Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence


  The Association welcomes the growing recognition of the importance of education in the early years, and this inquiry into effective teaching and learning. There is considerable expertise in this country, and excellent practice can be found across the UK. It is however unevenly distributed at present. Recent developments offer the possibility, over time, of giving all children access to high quality combined care and education from birth. They also mean that children with particular difficulties may benefit from early identification and support for their needs. This will result in significant gains for society as a whole, as well as for children and families.

  The Early Learning Goals have been published in the context of the deeper principles and wider aims which inform the most effective teaching for the whole process of learning and development in the early years. It is helpful to have important features of good practice, including partnership with parents and the role and function of play, spelled out and exemplified in the document. Although no substitute for training, the QCA guidance will be very helpful to the extensive range of providers involved in the care and education of young children.


  1.1  All adults involved with young children, consciously or unconsciously, show children how to think, solve problems, deal with emotions and relate to others. The way that adults do this is strongly influenced by children's spontaneous initiatives and by their responses to what adults do and say. This is especially true within the family circle where the children are intimately known from birth. Parents are very sensitive to babies' preferences, and follow rather than direct their interest. Most people, including children as young as five, adapt their speech to make it accessible and interesting to younger children. This educative process, in which child-initiated experience and adult modelling make a significant contribution to children's learning from the start, is an important influence alongside planned educational experience.

  1.2  It is right for the content of early education to be made explicit within settings outside the home. Children quickly get to know new adults as their carers and educators. For three-four-and five-year-olds, the most significant part of early years education is their personal social and emotional adjustment to new settings. Healthy development in this area of learning influences advances in children's thought and understanding in the light of their growing experience. All children should be enabled to develop constructive patterns of thinking and learning from the start that will have long term benefits. Forced achievement in superficially measurable skills can be counter-productive in both the short and longer term.

  1.3  One of the unplanned outcomes of the expansion of care and education for young children over recent years has been an increase in the number of changes that children experience. This may occur within the day. Children may go from home to nursery to playgroup, child minder or other form of daycare before returning home. It also happens over time. As the QCA guidance shows (p8), many children will have attended two or three different groups before entering school. The planned improvement in staffing ratios for reception classes will assure more support for the younger four-year-olds in school. It does nothing, however, to address the discontinuity which faces many families who seek care and education for their under fives. It is helpful to have a Foundation Stage from age three to nearly six. This provides a framework for a curriculum which covers pre-school, nursery and reception classes which is appropriate for the youngest children in school.

  1.4  Human beings interpret new possibilities in the light of past experience. It is essential that practitioners involved in the care and education of young children are sensitive to the transition between home and a provider's setting. The younger the child, the more important it is to be aware of the differing expectations of families and of cultural differences. Practitioners and families should share information on the interests, aptitudes, needs and personal preferences of each child as an essential starting point for early education. Children learn best through real, intellectually challenging experiences. One of the key reasons for involving parents is that they are prime educators. Their knowledge of their children can inform the way that curriculum content is defined and introduced.

  1.5  The Early Learning Goals acknowledge the importance of families in the statement of principle, and in the section on personal, social and emotional development (PSE), which are rightly given priority. PSE permeates every other aspect of learning, and continues to be important throughout life. Personal and social skills can be directly taught to some extent, and are influenced also by the ethos of the group and by the underlying principles adopted by staff. Awareness of emotional and social development is thus a key part of the repertoire needed by practitioners. Acknowledgement of the significance of ethnic, religious, cultural and gender difference helps to promote access for every child to the whole curriculum and its content.

  1.6  The QCA document defines a framework for the curriculum under six areas of learning. The specified early learning goals relate to children's skills in language and literacy and mathematics, their knowledge and understanding of the world, and their physical and creative development. These are all interconnected, and personal, social and emotional development threads through them all. As the initial QCA guidance makes plain, there are aims underlying the goals which are related to children's disposition to learn and their natural curiosity and thus to life-long learning. They include the promotion of positive attitudes to self and to learning, attention skills, persistence and co-operation. The examples provided by the QCA, coupled with the common features of good practice which are spelled out, are valuable reminders of the wider framework in which the content of the curriculum must be set.

  1.7  Communication is closely connected to personal, social and emotional development and is helpfully considered within this context in the earliest years. At three, children are still in the early stages of conceptual development, and are alert to the impressions they are receiving through all their senses. All children need plenty of active opportunities to use their imagination and to represent their ideas through a range of media. They need time to share and to reflect on their experiences. This is even more critical for children who have special educational needs (SEN), or whose home language is not English, or for children who have not had enough emotional support and intellectual stimulus in their earliest years. Sure Start has been rightly introduced into underprivileged areas in recognition for the vital importance of these considerations from the earliest stages.

Language and Literacy

  1.8  Colleagues from other countries express surprise and concern at the emphasis put on a formalised approach to literacy with under fives in England (comments from the OECD panel, 7.12.99; Channel 4 Despatches programme, "Too much too soon" in 1998; BBC1 Panorama programme "Failing at Four" 5.10.98). There is widespread evidence that a later start to formal approaches leads to quicker gains in competence in reading and writing, and to higher standards at nine or 10. The most relevant content for children from three to the end of the Foundation Stage (which for some is just five years of age) provides the essential underpinning for later abstract literacy skills. The importance of the preliminary skills should not be underestimated, and are valid achievements in themselves. They involve the ability to listen attentively and to talk articulately, extending vocabulary and expressive language while becoming aware of the sounds of words as well as their meanings. Songs, stories, rhymes and poems help a great deal and reinforce other aspects of the curriculum. At this stage the key is to promote an enjoyment of books and an awareness of the purposes of reading and writing. In the process, children will identify letters and words that are meaningful to them, and will begin to "write" in their own way. They will use their own symbols to represent messages, which will gradually be refined to approach standard letter shapes. It is worth noting that the formation of capital letters builds on young children's early mark making, which tends to involve circular or straight lines. Lower case letters have a more distinctive pattern, and assist in the de-coding of reading. Joined script helps many young children spell by reinforcing letter patterns through flowing kinaesthetic movement. Young children have the capacity to absorb all these forms of written script, and to discriminate differences, given appropriate experience, resources and support.

  1.9  Early years and language specialists have long been worried about the downward pressure from the national curriculum, and now the literacy strategy, on nursery and early years-settings. The reservations are not about the drive to raise standards in reading and writing. The concern is that a premature expectation of correct letter formation or accurate decoding of print is likely to lead to a sense of failure for many children (especially boys) who are not yet physically able to meet the demands. Furthermore, the time spent on repetitive drills takes time from more effective strategies involving the development of spoken language and children's own efforts to read and write in context. This is important for all children, but especially those with developmental and special educational needs, and those who are in the early stages of learning English. Young children who do not get enough support from home in their early communication and language skills, and are not given opportunities to explore ideas and relationships through play, need these above all as part of the curriculum in the Foundation Stage.

  1.10  Representation of a wide range of experiences through drawing, painting, dance and 3D modelling with a variety of media, are all valuable in helping children express their ideas and clarify their thinking. Such "play" activity also refines physical skills, which contributes another key factor for literacy. It is ineffective to demand unrealistic levels of fine motor control. For example, some practitioners may interpret the goal of "being able to write with correct use of capital letters by the end of the Foundation Stage" as meaning that three- and four-year-olds should attempt to achieve this through worksheets or directed practice. Such an approach is ill-advised, and counter-productive. It is introduced at the cost of opportunities for learning through richly resourced role play and self-chosen activity. If people misinterpret the Early Learning Goals and the requirements of the literacy hour in nurseries and reception classes, there is a risk of unhelpful downward pressure. We therefore warmly welcome the QCA's commitment to publish further guidance.

Mathematical development

  1.11  Mathematical learning is a powerful part of children's innate tendency to identify patterns. consistencies in their experience leading to the refinement of their conceptual understanding should be encouraged through the exploration of real life situations. Worksheets focus on sterile activities which do not make sense to the child. They are more about colouring in or making arbitrary connections than mathematics. Young children can learn by rote, and generally want to please adults who are important to them, so they will exhibit expected behaviour. The complexity of this area of learning is thus often underestimated. For example, the meaning of big and small is generally related to the size of actual objects being compared. It takes some time to understand that a big mouse is smaller than a tiny cat when ones experience is limited. Adults take these comparisons for granted, but children have to work them out practically, and learn the difference between big, tall, high, wide and broad. Young children need many experiences in different contexts in order to develop mathematical concepts.

  1.12  The early learning goals apply to children up to the end of the reception year. Staff working with younger children should provide plenty of practical experience involving matching, sorting, weighing and measuring as well as counting and early arithmetic in a range of playful contexts. The numeracy strategy contains much useful advice, including the suggestion that it is around the age of nine when the transition from personal ways of recording work to standardised methods is best made. Unfortunately, this advice has little influence in pre-school settings where staff may have little experience of children at the end of the reception year, and even less of the curriculum guidance written for schools. Some of the demands perceived in baseline assessment or inspection reinforce a limited approach to early mathematics.

Knowledge and understanding of the world

  1.13  This area of learning has a particularly helpful introduction in the QCA booklet, which recommends "an environment with a wide range of activities inside and outside that attract children's interest and curiosity", and "activities which are imaginative and enjoyable", The goals themselves are described in active terms, suggesting that by the end of the Foundation Stage, children will be able to investigate using all of their senses as appropriate, find out, observe, construct and ask questions. This validates the power of collaborative learning through first hand experience and the role and function of play.

  1.14  This area of learning has been identified as relatively weak in many of the settings subject to Section 122 (formerly Section 5) inspections, (report of the Chief Inspector on the Quality of Nursery Education, 1997-98). This is partly due to lack of knowledge on the part of staff, and is also affected by limitations in access to outdoors. This often applies in reception classes as well as in the private and voluntary sector. Knowledge and understanding of the world is particularly strong in nursery schools, which have frequently planned under the areas of experience identified by HMI. Children in these settings have been introduced to the early stages of knowledge, skills and concepts in science, technology (including ICT), history and geography. Since the introduction of the national curriculum, early years teachers have become much more analytical in their approach to the curriculum. At the same time they have ensured that the activities offered make sense to the children.

Creative development

  1.15  An example of the integration of areas of learning is the way that, for example, a paint-mixing experience can include scientific as well as aesthetic experiences, and fine motor control, language development and mathematical awareness too. High quality musical experience helps to refine children's improvised rhythms, harmonies and melodies, as well as imparting skills which contribute to communications and personal and social development. Experienced staff ensure the content is planned with scope for many possible lines of development, to be pursued in the light of individual children's responses, or a group reaction. Effective practitioners are also alert to unexpected possibilities. The approach to curriculum content in the world-renowned Reggio Emilia pre-schools draws on the expertise of artists with expertise in techniques of a variety of crafts. The content grows from the question the children pose themselves. It takes into account their existing levels of knowledge and understanding, and thus challenges their thinking and nourishes their broader conceptual development. The underlying social learning is supported by the view, shared by parents and policymakers as well as practitioners, that children are powerful, rich and inventive thinkers. The details of the children's investigations are carefully documented, and provide convincing evidence of very high levels of achievement. Whilst this work has emerged from a different and distinctive culture, it has many lessons for us. Details of an exhibition of the work of Reggio children which is touring the UK during this year are included as appendix 2.

  1.16  In the UK, there has been a strong commitment to children's imaginative development and a belief in the value of play in traditional nursery education and in the playgroup movement, which grew up originally to fill gaps in nursery education provision. The value of play is confirmed through research, and is supported by philosophy of lifelong learning which anticipates a fast-changing and uncertain future, demanding flexible, open-minded and confident thought processes. Play is a powerful vehicle for all aspects of human development, particularly intellectual and creative growth, and should not be under-valued or trivialised.

Physical development

  1.17  Recent pressures for earlier introduction to reading and writing have led to a low priority for children's physical development. Other factors such as sedentary life-styles lead to concerns about long-term effects on children's health and well-being. Lack of opportunity for physical activity also reduces children's intellectual development. Concepts of relationships, literacy, numeracy and cause and effect all stem from practical bodily interactions with the environment. Opportunities for active physical exercise are thus an important part of the content of early education, encouraging scientific skills of investigation, and expressive movement. Access to outdoors is more than a recreational exercise, and should offer activities planned to develop skills and confidence across the whole curriculum.

  1.18  Dexterity is promoted through a wide variety of activities, such as cutting, building, using cutlery, dressing, sorting shapes, controlling a computer mouse, tidying up and looking after animals and plants. These will do more to help children learn to control writing implements than expecting them to hold and use a pencil correctly before they have the necessary manual precision. By the end of the Foundation Stage, some children will still have difficulty in reading and writing. Allowance has to be made for inevitable variations in attainment.

Baseline and other assessment

  1.19  Baseline assessment can detract from important areas of learning if it over-emphasises literacy and numeracy. There are demonstrable limitations in many of the 91 accredited schemes in England which are applied at widely varying times according to when children are admitted to the reception class. Some baseline assessments address achievement across a wide range and encourage staff and parents to share their knowledge, taking account of children's different ages and their previous experience. Nevertheless, the current focus on targets for older children in reading, writing and mathematics inevitably tends to limit the vision and confidence of early childhood educators, especially in schools where their concerns are not understood by senior managers. Such downward pressure risks undermining children's motivation and their disposition to learn, thus lowering rather than raising levels of achievement in the longer term.

  1.20  One benefit of Sure Start will be that formative assessments will be made much younger. Practitioners will be considering children's development from the beginning, and base judgements about progression on their actual development rather than on top-down expectations. This should help to avoid some of the more inappropriate provision and practice.

  1.21  Early findings of the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) project show that maintained nursery schools, centres and classes offer a more appropriate and better-resourced curriculum than nurseries run by social services or by the private and voluntary sector. Their work is generally more effectively planned and assessed, partly because they are led by teachers with knowledge of the curriculum in the early years. Social services and the private sector have prioritised the social and emotional needs of children and families rather than educational content. Nursery education in schools is generally funded at a higher level than the amount provided through the nursery grant.


  2.1  The way in which the early years curriculum should be taught is more important that the detail of the content. Young children have a natural will to communicate, which drives them to develop their language and literacy skills. Their curiosity feeds into the scientific area of learning, and their search for predictability and pattern leads naturally into mathematical understanding. Above all, they want to play an active part in the environment in which they find themselves, including their social milieu. They have an inborn ability to experiment creatively with ideas and materials.

  2.2  All areas of learning are inter-dependent. It is essential that in the early years children are enabled to extend their understanding and combine, re-organise and refine their ideas through play. (See appendix 1 for an article published in the Times Educational Supplement on 23 July 1999 for a more detailed explanation of this process) (not printed). Children need space and time to investigate and explore possibilities. They should have opportunities to work and play with others, preferably across a two- or three-year age range, as they learn so much from the examples of more experienced children as well as adults. Like adults, they learn by trying things out for themselves in a context which makes sense to them. In the early years, direct instruction is rarely meaningful, especially to a group of children with different levels of knowledge and varied previous experience.

  2.3  A common problem lies in the assumptions adults make about children's levels of understanding. Young children learn from infancy how they are expected to behave, and are quick to accept responses which, far from clarifying their knowledge, are likely to mask misunderstandings which may continue for years. They should be encouraged to find their own answers to challenges, and to persist in their chosen activities in collaboration with others. They need to realise that they can learn from mistakes, and discover the satisfaction of aiming for high standards through their own efforts rather than as a means of gaining adult approval. This leads to high levels of confidence in themselves as independent learners, and engenders a positive attitude and the motivation to continue to learn for its own sake.

  2.4  All these considerations are particularly relevant for children with SEN. The approach to identifying and meeting such needs currently varies considerably from area to area, although Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships now have common guidance. It is essential to ensure that, while recognising the challenge to Partnerships and LEAs, suitable support is available in these crucial early years.


  3.1  Levels of qualifications outside the maintained sector are currently low and very patchy. The long-standing split in this country between care and education has resulted in very different approaches between services for young children. The majority of under fives are in the care of staff with little educational content in their training, and who in many cases are unqualified. The government's intention to introduce a climbing frame of qualifications, harmonising and rationalising accredited courses at specified levels, is welcome. It will be a long and complex task to plan and introduce the scheme, but worthwhile so long as quality is not compromised. Staff teams must be able to provide appropriate education alongside high standards of care. It is essential that NVQ placements exemplify good practice, and that assessors and verifiers are rigorous. Every training course should have a taught element, so that students have the opportunity to build up the necessary underpinning knowledge and understanding to inform their practical experience. Training is particularly needed on interpreting the early learning goals for three and four-year-olds, special educational needs, and all aspects of equal opportunities.

  3.2  Teaching in the early years demands particular skills in educators which go beyond the direct transmission of knowledge. This is the stage when the foundations for life-long learning are laid. Of course practitioners should know about the content of the curriculum, and about relevant subject disciplines. It is vital for them to demonstrate an insight into the developmental needs of young children, and the ability to observe, analyse and extend children's progress in their emotional, social, and physical development as well as their intellectual growth. The ability to work with adults is also necessary, both within the nursery team and, crucially, with parents. Initial training in childcare and early education should prepare staff to enter a highly skilled and responsible occupation, and should be complemented by continuing professional development.

  3.3  Historically, nursery education in the UK was in nursery schools and classes, staffed by teams of qualified teachers and nursery nurses. The majority of teachers working in LEA nursery schools and classes are graduates who have specialised in work with children from three to eight or 11. Nursery nurses have a two-year training, which focuses on the developmental needs of young children. The NNEB or BTec in Nursery Nursing is the equivalent of NVQ level 3. Too many four-year-olds in reception classes encounter unqualified classroom assistants, and some have teachers who are not early years specialists.

  3.4  The best combination of professional skills is effective. Since the introduction of the national curriculum, however, there has been little time within initial teacher training for the necessary specialist skills required by early years teachers, and even less for those going through the PGCE route. Early years is however now recognised as a specialism comparable to subject specialisms, and there are moves, led by the TTA to review the content of courses. This trend is welcome, and is in line with recent developments in many countries, where the importance of developing expertise in early years care and education at graduate level is increasingly recognised.

  3.5  Additional training is needed now that there is a requirement for teachers to be involved in all settings in receipt of nursery grant. Outreach work in social services settings and the private and voluntary sector requires additional skills. The expansion of early care and education opens up possibilities for the early identification and meeting of special needs. Continuing professional development leading to the sharing of skills and perspectives and inter-disciplinary working is vital.


  4.1  Assessing, monitoring or inspecting the quality of teaching and learning in the early years is a complex task. It requires sensitive observation and the need to weigh many sources of evidence. Since one of the keys to effective education in the early years is the support and extension of children's own thinking, secure assessment requires a minimum of two days in any setting.

  4.2  In the context of an early years setting, where activities are fluid, often in response to children's initiatives, it is necessary to have more than one observer. Two or more inspectors need time to compare their observations. A child may be seen apparently flitting from one activity to the next. Is this due to a special need, or to a poorly organised curriculum, or to lack of intervention by staff? Or is the child being encouraged, either directly or indirectly, to investigate concepts of space and relationships in depth? Where a group of children is constructing a building together in the block area, what should be recorded about their learning? Is the physical challenge of balancing bricks one upon another the main preoccupation of all of them? Are some discovering symmetry and physical relationships in space? Are they exploring the concept of 3D shapes, and the relationship of these to flat planes? Are they counting, naming shapes, experiencing and describing the characteristics of wooden and plastic blocks? Is the opportunity for social learning, or for imaginative play more important for some in the group? Which children are consolidating skills in any area of learning, and which are engaged in new challenges? And how well do the staff recognise and respond to the children's differing needs? Can they provide challenges which will engage the interest of all the children and extend their learning in appropriate ways? To what extent do they share all this with parents, and involve them in the adventure of their children's learning? These are but few of the questions which may be raised in just one limited area.

  4.3  Existing arrangements for the formal assessment of the quality of teaching and learning are the responsibility of OFSTED, through Section 10 and Section 122 inspections. These rely on different protocols and have contrasting strengths and weaknesses. Section 10 inspections of maintained schools involve a team of inspectors over several days. The levels of early years expertise and the attention given to under fives is not always adequate. The methods for noting inspection evidence are the same for under fives as for primary and secondary classes and make it difficult to record the complex evidence needed. However, the inspectors consult in detail with parents, look in depth at the curriculum and at children's response to teaching as well as at their attainment and progress. They consider each aspect of their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development separately. Carefully considered joint judgments are made on many aspects of the work of schools, including value for money.

  4.4  However, evidence is more accessibly and usefully collated through the notebooks used by Section 122 inspectors in pre-school settings. However, these inspections are hampered by lack of time, and by the fact that they are undertaken by a single inspector during the day that is allocated. This makes it difficult to make secure judgments on the complex factors involved. Unfortunately many inspectors do not have high enough levels of experience and understanding to be able to make a valid assessment of what they see. The shortage of inspectors with expertise in the early years is a difficulty, compounded by the lack of understanding of early years issues at the highest levels in OFSTED.

  4.5  Now that the second round of OFSTED inspections is underway, there is a welcome increase in the level of attention paid to the action plans and self-evaluations of schools and settings. New models of evaluation are being developed in relation to the Early Excellence Centres using external validation of self-assessment procedures. This is a change which involves staff directly in monitoring their own practice. This developmental model of inspection is very desirable now that most early years provision is to be assessed and regulated through OFSTED. The sheer scale of the operation demands more awareness on the part of practitioners of their role in the monitoring process. There is a better reason for involving staff in self-appraisal, namely that it leads more securely to improvement. A culture of co-operation and partnership, grounded in mutual respect and in a shared search for rising standards is more likely to advance professionalism.

  4.6  Where registration inspections undertaken through the Children Act have been fully implemented, the support role undertaken locally can be seen to complement the investigative and enforcement powers of the local authority. The use of unannounced inspections is an effective part of the repertoire in many social services departments. There is however evidence of wide variations in the scope of monitoring and support across the country, which results in unacceptable variation in the standards secured for children. This adds to the discrepancies in quality of provision shown in the recently published EPPE findings.

  4.7  The government's intention to secure a level playing field, with centrally determined standards assessed through a common inspection schedule, is welcome. The proposed modular approach, taking account of specific issues applying to different forms of provision, is practical. The need for local knowledge of the context in which early education and day care settings operate is apparently accepted by OFSTED. The new arrangements propose an ambitious programme which will bring all provision to the standard of the best only if there is sufficient investment in training and other resources.


  5.1  A great deal depends on the definition of "formal" schooling. The chief inspector, commenting that few questions in education generate more heat and less light, has recently described the word "formal" as "pointing to adults planning, thoroughly and rigorously, what young children are to learn . . . if, through this planning, they provide activities which are appropriate to the age of the children and their stage of development, assess whether the children learn what was intended, and use these assessments to decide the next steps in learning, then the conclusion becomes even more unambiguous. What I am describing here is the good teaching that goes on in many early years settings. Can anyone seriously argue that such an approach is wrong?" (Early Years Educator, August 1999). In the same article, he makes the assertion that adults must manage young children's learning, and provides some limited examples of how this might be done.

  5.2  This quotation is a useful definition of effective teaching, but overlooks dangers in the common perception of "formal" teaching. That perception is that teachers transmit knowledge directly, and control the content, style and pace of that direction. This is not, even with adult pupils, the same as being in control of learning. Young children, coming to a setting from very varied homes with a wide range of previous experiences, are not able to relate effectively to a single style and standardised schooling. Young children should not be set up to fail in writing or counting skills, introduced formally, out of context, before they have had the opportunity to develop the necessary physical skills and the mental capacity to know the purpose of these activities. If we want equality of access to the curriculum for young children, an informal, developmental, learner-centred approach is essential. The younger the children, the more individually tailored teaching must be in order to help all children make good progress towards specified learning goals.

  5.3  The national literacy strategy has been widely interpreted as requiring a formal approach from the start in the reception year. This perception is erroneous, for the guidance commends a wide repertoire of teaching approaches. It has, however, been reinforced by the way many inspectors have viewed the strategy across primary schools, in the light of the training they received from OFSTED. This mistakenly says that every child in every school should experience a literacy hour every day. This is plainly wrong, but has been influential given the climate of anxiety and defensiveness engendered by the current inspection system. It has been reinforced by a video exemplifying a narrow, formalised approach to teaching literacy in nursery and reception classes.

  5.4  The numeracy strategy, however, states clearly that mathematics should be fun. It also makes it clear that the introduction of standardised ways of recording work should be deferred until children are able to understand the formal methods, around the age of nine. Further, this is justfied by the need for children to find their own ways of recording their work as a means of helping their conceptual development. The value of understanding (on the part of both teachers and pupils) the reasons for mistakes is also underlined, as part of the process of learning. The guidance acknowledges the value of self-directed learning based on clear research evidence, and should be widely acknowledge.

  5.5  Comparisons with other countries suggest that there is no benefit in starting formal instruction under six. The majority of other European countries admit children to school at six or seven following a three year period of pre-school education which focuses on social and physical development. Yet standards in literacy and numeracy are generally higher in those countries, than in the UK despite our earlier school starting age. It is more useful at the age of four or five to be extending speaking and listening skills and having practical experience of mathematics and science as the underpinning to more formal achievements. Personal and social development, and physical and creative development are also key to later learning. The introduction of a Foundation Stage will support this. It will result in proper regard for individual variations in experience and rates of development. High quality provision in the early years will support an effective inclusive approach to special educational needs. Children with learning or behavioural difficulties can be identified early, and many problems can be averted through proactive early intervention.

  5.6  Given the mix of approaches which is needed for effective support for children's cognitive development in the early years, the start of "formal education" could be deferred to the age of seven, or the start of Key Stage 2. This is not to deny the place of direct teaching in Key Stage 1 and the Foundation Stage. It should, however, always be tempered by plenty of opportunities for exploration and play, supported by adult interaction. Key Stage 1 could become an extension of the Foundation Stage, and contribute to a continuity in approach from birth to six. The establishment of a distinct period of education before the start of more formal schooling could ensure that all children received the support they they need, as a right. The country needs to meet the necessary cost of investing in all its children so that each one can benefit from the best possible opportunities to develop socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually.

The British Association for Early Childhood Education

January 2000

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