This is early years time

Children start learning even before they are born, so why not include their early years in the education system? It means adapting, as their attention spans are short. Yet they are always acquiring understanding. Stirling Council feels that this is the time of the under-threes. Douglas Blane reports.

Pre-school children's services in Britain have been likened to a patchwork quilt, but the authors of the influential book People Under Three believe this is too charitable. "It is more like a rediscovered Roman pavement with large chunks missing where we can only guess at the original design," say Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson.

However, the pavement is in much better condition today than eight years ago when those words were written. Early education is now available free to all four-year-olds and will be extended to all three-year-olds by the end of 2002 (2004 in England).

The past few years have seen huge efforts in the UK to "improve, expand and integrate the diverse forms of early years provision for young children," according to an international survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. As a result, this previously neglected area is now benefiting from "significant funding and a radical reform of policy, co-ordination and planning".

Pat Wharton, the early childhood curriculum officer with Stirling Council, confirms: "This is early years time. People like myself who have been working in this area for years never thought it would attract this level of funding, or be seen as the important part of education that it is. We're very upbeat and really welcome what's happening."

One outcome of all the Government-driven activity is that Scotland - together with England and Sweden - was particularly commended by the OECD for the extent to which its early childhood and education systems are now being integrated.

The traditional separation into "care" for struggling families and "education" for those who could pay had been a major concern of earlier studies. It meant that those children most in need of educational provision were least likely to get it.

However, that socially damaging division does tend to persist among the very young. The OECD, while impressed by UK efforts to redress "many years of neglect", also points out that recent work still tends to focus on children between the ages of three and five. The report states: "As in many other countries, there seems to be an ambivalence toward early childhood education and care for children under three I Consequently, this age group has been relatively neglected by educationally-focused policies."

Babies begin learning even before they are born, so there is apparently no sound educational reason for not including young children in the education system. This is why Stirling Council has now published the first curriculum guidelines to support staff working with babies to three-year-olds.

Existing guidance on working with pre-school children in Scotland includes A Curriculum Framework for Children 3 to 5 and The Child at the Centre, which provides performance indicators for self-evaluation in nurseries. Both of these focus on working with children aged three and older.

"There was hardly any existing guidance on working with under-threes," says Pat Wharton. "So our group studied the literature and material on good practice - quite a lot of it from abroad - consulted our own staff in nurseries and playgroups, and built on Stirling's philosophy of working with children of all ages."

The result is Guidelines for an Early Years Curriculum, a set of three documents - Creating the Learning Environment, People within the Learning Environment and The Child as Learner - aimed at all professionals working with young children, whether in the private, voluntary or local authority sectors, in nurseries, playgroups or home-based settings, with practical advice on meeting young children's educational needs.

The format is very different from conventional curriculum guidelines, whether aimed at three to five or 5-14. This is intentional, explains Stirling's head of early childhood, Linda Kinney.

"We debated long and hard about whether we should call them curriculum guidelines," she says. "In the end we decided we should, because it would give continuity in a service that supports children of all ages. And it would make sure that staff dealing with very young children take the guidelines seriously.

"But we are definitely not producing educational outcomes for very young children. The last thing we want is a set of outcomes waiting for babies as soon as they are born.

"What we have produced is a framework and a detailed description of good practice in nurseries and playgroups, together with a set of methods for self-evaluation against which all our staff will be expected to assess themselves."

Self-evaluation - an essential element in raising standards - is a theme throughout the guidelines, which are backed up by regular in-service training sessions conducted by the lead author of the guidelines, Pat Wharton.

In a hotel at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, the topic for this afternoon's session is "Dealing with Parents" and many of the topics touched on during the session would be familiar to all education professionals, though some of the contexts might surprise.

"We often go home with flour on our faces and plasticine in our hair," says one smartly-dressed young educator during a discussion on parental reactions to messiness, "but we make sure the kids don't."

Aspects of dealing with parents explored during the afternoon include building trust, sharing information and being positive, flexible and welcoming while at the same time setting appropriate boundaries, remaining professional at all times and respecting confidentiality.

"It is not simple," Ms Wharton comments, with considerable understatement.

Addressing the group, she says: "Schools used to put signs up saying 'No parents beyond this point without the permission of the headteacher'. Do you think that would be a good idea? Are too many people getting involved in educating children?"

A few eyes light up momentarily at the prospect of keeping the more demanding parents at arm's length. But they soon begin talking of the importance of well-informed parents.

"You need to be approachable, and you need to let them know you are by your body language," comments one member of the group. "Some parents are hesitant about coming up to you and they have to be encouraged."

Ms Wharton agrees and explains the benefits. "Sometimes we think talking to parents is just about telling them how their kids are getting on. But it's just as important to learn what parents can tell us. You get children sometimes who are lively and active at home but very quiet in the nursery, and unless you chat to the parents you might never know something is wrong."

Schools and nurseries need to tune in to what happens to children when they are at home, says Ms Wharton. She discusses simple strategies and systems which, if set up in advance and explained to parents, can be a great help in keeping channels open and information flowing both ways. A home wall, "an area in the nursery that belongs to mums and dads where they can stick up photos or things of interest without having to ask permission", can be a valuable aid.

At the end of the session, the educators - the name the new guidelines use for all workers in the field, irrespective of background or qualifications - take homework for the next session back to their colleagues.

Ms Wharton talks of the key issues in early years education. "There can be problems when a child makes the transition from nursery to primary school," she says. "You can see from our guidelines that the early years approach to education is based very much on respect for the child as an individual, being sensitive to what they're trying to tell us.

"Now, when that child goes to primary school, he has to adjust to a more traditional way of working. At the same time, his teachers might feel a bit threatened by a child used to giving opinions and negotiating rather than being entirely adult-directed.

"We're doing a lot of work on nursery-primary liaison, trying to smooth that transition and make the contexts look more similar, at least for the first six to eight weeks, as children are gradually eased into a different way of working.

"Of course, a big issue for all of us in education is the inclusion agenda and working with children with special needs. We need more expertise in that area. It is a very enriching thing for children when they are all educated together, but staff do need more support.

"More generally, I think early years needs to become more embedded in local authority thinking. In Stirling we're lucky because the council puts children first and we have an integrated service, but that's unusual. We all have to be aware that children's lives are not on hold in the nursery. They are getting on with the business of living and learning, and we have to make that as enriching as possible for them."

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