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How the fours are faring

Josephine Gardiner visits reception classes in Northern Ireland and Hampshire to find out how four-year-olds are adapting to the rigours of primary school life.

Around half the four-year olds in England and Wales now attend primary school reception classes. There seem to be three principal objections to the idea of extending this arrangement in order to fulfil the Government's promise to expand nursery education.

The first concern is that three-year-olds are left out of the picture, and the second that adult-child ratios in primary schools may be inadequate for such young children. But by far the most potent and frequently voiced fear among teachers and parents is that four-year-olds could be deprived of a child-centred nursery education and subjected instead to a "watered-down national curriculum". This phrase tends to conjure up a pathetic vision of tiny children sitting trapped at desks all day, anguished because they have only reached level one in geography while their best friend is already at level three.

It is worth remembering that there is one part of the UK where all the four-year-olds are not only going to primary school but working their way into key stage 1 of the curriculum. Five years ago the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order lowered the compulsory school starting age in the province to four. Before this it was five, although it was traditional to start in reception at four. Now, all children who reach their fourth birthday before July 1 start school two months later in primary 1, and follow the Northern Ireland curriculum.

While some teachers in the province sound almost bemused when asked if they have any misgivings about children starting so early ("Why should I? I started at four and that was in 1958"), others admit that they were worried five years ago by the idea of four-year-olds following a subject-based curriculum. But all of them say that their fears have mostly proved unfounded: inspectors have emphasised that they are looking for evidence of an informal, child-centred approach and teachers' objections about content-overload have been heard and incorporated into the recent revision of the curriculum.

Patricia Moore, principal of St Bernadette's Catholic primary school in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, is convinced that the early start is not only desirable but essential for her pupils: "I dread to think what would happen if we had to wait any longer." Belfast is buzzing with optimism about the peace process but from the outside, St Bernadette's would probably fit most mainlanders' preconceptions of what a Belfast school would be like. Looking across the playground, ringed with high steel fences, the Peace Wall cuts harshly across the horizon, separating the grey streets of Ballymurphy and the Falls from the Protestants of Shankhill. The school's windows are all of opaque glass, reinforced with wires. Unemployment in this district runs at around 75 per cent, and 89 per cent of pupils at St Bernadette's are eligible for free school meals.

All of which makes the contrast with the richly varied and colourful environment inside the school more striking. But Patricia Moore is keenly aware that many of her four-year-olds start their school careers at a disadvantage. "If they were coming to us any later, they would have less of a chance; a high-quality language input is particularly important here . . . the vocabulary of many of the children is very limited; they chatter away but it's mostly in colloquialisms." Many of them have never been introduced to books, she says, or to words and concepts beyond the immediate domestic environment. Television is no substitute here because "if they just look at it, it's merely hypnotic, and the words are often in an accent they don't understand. There has to be interaction before they can learn".

To combat this, Olin Keene, who teaches one of the three primary 1 classes, uses the Breakthrough to Literacy scheme to build up vocabulary. The child starts with a picture, then makes up a sentence or miniature story to go with it. Olin Keene writes the words down and the child copies them. Every time the children require a new word, they fetch it from a central "bank" and add it to their personal word banks. Eventually the need for Olin to write diminishes and the children begin to write independently. The evidence of the pupils' writing books suggests that progress is rapid; their handwriting and sentence construction looks remarkably mature for four, and the books are enlivened by their beautiful illustrations in glowing colours. The pupils also have their own "dictionaries" to which words are added gradually to reinforce progress.

In one corner of the classroom is a highly civilised "listening centre" where children can recline on cushions listening to stories and nursery rhymes through headphones. This is not a directed activity; the idea is to encourage the pupils to make free choices and explore language independently, even if this means they listen to Little Red Riding Hood every day for weeks at a time. Other reading schemes in use here include the Oxford Reading Tree, the Longman Book Project and Story Chest.

Patricia Moore admits that the staff were worried that introducing four-year-olds to the Northern Ireland curriculum would compromise the teachers' freedom to concentrate on the needs of individual children, but she says that this never happened in practice. "The programmes of study emphasised that children should have a wide range of experiences and that the learning should not be too formalised; structured play is still the key to learning, and maths, science and English can all be worked into play."

A more pressing worry is a dearth of classroom assistants. The 59 primary 1 pupils at St Bernadette's are divided into three groups with one teacher each, while at Sir Oliver Plunkett, another Catholic maintained school near the Falls Road, Maria Graham looks after her reception class of 24 three and four-year-olds single-handedly. These include the children born after July 1 in the summer before they start school and they receive a nursery education with no formal instruction. However, Maria Graham finds plenty of opportunities to introduce language work, starting with story time when the children arrive, followed by discussion."The emphasis is on socialisation, emotional development, motor skills and learning to listen to and follow instructions, providing a solid foundation for school," she says. She has adopted one of the elements of the American High Scope scheme in encouraging the children to make decisions about what activities they pursue.

The reception pupils at Sir Oliver Plunkett finish school at 1pm (2pm for those in primary 1) but there is little demand for daycare after that time because "we have very few working fathers, let alone working mothers".

Back on the mainland, Trosnant infants school in Havant, Hampshire, has been taking four-year-olds since Hampshire LEA launched a scheme in 1993 to admit all children in the year they turned five. The scheme came in for some criticism in a recent Cambridge University Institute of Education report (TES, March 24) on the grounds that children were spending too much time on unimaginative repetitive tasks and teachers were interfering too much in play activities. Trosnant, however, was not one of the schools surveyed in the report. The school, on a relatively poor estate in a wealthy area, has 49 (last year it was 62) four and five-year-olds in two classes. Each class has a generous staff allowance of two teachers and two early-years assistants. The head, Diana Nottingham, stressed the importance of being flexible in expectations of these children. "Development is very variable at this age; some are almost ready for the national curriculum, others seem very young and dependent." The pupils do not, of course, follow a prescribed curriculum like their counterparts in Northern Ireland, but the school has put together a reception curriculum ("though this is certainly not set in stone") which emphasises talking with and observing individual children and building on their personal level of development. "It's very important not to impose what you think they need before they tell you, or show you," says Diana Nottingham.

The very literal perspective on life typical of four-year-olds has involved some mental adjustment on the part of the staff. Diana Nottingham tells one anecdote about a boy who said he couldn't read, and then proceeded to read a word on the wall. "Isn't that reading?" "No, it's not in a book."

Underestimating the children's powers is also a danger. "When we had a story-teller in, we were doubtful whether this age group could really listen and concentrate for that long." The children proved their fears groundless and now story-reading is an everyday occurrence. Literacy is also developed through an impressive variety of reading matter (books and catalogues as well as story books) and an emergent writing scheme in which pupils write the first letter or several letters if they cannot manage to spell the whole word - this prevents children's train of thought being truncated and familiarises them with the "feel" of flowing writing. Independence is encouraged by asking the children to choose their activities and take responsibility for that choice.

The advantage of teaching children of this age is that they make no distinction between work and play. All the small pupils in Trosnant's enviably huge and sunny classroom were, without exception, wholly engaged in activities that included playing together in and out of the garden, using sand, water and Plasticine, reading stories, making very serviceable furniture for the Three Bears' house, writing sentences and reading them out to teacher Jane Wilkins, who was reminding them about capitals and full stops. Gary and Robin (a girl) were sharing a computer game. Gary was dominating the proceedings and pushing Robin's hands off the keyboard, until Robin ran out of patience and said: "Move over, I know what to do next." Suddenly they didn't seem so young.

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