Lessons from the bad old days

Diane Hofkins

Anyone who has a hankering to return to the good old days need only read our selection of "first days at school" for a reminder of how much things have changed for the better.

Those who have succeeded despite (and sometimes because of) their early traumas include former education minister Sir Rhodes Boyson, shadow education secretary David Blunkett and parent spokeswoman Margaret Morrissey (pages 10 and 11).

You will read harrowing tales of beating, separation and forced right- handedness, along with examples of daft rules, confusion and childish misunderstandings (one subject went home at break by accident).

Of course, the adult-child gap can never be fully bridged, and some confusion and anxiety is bound to accompany the start of school ("I didn't know where to put my lunch box", says our six-year-old writer).

But the transition from home to school is now made much more gently, and is far less likely to leave lasting scars. Teachers visit children at home, children visit their Reception teacher's class in advance, and then ease in gradually.

The early years curriculum, too, introduces children to formal education more slowly, with its emphasis on play and active learning. But many experts are worried about the impact that the Government's controversial nursery voucher scheme will have on the quality and ethos of pre-schooling.

As this Update goes to press, the primary and pre-school world is awaiting the Government's proposed "targets of attainment" for four-year-olds, which will go out to consultation next week.

When and if the voucher scheme is up and running, participating schools and playgroups will have to show they are providing an education "appropriate to" these goals.

Although there are fears that these curriculum guidelines will demand too little of private enterprises and playgroups, or that they will place too much emphasis on preparing for the national curriculum, it may well be that they simply reflect the agreed tenets of good practice set out in the 1991 Rumbold Report, Starting with Quality. We will have to suspend judgment until we know.

One thing they are unlikely to do is show the way to meld education and care together, in the growing under-fives market. Fortunately, there are places like Hilary's nursery in Mold, Clwyd which do (page 20). Retired state nursery school headteacher Hilary Renowden combines structure with freedom and respect for children backed up by careful observation and a solid understanding of their development, all in a homely setting.

While there is going to be more Government say in the curriculum for four-year-olds, there is now less about what those aged five and up have to study. Sir Ron Dearing's slimmer curriculum comes into use this term, and schools should have a bit more flexibility. Although a TES survey suggests that few have been able to find the one-day-a-week equivalent promised by the Dearing review, most have created a bit of space to give children something extra (pages 16 and 17).

The start of a new term is a time for optimism, a chance for a fresh start for everyone, from long-serving teachers to the little four-year-olds arriving in their classrooms. One big change in the message to children starting school since the days of David Blunkett and Ted Wragg (who has also revealed his first day experiences) is that they are important.

Teachers are important, too. The message from schools which have made it through the Office for Standards in Education inspections with high praise is that teachers and heads must have the courage of their convictions (page 12). They prepared, but did not change themselves for the inspectors. As one head said, "You have to have confidence in your school".

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