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Many reception-class teachers worry that they are being forced to subject their under-fives to the rigours of the national curriculum. Now, reports Virginia Makins, that pressure should have eased. A fresh opportunity to think about the curriculum for children in reception classes has opened up. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has clearly said that key stage 1 may be taught and assessed in six terms. On other words, there is no obligation to teach it before Year 1.

Judith Morris, SCAA's assistant chief executive responsible for KS1, amplified this at a conference earlier this year, saying: "Year R should have an appropriate curriculum for the pupils in that particular class or school and may or may not include elements from the KS1 programme of study."

So it seems to be over to schools to do what appears right for their youngest children. Many heads say their policy is to start KS1 when an individual child is ready. But it's not as simple as that.

Chris Pascal, director of the large-scale Effective Early Learning project at Worcester College of Higher Education, said that her team found many reception teachers feel pressured to work more formally than they think is right. Many also lack space and resources to provide for an active enough curriculum for young children.

Cambridgeshire recently surveyed its reception classes to check on their facilities and resources. Mike Edey, head of Cambridgeshire's inspectorate, says many reception teachers called for clearer curriculum guidelines.

He says they felt much less vulnerable to pressures from parents and colleagues when their schools had explicit policies for reception children, encouraging teachers to focus on a good introduction to school, and on children's social and emotional needs.

Many Office for Standards in Education primary inspectors with an interest in early years say they see a lot of reception classes where, to quote one: "Children sit there nicely, doing what they're told, doing a lot of waiting - it is a terrible waste of time for active learners.

"Some children are doing worksheets that are incomprehensible to them. Teachers seem frightened that parents and colleagues will see children enjoying themselves, and think they're not learning."

But teachers and schools that do want to introduce a more "nursery-style" curriculum for reception classes can find strong official backing, provided they have high expectations of what reception-aged children can achieve in a wide range of curriculum areas.

OFSTED's current guidelines for inspectors judging the quality of work with "pre-KS1" children stress activity, imaginative play, first-hand investigation, lots of talk and stories and songs. They talk of children's confidence, initiative, security and enjoyment, as well as more specific attainments in "emergent" literacy and maths.

These criteria are very similar to the ones in early drafts of the proposed national curriculum guidelines for the under-fives, although right-wing political pressure may yet affect the final version.

Primary inspectors do worry about an undifferentiated nursery-style approach to reception classes. "People go on about the needs of young children, but the one need they do not seem to allow is preparing for the national curriculum or attention to what they'll be doing next," says one.

But it is significant that inspectors and teachers and heads with clear policies, see the 1990 report Starting with Quality as a key launch pad for reception work.

That influential report, compiled by a committee led by former education minister Angela Rumbold, stressed the importance of active, first-hand experiences for children, preparing for the national curriculum by covering nine "areas of experience" - linguistic, aesthetic, human and social, mathematical, moral, physical, scientific, technological and spiritual. It warned against "pressures that might lead to over-concentration on formal teaching, and upon the attainment of a specific set of targets".

Cloughfold primary school in Rossendale, Lancashire, recently had a good OFSTED report for its work in the early years. It has a mixed intake with a high proportion of non-English speaking children .

Robert Connely, the head, says the reception year is "very much looking forward to more formal KS1 work, not about starting it early. There is a big emphasis on talk and discussion, a lot of play-based activities, a lot of stories and singing games".

One London head who recently moved schools has noticed the subtle differences between an approach where reception teachers "had the national curriculum Orders in front of them" to one with a strong team of teachers with experience of under-fives. "The early-years people are more confident with the age group and have high expectations," she says. "Much more is done through play. The teachers are skilful at intervening to extend the work, and at judging children's readiness for something more formal."

Given that a 1993 survey found that only about 8 per cent of staff working with under-fives had training for the three to five age-group, and only a quarter has training for under-eights, it is perhaps not surprising that many reception teachers find it difficult to adapt to the needs of younger children.

Hampshire is one authority that has addressed the problem of reception class practice head-on. In 1993 it forced schools - some of them reluctant - to have one entry for all reception-class children in September. It backed this up with more than Pounds 5 million for hiring and training classroom assistants, in-service training for teachers and resources, and promoted "nursery-style" facilities and teaching methods.

As a result, Hampshire heads and teachers are precise about their aims for reception children. Terry Dyer, head of Talavera infants in Aldershot, says they saw the year as a gradual introduction to more formal schooling, with an emphasis on first-hand experiences, socialisation, and independence.

The balance of the year alters as it goes on, responding to the children's rapid development, she says. "We don't feel pressured to progress to KS1 until a child is ready."

Bob Sprague, head of Halterworth primary in Romsey, started off sceptical, but is now convinced of the value of taking four-year-olds, and of what they can achieve - not least in terms of their independent approach to learning.

He has even persuaded his governors to invest Pounds 8,500 in a lavish outdoor work area, with a castle, Wendy house, and plot for growing plants.

The reception curriculum is based on Rumbold. Sarah Peters, the early-years co-ordinator, says: "It's not as pressured as the national curriculum, we can follow the children and plan around what they bring in."

There is structure and direction, and quite a lot of formal work on, for example, phonics and handwriting. "But it's not just one set task after another: children need real choices and opportunities to be actively involved. " She's clear that "we can lay the base for reading, and some children will read - but you can't push a child who is immature to read any earlier."

John Wilkinson, Hampshire's policy adviser for pre-school and primary, says: "We're promoting the Rumbold-style curriculum in a structured way for reception classes. It's a bottom-up approach.

"Some children will knock off KS1 targets right, left and centre, but that should not be the main purpose of the curriculum, or the subject of specific teaching."

An evaluation report, In School at Four, is available from Chris Robinson, Education Department, Hampshire County Council, The Castle, Winchester, for Pounds 5.

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