Should under-fives be taught to read and write?

'Learning through play' has long been the key phrase in nursery education. Now, there's concern that a government review could see children pushed into formal lessons too soon.

It's a grey October afternoon and the minibeasts are rampaging through minibeast land, the dinosaurs are exploring their camouflage table, the snack table is serving up healthy treats, and two dozen three- and four-year-olds are having fun.

This is St Matthew's pre-school in Newham, east London, recently judged as outstanding by Ofsted and praised for its work in promoting children's imaginative and creative skills. It is also where the Minister of State for Children, Sarah Teather, chose to launch her review of the controversial so-called "nappy curriculum" – the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) – in July.

It may look as though the three- and four-year-olds at St Matthew's are just having fun making marks in the sand, posting letters in a pretend post office or dressing up as animals in the garden. But for the pre-school staff, all these activities present learning opportunities. Learning through play has long been the buzz phrase in early years. But St Matthew's has put enormous effort into making it happen. Staff interact with children, playing alongside the youngsters, observing their progress or engaging them in activities.

Tabinda Ul-Hassan, the manager of St Matthew's pre-school, run by the Pre-school Learning Alliance, says: "We do everything through play. It is not, 'You must sit down and do your ABC now or do these worksheets'. Boys in particular do not respond to this. We look at imaginative ways to involve boys, who generally are more attracted to physical activities."

But some campaigners are concerned that this play-based approach could be under threat from the Government's review. Others are already opposed to the current framework and fear that the review will only make things worse.

The introduction of the EYFS in 2008 sparked a furore that, to some extent, still rages among early-years experts. Most controversially, it demands that early-years practitioners monitor children's progress against no fewer than 69 "early-learning goals" and more than 500 development milestones. At five, each child will be given a score, which is passed to the Department for Education. These scores, most recently published last month, are frequently used to bemoan the standards being achieved by five-year-olds.

The fierce debate over the EYFS went to the heart of how the youngest children should learn. Should three- and four-year-olds be taught to read and write? Or should they be left to play in the sand? Is it actually possible to do both? Labour had pledged to review the EYFS to see how it had bedded down after two years. But the Coalition Government launched a more wide-reaching review just eight weeks after coming to power, arguing that it wanted to make the EYFS less bureaucratic and more focused on young children's learning and development.

Ms Teather used an interview with The Independent to announce the review, arguing that the current framework was too rigid and put too many burdens on the Early Years workforce. Staff had complained that they were spending less time with children, and more time ticking boxes, Ms Teather said. She wanted to shift the focus to getting children ready for education and to increasing the attainment of children from deprived backgrounds.

While the prospect of less bureaucracy has been enthusiastically welcomed, the suggestion of more focus on "school readiness" has caused consternation among early-years experts. Campaigners had been encouraged by Ms Teather's early ministerial pronouncements, in which she said that the Government "believes in trusting professionals to do their jobs, free from the top-down bureaucracy of recent years". However, many are concerned that a drive for "school readiness" could see youngsters pushed into the formal learning of the three Rs at an earlier stage – when many experts already argue that British children start formal education too early, comparing the UK unfavourably with Scandinavian countries, where school usually does not start until the age of seven.

Launching the review, Ms Teather was forced to deny that the Government wanted the early-years framework to focus more on academic learning. She also denied that the review was part of the Government's drive to cut public spending, saying: "This review is not about cost-cutting. It's about what works for children, parents and the childcare sector."

However, some are still concerned about the Government's intentions. Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, warned: "Many in the sector now seem sceptical of the current Government's motive behind it. Perhaps the wording of pre-election manifestos such as, 'replace the bureaucratic Early Years Foundation Stage with a slimmed-down framework which includes a range of educational approaches and enough flexibility for every young child', did not help alleviate fears that the review might be used as a mechanism to deliver on such a definitive pre-determined pledge."

The EYFS was introduced in September 2008 and aimed to introduce a common structure of learning, development and care for children from birth to five years old. Every registered early-years provider in the state, private and voluntary sectors caring for children from birth to five must use the EYFS. This means that reception and nursery classes in state and independent schools, nurseries, childminders, playgroups, after-school clubs and holiday playschemes must all follow the same framework.

The review is being carried out by Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, chosen, Ms Teather said, precisely because she was not an early-years expert. Her broader base in the children and families sector would be more helpful and would enable Dame Clare to "step back a bit".

Dame Clare is not due to report her conclusions until spring 2011. Little is known about the direction her inquiry is taking, but in a webchat on the internet chat forum Netmums last month, Dame Clare raised the prospect of giving the framework a more formal structure, asking mothers: "The EYFS is intended to be a play-based framework, which expects adults who interact with children to observe and plan play activities that help not only their learning and development in the more traditional sense, but also their social and emotional development. With this in mind, do you think children are able to gain all this without a formal structure?"

Another possibility is having a lighter-touch framework for childminders than for nurseries – after fears that the demands of the EYFS were driving many childminders out of the profession. However, early-years leaders are adamant this must not happen, arguing that it would damage the standing of the profession and children's development. Members of the National Childminding Association (NCMA) have been won over to the EYFS, despite concerns about excessive paperwork.

Catherine Farrell, joint chief executive of the National Childminding Association, said: "Registered childminders welcome the opportunities the EYFS gives them to demonstrate their professionalism and operate on a level playing field with other childcare providers. One issue for our members is that more clarity is needed on what is required in terms of paperwork. The lack of definition has meant that many registered childminders feel under too much pressure to produce lots of unnecessary paperwork."

Anand Shukla, acting chief executive of the Daycare Trust, added: "We believe it would be a mistake to make radical changes to the EYFS framework, when the vast majority of the sector believes it is working well. We would oppose any measures which allowed certain groups of childcare providers to be exempted from the EYFS, as we believe the quality child care it helps to ensure is in the best interests of both children and parents."

Whereas the Labour government championed the EYFS and fiercely defended it from its critics, some would like it scrapped completely. The Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank, called for the EYFS to be abolished, saving £315m a year, arguing that it was "questionable" whether it encourages good practice or has had much practical effect. The report, "Cutting the Children's Plan", published in June, complained that it was holding some children back and that more formal reading instruction was needed, not less.

Meanwhile, a group of academics, led by leading child psychologists Richard House, Penelope Leach and Sue Palmer, have also led a long campaign for an independent review into the EYFS, claiming the regime may harm children's development.

Campaigners argue that very few practitioners want either uncritical acceptance of the EYFS as a whole, or a wholesale rejection of it. They would like the literacy and numeracy goals to be scrapped, but say there is much to value in the EYFS. Richard House, senior lecturer at the Research Centre for Therapeutic Education at Roehampton University, argues: "There are some aspects of the EYFS framework that have been helpful, and some aspects that are distinctly unhelpful, or even harmful, to early-years practice and to young children. It is singularly inappropriate for young children under five years of age to be required by law to be 'taught' in the way that is set out in the framework."

A spokeswoman for the Open Early Years Education campaign says: "Just because children can achieve what is asked of them does not mean that this is developmentally appropriate and we remain concerned that the Government, despite its rhetoric, is persisting in looking at the early years as a preparation for school."

Many early experts argue that the EYFS has been extremely successful and concern about excessive bureaucracy has proved largely unfounded. Megan Pacey, chief executive of Early Education, said: "While many practitioners admitted to having been daunted by the EYFS when it was first published, evidence from Early Education members shows that after the first year following its implementation, the majority were embracing the principles and ways of working that the framework advocates and are seeing the benefits of being led by the child, their interests and needs."

Back at St Matthew's pre-school, Ms Ul-Hassan said she had initially been concerned that the review could destroy much of the good work of the EYFS. But now, she feels hopeful. "You can be a bit cynical and think, what are their motives?" she says. "But my personal view is that if they are going to reduce bureaucracy and the paperwork, then that's good. But I do have some concerns about the idea of school readiness. I want the children who come to this setting to gain confidence, to be motivated, excited and interested in learning, so that when they leave here, their minds are open and they are receptive to learning. If that is what they mean, then I welcome it. But we do everything through fun. I would not want anything more formal than that."

When learning starts

* Sweden Children start school aged seven. The year before children start compulsory school, all children are offered a place in a pre-school class (förskoleklass), which combines the pedagogical methods of the pre-school with those of compulsory school.

* Finland Children start main school at age seven. The idea is that before then, they learn best when they're playing, and by the time they finally get to school, they are keen to start learning.

* Denmark Children start school aged seven with an optional kindergarten year at six.

* France Children start compulsory schooling at six. Many parents send their children earlier, though, around age three to nursery classes (maternelles) which are usually affiliated to a primary school. The last year of maternelle, grande section, is an important step, as it is the year in which pupils are introduced to reading.

* Italy Children start school aged six. Before this is the kindergarten (scuola materna), but it's not compulsory.

* United States Most children enter the public education system around ages five or six. Many states offer a free kindergarten year to five-year-olds but do not make it compulsory, while other states require all five-year-olds to enroll.

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