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Force-feed before five at your peril

The flurry of ministerial interest in the early years must not lead to an over-formal approach, argues Vicky Hurst. The terms of John Major's promised expansion of education before five raise many worries. Why are the three-year-olds not included, even as a long-term goal? The balance of three and four-year-olds learning together enables a wide range of different individual needs to be met, and four-year-olds gain greatly from supporting younger children.

What is meant by "nursery education"? Diversity is to be encouraged, but will there be a strong framework of high-quality, well-resourced education with trained nursery teachers? This is essential to set high standards, and to support and extend voluntary and independent provision. Will the curriculum be appropriate for these young children or will we be forced to start the three Rs even earlier, with primary school tests at five?

Unthinkable? Not any more. Baseline testing for the "value-added" comparison appeals strongly in the market-place version of early education. Bad luck if you are learning English as a second or third language - you will be marked as deficient from the start. Bad luck, too, if your life experiences in your first 60 months don't give you the expected knowledge for the new teacher to test you on - however clever you are, you will feel incompetent. Perhaps we need a compulsory curriculum for parents of under-fives to follow, too, so that you don't fail your five-plus.

We all want children under five to achieve, but not in reproducing limited and easily testable skills, when we need creative and adaptable people for the 21st century. This is not how high-quality learning begins. Parents want their children to succeed, but many already experience the sad results of too much formal teaching too early. How many parents' hearts have sunk at the cry from their child, "I know what to do, I just don't know why to do it"? How many parents trace their own difficulties in learning to the panic they felt when pressed to work formally before they were able to do so? Too early a start to formal learning can have a bad effect on later education, and can turn children who used to enjoy school into anxious or disaffected pupils. Gillian Shephard must not let the three-Rs brigade march in over our protests, and over the needs of the children.

The voluntary, independent and maintained education and care services for the under-fives are clear in their vision of the curriculum for the pre-school child: it is play-based, strong on links with home, with adults providing for learning through children's own interests and activities. There is a real need for more resources and training for this curriculum. Observation of children, with rigorous record-keeping and analysis, will provide the in-depth understanding of individual pupils that their parents and their present and future educators need, and the curriculum evaluation and planning process that reaches and maintains high standards.

This is why we need maintained nursery education with trained nursery teachers to take a lead in establishing an appropriate curriculum, with observation at the heart of its record-keeping and its planning and evaluation system.

How can we progress towards making this opportunity available to all children? What should Mrs Shephard do?

First, she should recognise that under-fives practitioners are clear about the kind of curriculum that is developmentally appropriate and do not want a different one forced on them. Instead they want better tools: improved training, staffing, accommodation, resources and inspection services.

Second, she should accept that the concern of all is for high quality provision for early learning, and that no one believes it can be cheap. The resources for the expansion must be carefully planned, and earmarked for the future so that quality can go on developing.

Third, she should plan for long-term development of high quality services for children through a strong framework of maintained nursery education. It is not important to stick to the form this is currently presented in. Nothing could be less helpful to parents who work than the present part-time, school-terms-only, role to which it has mostly been reduced: flexibility is vital. So is co-ordination, locally and nationally, with other providers.

Fourth, she must prepare to expand the educational inspection service to cover all provision for under-fives (as the Pre-school Playgroups Association has urged the Department for Education) and take advice on the appointment of inspectors and on documents and procedures if they are to have credibility with under-fives practitioners. There is deep unhappiness among nursery teachers about the present arrangements.

Last, she must impress upon her colleagues that value for money is not to be achieved through early preparation for the three Rs; feeding young children's minds must be taken as seriously as feeding their bodies. To impose a narrow, formal pre-school education on the under-fives it would be a monstrous distortion of good practice and a tragic waste of resources.

Vicky Hurst is a lecturer in early childhood education at Goldsmiths' College, and director of the Quality in Diversity research project initiated by the Early Childhood Education Forum.

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