Four-year-olds will need to write words

Linda Blackburne

Four-year-old children will have to be able to write letters and words and understand simple arithmetic under a new curriculum the Government is expected to approve soon.

The proposed English curriculum for the under-fives, which is still under wraps, is very similar to a draft Scottish curriculum for young children which was published last week.

And while teachers north of the border have this week been able to scrutinise the document, their English peers are still in the dark about what the Government expects under-fives to achieve by the time they go to school.

The proposed Scottish curriculum is based on a report from Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools in Scotland, which is called The Education of Children Under Five in Scotland.

It divides young children's abilities and skills into six groups: communication and language; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development and movement; expressive and aesthetic experiences; play; and personal, social and emotional development.

These are similar to the areas of learning experience which were set out in the seminal 1990 Rumbold Report, Starting with Quality. But it described activities rather than targets, and Rumbold stressed the importance of spiritual education.

While Gillian Shephard has yet to agree a curriculum for under-fives, a spokeswoman for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority said there were "very definitely strong similarities" between the proposed Scottish curriculum and the document before the Education and Employment Secretary.

There are, however, likely to be differences because of the contrasting education systems in England and Scotland.

Early years experts also think that the English version might place greater emphasis on things which can be easily measured, such as tying shoe-laces and naming colours. These are considered to be important skills - but only part of a broad curriculum for young children.

Under the proposed Scottish curriculum, nurseries and playgroups should help children to develop 35 skills. These include a curiosity about the alphabet, words and their meanings; acquiring a love of books; early writing skills in forming letters and words; understanding simple arithmetic such as sorting, grouping and counting; understanding rules for playing games, taking turns and sharing space; learning to form relationships with other people; and learning the differences between right and wrong.

Margaret Lally, chair of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, said she was pleased to see a section on play, but was concerned that there was nothing on independence, initiative or choices.

These were important skills which were already in the Office for Standards on Education guidelines for under-fives education, she said.

The National Campaign for Nursery Education fears the English version will comprise a tick list of skills which could narrow the early years curriculum and lower teachers' expectations of their children.

The Scottish voucher scheme, which aims to give the parents of all four-year-olds a Pounds 1,100 voucher to pay for their children's education, is similar to the English initiative.

Nurseries and playgroups will only be eligible for vouchers if their curricula meet high standards.

But the Scottish scheme proposes two funding options for vouchers. In England, there are no funding options but the Department for Education and Employment has been discussing the details and problems with the scheme since it was announced in mid-July.

The two funding options in Scotland are similar, but one is more likely to encourage authorities with few or no nursery classes to expand their provision.

The first option will involve "top-slicing" education authorities' nursery funding to pay for education vouchers for all four-year-olds in Scotland. Under this option, Western Isles, which does not provide any nursery places, would lose money. It would have to provide places before it could claim back any funding.

Under the second funding option, which is similar to the English proposal, the voucher money would come from the same sources, but Western Isles would have no money taken away from it and there would be no onus on the authority to provide more places.

But the Scottish Office points out that deductions under the second option would be complex.

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