The number of targets for five year olds is to be slashed from 69 to 17 while every two year old in England will receive a progress check to see if they are developing properly, Children’s minister Sarah Teather announced today.
However, early campaigners warned that the new learning goals for five-year-olds were set too high and that ministers were ratcheting up the curriculum and making excessive demands on schools’ youngest pupils.
Ms Teather today announced that she would not be watering down the early learning goals despite concerns expressed by parents, teachers and schools. In December, the Department for Education made “substantive changes” to the mathematics and literacy goals after complaints from the sector in response to a consultation.
Many of the 664 respondents to a second consultation by the Department of Education expressed concern that the new standards being expected of five-year-olds were still too high. 38 per cent of respondents were unhappy with the wording or level of the goal about numbers and 32 per cent about that for writing.
Around ten per cent of those who commented on the numbers goal “felt the proposed changes could result in a curriculum and teaching methods which are too formal and academic for this age range”. Others complained that the reading and writing goals were too demanding for five-year-olds arguing that it was too much to ask children to write irregular common words or to read simple sentences.
Ms Teather said: "What really matters is making sure a child is able to start school ready to learn, able to make friends and play, ready to ask for what they need and say what they think. These are critical foundations for really getting the best out of school.”
The move was criticised by academics and early years campaigners.
Experts have warned that children’s natural development is being undermined by a relentless focus on formal assessments and targets in nurseries.
Last month (Feb) campaigners including Philip Pullman, the author, Baroness Greenfield, the Oxford University neuroscientist, and Dr Penelope Leach, the childcare expert, warned of “widespread concern about the direction of the current revision” of the under 5s curriculum.
Dr Richard House, senior lecturer in psychotherapy at Roehampton University, said: “The idea of setting goals for children of this age is total nonsense. Children’s development is so diverse up to the age of six or seven that it is just not appropriate to set goals and then try to shoe-horn children into them.
“The Government is obsessed with the idea of getting children ready to start school aged four. We are the only country in Europe that sends young children into school at four-years-old. Many, many people believe four is at least two, if not three, years too young for children to be going into the formal institutional school system. The EYFS is being geared more and more towards preparing very young children for school. I personally think it is absolutely scandalous.
The changes form part of a major overhaul of Labour’s controversial “nappy curriculum” for under-fives, which was first introduced in 2008.
An independent review of the Early Years Foundation Stage published last year criticised the document for being "cumbersome, repetitive and unnecessarily bureaucratic".
The review by Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of the charity Action for Children, claimed the curriculum had promoted a tick-box culture and stifled children’s early development.
Today Ms Teather unveiled a revised framework – to be introduced from this September – which will dramatically cut the number of targets children are supposed to reach by the age of five, from 69 to just 17.
It includes greater focus on three main areas seen by ministers as essential for preparation for school – communication and language, physical development, and personal, social and emotional development.
The new-style framework will also reduce the amount of paperwork in nurseries, including the abolition of written risk assessments for all activities.
Ministers intend the new progress assessments for two-year-olds to identify children showing early signs of special needs and ensure they get targeted help at an earlier age.
But critics fear the move could lead to toddlers being wrongly “labelled” at a young age, arguing that it could fail to recognise that children develop at different rates.
Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ““While we welcome the introduction of progress checks for children between the ages of two and three, the Government must take note of parental concerns about these checks. A recent Alliance survey of 2,000 mothers and mothers-to-be found that most are worried that the progress check could result in a possible misdiagnosis of their child, given natural fluctuations in children’s development at this age.”