Once upon a time it was thought that to look after young children all you needed was common sense and to be a good person. But we now know it's a very complex business that needs to be taken more seriously."
So says children's centre manager Bernadette Duffy, who adds that the planned Early Years Foundation Stage framework is another step towards raising the status of early childhood education and improving the way that young children are taught.
The framework is designed to integrate the three major policies affecting children up to the age of five: Birth to Three Matters, the Foundation Stage Guidance and the national standards for childcare, plus the relevant inspection criteria. And according to Beverley Hughes, minister for children: "it is part of reassuring parents about the quality and consistency of education, wherever their child is."
The framework, which the national primary strategy team describes as "evolutionary, not revolutionary", replaces the guidance on the "Four Aspects" in Birth to Three (see box, far right) with the foundation stage's six areas of learning. It is due to become law in 2008 after a period of consultation that started last month.
"It will give all of us working with children a clear, continuous process, that allows every teacher whatever their setting to look both at where a child has come from and where they are aiming to be," says Ms Duffy, who as manager of the Coram Family children's centre in Camden, north London, helped try the new framework.
"The foundation stage and Birth to Three were both brilliant, but didn't mesh together with different principles and different language. Now staff have it all in one document, which makes it so much easier for us to teach and also to pass on what we know about children to parents and other settings," she adds.
But many involved in teaching young children disagree with Ms Duffy and fear the framework is a step backwards that could undermine all the positive aspects of the preceding documents, with the "benign" aspects of Birth to Three superseded by the more formal strictures of the foundation stage, which has its eyes on the key stage 1 national curriculum.
Although recognising that it may not be the intention of framework to create a "curriculum for babies" some fear that in a sector where almost half the workforce has no qualifications the framework could easily be misinterpreted. Bernadette Duffy understands these fears, but counters that training is the answer. "I accept that there may be problems with interpretation, particularly in settings not in the maintained sector. We need to ensure that there is a really rigorous training programme so that by 2008 everyone is ready to go."
Ruth Pimentel, the national director of the foundation stage within the primary national strategy team, also recognises that training is crucial:
"We have until 2008 to work closely with local authorities and key partners to ensure that we support practitioners in understanding the key messages of early years framework and continuing to develop their practice to strive for the highest quality for children," she says.
But Michael Freeston of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, while recognising that the framework is a "natural progression", is not confident that the training will be sufficient. "The history of training for early years has not been good," he says. "Most of it has been channelled through local education authorities which means it is targeted at maintained settings not those in the voluntary or private sectors. We need to get everyone involved in training if the framework is to be successful."
Another concern expressed by Mr Freeston and other specialists is that the framework recommends adult:child ratios for over-threes that alreadyexist in nursery and reception classes: that is 1:13, so long as there is at least one member of staff who is a graduate.
"Research has proved that cognitive development in children can be improved if there are graduates in a setting," says Mr Freeston, "but the real value of early years provision is that it extends beyond cognition. The emotional and social development of young children is just as important and a reduction of adults that they can react with must be detrimental."
But Ms Pimentel believes that such fears could be ironed out in the consultation period. She says: "This is a genuine consultation. We are keen to hear if this, as a first step, is workable and realistic - is the balance right about the importance of highly qualified staff and the numbers of children?"
If many early years practitioners have welcomed the framework, some with major caveats, the headteachers on the steering group of the Forum for Maintained Nursery Schools and Children's Centres are unequivocal in their opposition. While recognising that explicitly linking the various early-years documents is a positive move they believe the EYFS is not the way it should be done. They fear that the best aspects will be lost, with very little gained.
In a joint statement to Nursery World magazine they say: "Established good practice is about looking at each baby and each toddler as a unique individual. The intention is to replace this with age-related developmental goals will not help good practice to develop;it will be bad for babies in nurseries.
"For older children, the current Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage has led to a blossoming of good practice in the early years. Bringing play back into the curriculum, the current guidance also emphasises the need for rigorous planning and assessment. But the foundation stage is by no means fully established. There is still a lot of work to do."
Ruth Pimentel replies that "the EYFS is not about age-related developmental goals. It is about looking at each child as an individual and observing their learning and development from birth."
And Bernadette Duffy adds, "People might be pleasantly reassured when they actually read the document. They will hopefully see the logic to it and recognise that it is all in all a good thing that has the potential to make a real difference to children's lives."
www.dfes.gov.ukconsultation. The consultation period ends on July 28
Birth to Three Matters Non-statutory guidance for all registered child carers and parents. It highlights four aspects of development:
* Strong child
* Skillful communicator
* Competent learner
* Healthy child Foundation Stage
Six areas of learning are statutory for all settings caring for three to five-year-olds, and each has early learning goals.
* Personal, social emotional development
* Communication, language and literacy
* Mathematical development
* Knowledge and understanding of the world
* Physical development
* Creative development Eary Years Foundation Stage
Statutory framework for all settings dealing with children from birth to five
* Retains the six areas of learning
* Also incorporates the national standards for childcare and Ofsted criteria