Early learning or a case of too much, too young?

From next year, the Government wants under-fives to follow a slimmed-down curriculum. But its plans also involve checks that childcare experts have dubbed 'tests for tots'.

It's 10.30am and two, three and four-year-olds are playing with water in the garden at the Oak Tree Nursery in Ilfracombe, Devon. Splashing about and learning maths, volume and displacement and having fun.

But from September next year these children will be following a new curriculum under a sometimes controversial shake-up of care and education for 0 to five-year-olds, which has led to fears of "testing for tots". Last month, the Government set out its reforms of early learning and children's centres to slim down the curriculum for fives and under, but which also introduced new progress checks for two-year-olds and put more focus on getting children ready for school.

Cheryl Baddeley, manager of the Oak Tree Nursery, is concerned. Her nursery is in a deprived area and serves many vulnerable families.

"I worry about anything that might say that children are successes or failures at such an early age. We stick labels on children so early these days," she explains. "Yes, it is important that any problem a child might have gets flagged up. But any good nursery will do that already."

The new curriculum, due to come into force next year, was announced by Children's Minister, Sarah Teather, in response to the Tickell Review of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) which condemned the current system for being overly bureaucratic, repetitive and failing to be parent-friendly. The proposals would see the current EYFS framework slimmed down with a radical reduction in the number of early learning goals from 69 to 17. The new framework will focus on three key areas of learning – personal, social and emotional development; physical development; and communication and language – rather than the current six, arguing that this will do more to ensure that "children are ready and able to learn at school".

There will also be a new progress check for all two-year-olds in pre-school settings, in an attempt to identify any problems in a child's development or special educational needs as early as possible.

Announcing the proposals, Ms Teather promised that they would: "make sure we are preparing our children for the challenges of school and beyond".

"This isn't just about making sure they can hold a pencil – children need the resilience, confidence and personal skills to be able to learn."

Many elements of the reforms have been welcomed by early years specialists, who like the dramatic reduction in the number of early learning goals, the cuts in bureaucracy and the greater freedom for professionals in how they work with children. However, the plans have also led to some concerns. It is the concept of "school readiness" which lies at the heart of much of the controversy surrounding the proposals.

Campaigners fear the Government regards pre-schoolers as "fodder for the classroom" and that the focus on "school readiness" will damage the unique character of early years education. They warn that the progress checks for two-year-olds could lead to children being labelled as failures. Meanwhile, ministers insist that they intend to nurture and protect youngsters' wider learning and that the progress checks will prevent children's needs going undetected.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, says: "We would urge care and caution, especially for a single, integrated review at around the age of two, as young children develop at a different rate and the developmental progress of each child is neither constant nor uniform. The result in some cases could be progress reports that prove potentially misleading as the child gets older.

"We are still very concerned about what the Coalition Government means by 'school readiness' and prefer to see the pre-school environment as a means of 'life readiness'.

"The Alliance believes that schools should be ready for children, not the other way round. We do not want a generation of 'school ready' children who have been 'factory farmed' instead of enjoying a 'free range' start to life."

Dr Richard House of Roehampton University's Department of Psychology and founder-member of the Open EYE Campaign – which was set up in 2007 to oppose the EYFS – said that the positives of the proposals were "more than outweighed by major concerns".

He condemned the "markedly increased emphasis on readiness for school" arguing that this would "schoolify" the early years and the progress check arguing that it would be extremely damaging given "young children's hugely varied rates of early development".

Wendy Ellyatt, a member of the Open EYE campaign, believes that the emphasis on school readiness misses the point of early years education. She says: "I think this is a prime example of how a thorough and well thought-through consultation [Tickell's] can be fundamentally compromised by being put into the hands of political policy writers. We are told that 'teaching in the early years should be focused on improving children's school readiness' – and yet there is widespread expert belief that this is a dangerous, top-down approach that undermines the extraordinary and instinctive natural learning abilities of young children."

Megan Pacey, Chief Executive of Early Education, said it had been "so disappointing" that the EYFS statutory framework had been "simplified and stripped down so much that it risks undermining both Dame Clare [Tickell]'s recommendations and the government's own policy vision".

She says: "So obsessed are this government with the school readiness agenda, the revised Early Years Foundation Stage framework barely acknowledges the vital birth-to-three years and the important role they play as a development phase all on their own, in the future life chances of a child."

All but absent from the revised EYFS statutory framework is any explicit reference to understanding the characteristics of learning and how important it is that practitioners and children's families understand how children's dispositions and attitudes, creative thinking and problem-solving develop. Absent also from the revised statutory framework is much of an acknowledgment of how important play is to children's early learning.

But others argue that more early intervention is needed to help children with undiagnosed problems being left to struggle. They welcome the new progress checks for two-year -olds as an important step towards achieving this.

Jan Leightley, director of children's services Action for Children, argues: "There's a lot to like in the proposals. We run a lot of early years services at Action for Children, so we've had the opportunity to get reaction from a wide range of people in the sector. They all welcome the slimming down and the clearer foundation profile. I personally welcome the increased focus on parents and the acknowledgement of early years as an area of expertise rather than as a Cinderella service. I know some people are worried about the progress tests, but they will be so important to ensure children receive early intervention. These are not tests. Children do not all develop at the same rate."

However, others are concerned that public sector cuts will make it difficult to deliver the improvements promised by the proposals. Progress tests may identify children's needs, but if there is a shortage of specialist staff such as speech and language therapists it may not be possible to provide early intervention. Anita Kerwin-Nye, Director of The Communication Trust, says: "This is not 'tot testing' for testing's sake. Communication difficulties are the single biggest disability issue facing pre-school children today. The bottom line is that early identification makes the biggest difference to children's outcomes.

"Much of this 'testing' can be done through observation, normal interaction and playing. Parents tell us time and time again that they wished their child's communication difficulty had been picked up in the early years.

"The real test is how these changes will be applied locally and how we can ensure staff are skilled in supporting children's communication and identifying when they are struggling. The Communication Trust looks forward to continuing their work supporting the workforce in these areas."

Jean Gross, the Government's Communication Champion, agrees: "I reject the idea that the progress check is some sort of test for tots. This is about people who work with these children every day, observing them and observing their development. My worry is that we will be able to identify children who need help through these checks, but then won't be able to provide the help they need."

Early Years Foundation Stage facts

* The Early Years Foundation Stage came into force in September 2008.

* All maintained/independent schools or registered early-years providers in the private, voluntary and independent sectors caring for children from birth to five must use the EYFS.

* The Coalition Government commissioned a review of the EYFS by Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, after concerns that it was too bureaucratic and putting a burden on early-years workers.

* Dame Clare's conclusions, published in March, were warmly received by the sector. Early-years specialists liked the slimming-down of the curriculum and welcomed the retention of its unique character and focus on play.

* The Government's response in July accepted many of Dame Clare's proposals but was not greeted so warmly because of fears that they will focus the curriculum too much on "school readiness" and not enough on play.

* The proposals will bring the number of goals in the EYFS down from 69 to 17. They will see the curriculum now focus on three "prime" and four "specific" areas of learning, instead of the current six.

* Children will continue to be assessed at the end of the EYFS, but the scale-point system will be simpler and restricted to 17 early-learning goals. Early-learning goals will also be more closely aligned with Key Stage 1 (for five- to seven-year-olds) to smooth the transition from Reception to Year 1.

* A development check will also be provided for every two-year-old in a pre-school setting, to help to identify as early as possible those children who are at risk of developmental delay or have special educational needs.

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