Reading `should start at three'

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The Independent Online
CHILDREN SHOULD take their first steps towards reading and writing from the age of three, ministers said yesterday.

Margaret Hodge, the schools minister, and Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, said that the days when under-fives were left to colour, cut and paste were over. A new era when young children will be offered more formal education has begun. Critics of government plans to introduce "learning goals" for three to five-year-olds say young children should learn through play and develop social skills.

Ministers want all children to be able to count to 10, write their own names and spell simple words by the end of their first year in school when they will be five, or just six. Mr Woodhead said in a report on nursery education: "Many four-year-olds are forging ahead happily on early reading and writing...their response rebuts the idea that young children are somehow damaged by being taught these things." He added: "It makes little sense for nursery settings to provide less educational challenge for children than might reasonably be accepted from a good home."

A year ago, Ms Hodge, as chair of a Commons education select committee, warned that children could become demotivated if they started formal lessons too soon. But yesterday she and Mr Woodhead attacked the "false dichotomy" between those who backed play-based learning and those who favoured more direct and structured teaching. The aim was to strike a balance, they said.

Ms Hodge quoted the example of a teacher calling out a number for three- year-olds who then have to jump on the same number of logs. She said that the new goals had been misunderstood.

"Parents know it is common sense that children begin to learn how to count and to know the alphabet by the end of the primary school reception year," she said. "The goals are not what is expected of most children at three. Children's development is very swift during these years and a planned approach is appropriate.

"As a parent I wanted no less for my children. If we expect that for our own children how can we not for those for whom education is the best route to greater opportunity?" She said that the results of a consultation on the goals from 900 nurseries and pre-school groupsshowed that 90 per cent were very supportive.

However, fewer than half state nursery schools backed the literacy goals and beacon nurseries, set up by the Government as centres of excellence, said the proposals involved too much formal education too soon.

The Ofsted report on nursery schools and play groups, which were judged 12 months ago to have some weaknesses, says that more than two-thirds now have no serious weaknesses.

Wendy Scott, chief executive of the pressure group Early Education, said that Ms Hodge appeared to be paying attention to ill-informed and potentially very damaging advice which failed to stress the importance of imagination and creativity. Chris Woodhead, she added, was not an expert in "early years" education.