Three to six-year-olds need to be educated in a different way from older children, according to the leaders of a new campaign to change government policy.
Education Secretary David Blunkett has asked local authorities to submit plans by the end of next February for the education and care of children under five. And, in an "Early Years Agenda for the New Millennium", three prominent educationists from the Early Years Curriculum Group - Margaret Edgington, Wendy Scott and Julie Fisher - are calling for a radical rethink.
"We hope that from it we'll get a groundswell," says Ms Edgington, vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, "and that the damage which is being done to the education of our youngest children will be stopped." Much of the thinking behind the 11-point agenda is based on accepted articles of faith in early childhood education: that small children need to be educated "from the bottom up"; that how they learn is as important as what they learn; and that they need specialist teachers.
But, with the aim of "grasping all the nettles now", the agenda would take four-year-olds out of reception classes, make three to six the nursery years, and delay the national curriculum and baseline assessment until the year in which children are six.
Unstated but implicit is the death of the private nursery school, the building or expansion of nursery units with part-time places, and a redrawing of the Government's targets for children turning five.
The agenda has been endorsed by the British Association of Early Childhood Education, whose chair is Wendy Scott. Ms Scott, an early years consultant, says: "We now have the scientific evidence, from brain studies and child development work, to know that three to six-year-olds learn by doing. Teaching them depends on linking in with what they already know.
"It's no wonder that - as we've recently seen - taking children into reception classes ever younger hasn't helped with literacy results at seven." Ms Scott talks about the 23 "wasted years" since Margaret Thatcher announced an expansion of nursery education - which had petered out within two years. Then the national curriculum hit problems because of the different admission times in reception. Vouchers confused things even further, with what Rosemary Murphy, chairman of the National Private Day Nurseries Association, calls "the panic-buying of every four-year-old in sight". Many education authorities now admit only in September and a child who celebrates her fourth birthday only a few days earlier can find herself sitting down for register and queueing up for assembly.
Ms Scott says: "This chunking-up of entry has a terrible effect on nurseries too, leaving them with lots of vacancies. Meanwhile, reception classes are being run by people who are trained to teach right up to the end of key stage 2, which means the training time for dealing with very young children is much reduced."
However, the Teacher Training Agency says the new course starting in September 1998 will provide for a training specialising in three to eight-year-olds - and will almost certainly lead to a higher early years profile and more of a groundswell of specialists.
Julie Fisher contributed as an individual, although she is Oxfordshire's early years adviser. She believes the swing away from child-centred methods has done a disservice to the nursery years. "We need to ensure a specialist training which includes child development. Children move from concrete to abstract ways of learning around the age of five or six. They then become able to learn from other people's experience instead of having to learn everything by doing it themselves."
High class sizes would ease if four-year-olds were taken out of reception and put in special units with the nursery ratio of one trained teacher to 13 children, with trained support staff.
Jenny Crockett, head of St Andrew's County Infant School and Nursery in Colchester, knows it can be done. She has 104 part-time places in her nursery, one of around 35 set up by Essex County Council in the past five years. The children transfer to reception at five.
"In headline terms, good early years teaching is child-centred but not soft-centred," she says. "They learn more before the age of five than they learn the rest of their lives. We are charged with getting it right, with giving them valuable experiences: not waffly but appropriate play."Rosemary Murphy would like to see three to eight recognised as a distinct phase. "But the early years centres should be away from schools. Education is not everything. If we put nurseries on school campuses, what next? Maternity units there as well?" On the other hand, OFSTED has concerns that a separate phase may result in an enforced infancy, an imposed ceiling on learning. Parents don't have to be chalk and talk dinosaurs to hope that nursery school will help their children become literate and numerate. Will our brightest youngsters be served by the setting of a non-porous boundary?
Tim Coulson, a professional officer at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says the authority might review the "desirable outcomes" - the controversial targets for five-year-olds.
Early Years Agenda for the New Millennium, 18 Swallowdale, Colchester, Essex CO2 8BD
EARLY YEARS AGENDA FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM 1 Embrace the well-established principles of early years education as the basis for all future developments.
2 Acknowledge that effective education in the early years lays the foundation for life-long learning.
3 Fund early years education so that the needs of young learners are fully met.
4 Introduce minimum standards of space, resourcing and staffing for all educational provision for three, four and five-year-olds.
5 Draw on the expertise of early years practitioners to develop the distinctive early years curriculum and its assessment appropriately.
6 Endorse a curriculum that recognises the value of the processes as much as the outcomes of learning.
7 Encourage co-operation and co-ordination between providers to meet the needs of families and communities.
8 Strengthen the involvement of parents in their children's early education.
9 Improve initial training for teachers of children aged three to six years by removing current requirements relating to key stage 2 and including early years as a distinct specialism.
10 Establish a rigorous joint inspection system, undertaken by experts in early education together with those familiar with Children Act requirements.
11 Stop admitting four-year-olds to reception and key stage 1 classes, and educate them alongside three and five-year-olds in properly resourced early years settings.