THE chief inspector is to conduct a major investigation into whether lessons for five-year-olds are too formal.
Four-year-olds' lessons are already based on learning through play.
Teachers say that children have difficulty coping with the more formal lessons when they move into Year 1.
Ministers have said that extending elements of the new, play-based foundation stage into Year 1 have not been ruled out.
Now the Office for Standards in Education will investigate claims of a clash between the foundation stage curriculum, which is used in the reception year, and the more formal national curriculum, which starts in Year 1.
The study of 28 schools, which will be published in 2004, will cover:
* the impact on children's progress of the transition from foundation stage to key stage 1;
* curricular continuity;
* the quality of teaching in the foundation stage and key stage 1.
David Bell, the chief inspector, said: "The questions we want to ask include: is there a dip in progress between reception year and Year 1? What is the management of transfer like? How good is curriculum continuity? What impact have the national literacy and numeracy strategies had?
"We wanted to do it this year so we could also look at the impact of the foundation-stage profile."
The controversial foundation-stage profile, introduced in January, assesses each child against 117 measures, such as being able to read simple, regular words.
A Warwick University poll of 803 teachers for the National Union of Teachers found that only a quarter of respondents thought the profile would be useful in their work with pupils.
But it has been widely welcomed by early-years experts, who say that it builds on the day-to-day observations that teachers should automatically make of their pupils.
The new primary strategy also acknowledges the need to help children settle more quickly into school.
It says that experts on the foundation stage will be recruited to work alongside primary strategy consultants, to provide training and support for teachers.
There will also be an Early Years and Parents project, to provide extra support for groups of children when they start in Year 1.
Stephen Twigg, education minister, said: "There are lessons to be learned from good practice. One thing people say we can learn from is good practice in transition from the foundation stage to key stage 1. I don't want to be prescriptive about it in either direction, but we want to trust teachers'
In Wales, education minister Jane Davidson is consulting on proposals for a new, less formal foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds.
A study of literacy and numeracy in 129 reception classes carried out in 2000, just after the introduction of the foundation-stage curriculum, criticised the minority of schools which had not introduced a full literacy hour or numeracy lesson by the summer half-term, saying that they were failing to prepare children for Year 1.
Primary Forum, 20
FE in Wales, 31