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Breathe life into childhood

Five-year-olds should not be suffocated by literacy targets, but should be free to live and learn, writes Mary Jane Drummond

In principle, it still seems like a good idea. Take the sprawling variety of settings in which children spend time being three, four and five years old, and forge them into a brave new stage of education. Give it an appealing title - the foundation stage: a name that suggests solidity, inspires confidence and emphasises the fundamental importance of the early years. Announce the new dispensation in a blaze of publicity, issue detailed guidance, with a few kind words from Margaret Hodge, and lo! the under-fives are taken care of, once and for all.

Out in the real world, of course, it isn't quite so simple. For a start, in one local authority I know well, many young children experience four transitions before they start on their statutory schooling in key stage 1: from home to pre-school; from pre-school to a maintained nursery class; from nursery to the reception class, and thence to Year 1, where, if they are summer-born children, they arrive soon after their fifth birthday.

Four transitions in one key stage seems excessive; in fact for these children it's hardly a stage at all - more of a whistle-stop tour of a selection of provisions which may have little in common save their brand name: they are all foundation stage settings. Remember that children under six in other parts of Europe spend up to three of their pre-school years, if not more, in just one setting. The possibility of coherence and continuity in the foundation stage was whole-heartedly welcomed by the early-years community. But the quality of young children's experiences cannot be guaranteed by an official act of rebranding: there has to be an official commitment to follow through if the foundation stage is to make a difference to children's lives.

By temperament, Iam a dogged optimist, so I was initially enthusiastic about the possibility that the establishment of the foundation stage would drive out the inappropriately formal instruction that has characterised some reception classes for many years. I hoped that reception classes would become much less like classrooms in KS1, dominated by lessons, subjects, timetables, and tightly defined learning objectives.

In my version of events, reception classes would become more like our best nurseries and pre-schools, where children's learning is more important than the educator's teaching plans, where play, first-hand experience and talk are the principal means of learning, where children's capacity to explore and imagine is nourished by open-ended invitations to engage with the world and where observation of individual children is the key to developing both curriculum and pedagogy.

But too many of the reception classes I have visited over the past two years conform more closely to the typical Year 1 classroom, with a daily rhythm of learning intentions and plenary sessions, an overriding emphasis on literacy and numeracy (usually taught in the mornings) and, in many, limited and timetabled opportunities for outdoor activity. Of course, there are honourable exceptions, but they are few and far between.

These comments are made in the light of recent experience. Funded by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Professor Janet Moyles and I have collaborated on a small-scale inquiry into what is happening inside the foundation stage, particularly in reception classes. The full report will be published shortly, but we present our findings with heavy hearts, and a sense of disappointment.

Peter Moss and Pat Petrie have recently argued, most eloquently, for a reconceptualisation of services to young children in terms of "children's spaces", or, as they put it, "places for children to live their childhoods". They contrast the instrumental approach of the policy-maker who asks "What works?", with the need to ask deeper, more philosophical questions, in particular, "What is a good childhood?". This question, and others like it ("Is this place good enough for children's childhood?", "Are they leading a good life in here?") have been ringing in my head throughout the period of our inquiry, as we analysed questionnaires, interview transcripts, and, most revealingly, hours of observation data. The answers are not encouraging.

In too many reception classes the life of childhood is simply not good enough. There is more to being five years old than hitting all the literacy targets and knowing the number bonds to 20. There is more to a good childhood than phonemes and prepositions. In a good childhood, children encounter every day, at first hand, vivid and engaging elements of our mysterious, beautiful world; they engage in sustained, shared, purposeful talk; they are absorbed in complex, divergent, imaginative play. They are recognised and appreciated as accomplished, passionate learners and meaning-makers. If all this can happen in the first year of the foundation stage, and it does, can't it happen in the second year of the foundation stage, in the reception class? Of course it can, and I persist in my dogged determination that it will, one day.

Mary Jane Drummond formerly worked at the faculty of education, University of Cambridge

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