Failing great expectations

Teachers are voicing concern that academic goals for five-year-olds are too ambitious. Helen Ward reports

Too much is expected of five-year-olds academically, say early-years teachers.

Hundreds of reception-class teachers have said that the early learning targets in writing, which expect five-year-olds to start forming simple sentences and use simple punctuation, are too high.

Children are expected to try writing for different purposes such as lists and invitations, to use phonic knowledge to write simple words and attempt to use more difficult ones.

More than half of the 400 reception-class teachers surveyed by academics from Manchester university said they believed it was difficult for children to use their phonic knowledge to write.

Just 28 per cent of five-year-olds reached the expected goals in writing this year, compared with 60 per cent who reached the expected level in physical development and 52 per cent in emotional development.

Goals for physical development require five-year-olds to show a range of basic skills such as throwing and rolling and having some understanding of health issues such as washing their hands after using the toilet.

Children are also set emotional development targets such as understanding what is right and wrong in familiar situations.

Glynis Yexley, a senior teacher at Maxilla nursery in north Kensington, London said: "The goals in writing do have higher expectations. But it may be harder to write the goals in that area.

"There is a lot of playful work that goes on in and around alliteration and rhyming, particularly using children's names such as saying 'sunny Sammy'

to highlight the initial sound, which is not acknowledged. Whereas in physical development once a child can climb with control you can tick that box."

Reception teachers singled out "communication, language and literacy" as the key area for learning and development, according to the survey for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Four out of five teachers said that it was their top priority, compared to three out of five of those nurseries working with three-year-olds.

Three-quarters of reception teachers said they faced difficulties in providing a broad and balanced curriculum for children. The most common difficulty, faced by half of teachers, was inadequate outdoor space. A third also mentioned pressures created by targets and assessments and too much time spent on form-filling. And 17 per cent said a lack of understanding among senior management did not help.

Whether the early-learning goals are pitched correctly is one topic being considered by early-years experts nationally as an informal consultation continues on the new Early Years Foundation Stage.

The new stage will bring together all existing guidance for people working with children from birth to the age of five from 2007.

* helen

What five-year-olds are expected to do

* Mark's writing shows he can identify middle vowels although he doesn't always use the correct letter - "I got ap and lut ad the bed" (I got up and looked under the bed).

* David's writing shows he can use phonic knowledge to attempt more complex words - "I went to seey fiyuwercs and hat to pc in the pub" (I went to see fireworks and had to park in the pub).

From the curriculum guidance for the foundation stage

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