them to understand the particular needs of infants. For they knew that some teachers had been driven to acts of cruelty to infant children - tying them to their seats, for example, or taping up their mouths - when they were not provided with a training which prepared them for caring as well as for teaching.

This, then takes me to my second reason for concern about the impact of current policies on early education - the loss of appropriate teacher expertise. Since the introduction of the national curriculum, teachers in primary and infant schools have been discouraged from developing appropriate kinds of expertise, and specialised forms of training of teachers for the early years have been lost.

This is happening when, in other nations, high priority is being given to providing developmentally appropriate early education.

We in the United Kingdom once led the world in the education and care of young children, but the expertise we once boasted is being undermined by a national curriculum that regards the educational requirements of children from five to seven years of age as not different in any fundamental way, other than level, from those of 16-year-olds.The focus of teacher training is on the acquisition of subject knowledge rather than on the provision of care, security or induction into the learning process.

The radical shift in the ways in which we deal with our youngest children in schools, and train their teachers, has occurred with very little comment from either parents or teachers. It has also occurred despite extensive research which points in the opposite direction.

And that takes me finally to my third reason for concern about the education of under-eights.

Increasingly, studies of young children learning in classrooms and in other group settings are giving us clear messages about how to provide a curriculum that will support young children at this crucial early stage. They are showing us children are not born pupils. They must learn how to cope with the more academic learning demanded by schooling.

And the only way that they can learn to be effective pupils - to flourish in school and gain all of the advantages of successful learning - is by being helped to make connections between the common-sense world of learning at home, or out of school, and the more abstract forms of learning in school. The teacher's role in the early years is to mediate be-tween these two worlds.

These studies are also showing us the alarming fact that, when the curriculum is not appropriate for these needs, and teachers are not trained to support children in this kind of learning, children as young as four and five begin to present behavioural problems and show indications that they are disaffected and alienated from schooling.

Far from being a phenomenon that occurs only in adolescent rebellion, disaffection and alienation can be identified in the earliest stages of schooling, and there are signs that this is likely to increase where teachers are more preoccupied with "delivering" national curriculum than with helping children to develop as good learners.

It is time to think again about the way in which we meet our responsibility to our youngest pupils. It is time to ask whether the national curriculum in its present form is really the most suitable curriculum for children at an infant age and stage of development.

The author is director of the Early Childhood Education Research Project: Principles into Practice at Goldsmiths College, University of London.