CHILDREN as young as three will have their own curriculum under radical changes to early-years education.
A new "foundation stage" of learning - nicknamed "key stage zero" - will take children from nursery to the end of reception year. By that stage they will be expected to hold a pencil properly, form sentences, subtract and add up, write their own names and know the alphabet.
The plans, set out by government curriculum advisers, will re-ignite the debate over whether formal learning begins too early in Britain. Early-years experts have long campaigned for formal learning to be delayed until age six, as in other European countries. Since the advent of nursery vouchers most four-year-olds have been taught in reception classes.
The TES first revealed ministers' plans to make ages three to six a distinct stage last year, but this was denied until this week.
Junior education minister Margaret Hodge said the proposals would "bring together play, care and education in a structured and rigorous way". Children will be expected to reach more than 60 targets - or "learning goals".
A much greater emphasis will be placed on a child's personal, social and emotional development. They must be able to take turns, respect other cultures, know the difference between right and wrong, be responsible for their own personal hygiene and form good relationships with adults.
Wendy Scott, chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, which has campaigned for a foundation key stage, said the plans were "something we can all work with".
She said the guidelines would protect children in reception classes and allay parents' fears about their children being pushed too hard, too young. "For too long there's been a tremendous lack of respect and understanding of the way in which young children develop. This will go a long way to redressing the balance," she said.
Margaret Lochrie, of the Pre-school Learning Alliance said the curriculum had "virtually no reference to play and was entirely structured to formal learning."
Union leaders also attacked the plans. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Even Joe Stalin wasn't this prescriptive. This is too much formality too young."
Lesley Staggs, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority early-years unit, said if parents were going to put their children in reception classes at the age of four "then it was reasonable for them to expect structured learning.
"It's not what you teach at this age that matters, it's how you teach it. Making up rhymes and playing nonsense games can go a long way to making sure children achieve the targets in speaking and listening," she said.