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Major upsets early-years harmony

Diane Hofkins looks at Sir Ron Dearing's draft targets for the under-fives in a three-page report on issues in the nursery.

Children turning five should be able to recognise letters of the alphabet, write their own names in upper and lower case letters, count to 10, take turns and learn to share, according to draft targets published this week.

And for the first time, schools and playgroups will be required to report to parents on their pre-school children's progress.

On Monday, Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, appeared to have achieved a skilful compromise with his consultation document on "desirable outcomes" for pre-school children's learning. The document looked set to appease both traditionalists and progressives - with some reservations. However, by Tuesday afternoon, when Prime Minister John Major announced that the targets would be used as a basis for "simple baseline testing at the start of primary school", early-years specialists' fears were aroused.

They say the Government is doing nothing to give nursery and pre-school staff the skills they need to provide the education demanded, and many feel that baseline assessment will highlight the differences between good and poor provision, and between privileged and disadvantaged children.

SCAA has drawn up targets which the average child should be expected to achieve when compulsory schooling begins at age five. The targets (see illustration) cover six areas: personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematics, knowledge and understanding of the world, physical development, and creativity. Providers, such as playgroups, private and state nurseries and reception classes, who want to participate in the Government's new nursery voucher scheme, will have to show inspectors that the education they offer leads children towards the targets.

It is now likely that SCAA will be asked to draw up the baseline tests. However, since the full voucher scheme will not take effect until April 1997, and the first cohort of children to be affected by the guidelines will not start compulsory schooling until September 1998, any baseline tests would probably not come into use until then.

This week's proposals emphasise literacy and numeracy, as the Government directed, but Sir Ron said that personal and social aspects, including moral and spiritual education, had been placed first deliberately. "If we get that right it helps with so much else."

At the launch of the document, SCAA officials stressed that the targets were goals to which children within the normal range of ability should aspire. Pre-school children are not expected to be tested on the targets. SCAA officials hope their proposals will encourage good links between pre-school education and primaries. "The outcomes are set for the time you're entering compulsory schooling," said primary specialist Judith Morris. "Providers will take account of the age of the child and the particular needs of the child. "

They stressed that Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, had asked them to recommend outcomes, not a curriculum. But the document includes sample guidance for pre-school providers on activities which could lead to the targets, as well as "significant features of good practice" and "opportunities for learning".

Sir Ron said he had "a very strong commitment to emphasising the role of parents". Proposed guidance says parents' fundamental role in their children's education should be acknowledged, and that they should be "kept fully informed of their child's progress and achievements".

A section on "parents as partners" says there should be recognition of the role parents have already played, and that "their continued involvement is crucial to successful learning". They should be made welcome, and their expertise should be used.

SCAA had less than a month to draw up the proposals after Gillian Shephard announced the controversial voucher scheme on July 6. It is due to be launched in as yet unnamed volunteer pilot authorities in April 1996, followed by a national scheme in April 1997. All providers are to be inspected within a year - with the possible exception of state primaries covered by the Office for Standards in Education's four-year cycle. However, they stress the targets are based on well-established good practice, and that they have consulted informally over the course of a year.

The consultation period, too, is short. SCAA needs responses by October 12, so a final version can be submitted to Mrs Shephard by November 10. She plans to publish the curriculum targets together with guidance on quality assurance and inspection, which went to consultation last week (see TES, September 8) in early December.

However, Sir Ron hinted that the attainment targets would not be set in stone if they proved problematic during the pilot year. "If we look back to the national curriculum it's the case that we have something to learn in the light of early experience," he said. "In the light of experience we should be prepared to improve."

"Play" has not been included as an area of learning, because it is seen as a method of learning, rather than an outcome. This is in contrast to the Scottish Office Education Department's consultation document published last month.

The features of good practice listed include fostering a sense of security and confidence in children, encouraging children to think and talk about their learning, assessing and recording their progress and maintaining successful links with the next stage of education.

A chart showing how pre-school children can progress into the national curriculum has been included to help playgroups and other providers who do not have to teach the national curriculum.

For good nurseries and pre-schools, the targets will be familiar. However, Sir Ron conceded they could shock some. "If it does, it will be a healthy shock, " he said.

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