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Early-years targets anger heads;Reception

The Government's latest goals for young pupils are too demanding, say primary heads in a league-topping London borough. Nadene Ghouri reports

WHEN it comes to testing young children, you might expect schools in Kingston upon Thames to know a thing or two.

The well-heeled west London borough topped last year's primary league tables, and is famed for all manner of academic excellence.

But Kingston's heads have staged an unusual challenge to the Government's plans for the early years: they are angry because, they say, young children are working too hard.

They have attacked proposals for a new curriculum for three to six-year-olds, saying the plans, under which pupils will be expected to count to 100 and know their alphabet by the end of reception year, are too difficult to achieve and could turn children off education for life. They hope to start a national revolt.

"I am being asked by this Government to do what I know in my heart is wrong. We are putting agendas and targets before children," says Sandra Baxter, head of St Luke's primary school. "We are pushing our youngest children harder and harder, and it isn't right.

"It makes me so tense having to ask five-year-olds to sit still and concentrate when every bone in their body is screaming to run around and play," she added.

The spanking new buildings and extensive grounds at Fernhill primary school have seen a similar spirit of rebellion. Its head, Diana Brotherstone, says she fears the increasing demands of the literacy and numeracy hours could see her pupils "burn-out" by 11. "We are the so-called elite and if we are worried, where does that leave the rest of the country?" asks Mrs Brotherstone.

The Kingston heads look set to re-ignite a heated debate over whether or not the UK forces its children to learn too much, too soon. It was hoped the Government's new proposals, outlined in a document from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, would strike a balance between formality and play. The QCA says they do just that, offering a seamless approach from pre-school to key stage 1.

The Kingston heads, however, say the QCA's "early learning goals" do not always dovetail with later stages. In addition, they claim many of the targets - such as requiring children to hear and say short vowel sounds within words, and form sentences with punctuation - are more suitable for KS2.

They describe as "laughable" the social goals, which expect children to consider the consequences of their words and actions and understand other's views, cultures and beliefs. "Show me an adult who can do that," said Pat Jones, head of Knollmead primary.

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