While some practitioners protested loudly at the prospect of tiny tots being dragged out of the sandpit to jump through the hoops of a formal curriculum, government ministers continued to stoke up controversy by emphasising the need for "a structure and a framework".
So, the arrival on Monday of a quietly-argued, unsensational document came as a surprise to some. Early Learning Goals from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority lays down a set of targets that it hopes most six-year-olds will meet, while acknowledging that some will not.
The document studiously avoids setting targets for each year of the "foundation stage" (from age three to the end of the reception year). Instead of being "a curriculum in themselves", the goals "provide the basis for long-term planning", thus laying foundations for future learning.
Contrary to publicly-expressed fears, the guidance does not ignore the importance of play in young children's development. Its key concept appears to be the idea of "structured and focused" play. Teachers are told their role is crucial in supporting children's learning through planned play activity. And this kind of broad-brush approach, setting out the outline of practitioners' responsibilities, but not the detail of how they should do their job, is typical of the QCA document.
In contrast, the 68 goals expected at the end of the reception year (age 5 or 6) are detailed and prescriptive. Under the same headings as the existing desirable learning outcomes (see panel), they stipulate that most children should, for example, be able to count to 10.
With such specific targets at the end of the foundation stage (age 5), proponents of a formal early-years curriculum are unlikely to give up their cause yet.
Next summer, more detailed guidance is expected on how most children can achieve the goals by the end of the foundation stage. Although the QCA is currently selling the update as a digest of good practice, it will offer a second chance to introduce targets in the earlier years of this stage. The Office for Standards in Education is now assigned to inspecting nurseries and playgroups and many will suspect that it is only a matter of time before targets arrive.
Early Learning Goals is available from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 29 Bolton Street, London W1Y 7PD