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Early start to the revolution

The new adviser on early-years practice believes in plenty of structured play for children and proper training for all staff involved in the foundation stage. Julie Henry reports.

WENDY Scott has been badgering the Government for years about higher quality early-years education. Now, as adviser to the Department for Education and Skills, she is part of the team expected to deliver.

The softly-spoken former inspector and nursery school head is "rejoicing" that the fight seems to have paid off with the introduction of the foundation stage for children aged between three and five, national early-years care standards and the expansion of funding in the sector.

"Margaret Hodge talked about a quiet revolution - it should have been called a noisy revolution," she said. "It is the single most significant initiative the Government has started."

Ms Scott, the former chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, is an advocate of play who thinks premature teaching of the 3Rs can damage children.

She was not averse to pointing out to that enemy of the egg box - and former chief inspector of schools - Chris Woodhead that he was no early-years expert.

She is now an adviser on early-years development and care partnerships, local bodies with the task of drawing up plans to expand childcare provision. Some commentators worry that the Government's recruitment of a number of resolute early-years campaigners, such as The Daycare Trust's Collette Kelleher and Barnardo's Maggie Smith, could be a way of keeping them quiet.

But Ms Scott makes the point that she is a consultant to the department - not an agent - although the difference is hard to define. With her strong education bias, it is not surprising that she wants schools to play a bigger part in providing the wrap-around care that would help to cut down on the number of times children are shunted from pillar to post in the space of one working day.

Her plea to a gathering of primary headteachers to "open their hearts and minds and use their energy" to extend the school day and year met with the low murmurings of the overworked and underpaid.

There is also scepticism, despite the promises, about partnerships' ability to provide the special needs co-ordinators whose early intervention would make such a difference to schools struggling to cope with more and more demanding pupils.

Ms Scott does, however, win brownie points for her support of the foundation stage and its emphasis on structured play. She would eventually like to see this elevated to the status of the national literacy and numeracy strategies.

She said: "The early years need levels of staff training similar to literacy and numeracy work. The emphasis must be on quality. I've said to ministers, you might as well tear up your billions if you don't put quality first."

She quotes early-years expert Julie Fisher, who discovered parallels between the principles of architecture and creating the conditions for children to thrive.

"Foundations take longer to create than the building. The higher the building, the stronger the foundations have to be. The more stress a building is likely to face, the more flexible the foundations need to be."

The tension between the need for thousands of extra workers in early years and the importance of proper training has characterised the sector's expansion debate.

For many primary heads and early-years experts, Ms Scott's concentration on quality is reassurance in an ever-changing world.

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