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A mixed up environment

A leading early years expert has called for more support for pupils from early years through to secondary

NEW EVIDENCE from a study which has tracked children from pre-school to S3 claims that a successful transition into primary 1 can have a sustained impact on the rest of a child's education.

Aline-Wendy Dunlop, who holds the chair of childhood and primary studies at Strathclyde University, told an international conference in Glasgow yesterday that just using curriculum reform to try and smooth out the key transition stages may not be sufficient.

In a keynote speech at the international transitions conference, Professor Dunlop argued for the development of a national policy on transitions which would support children as they move from pre-school to primary to secondary.

She suggested that, rather than focusing on whether children are ready, schools should instead be more flexible and adaptable to differences between children and families in any incoming class or year.

A key ingredient was the engagement of professionals across sectors.

Parental support and a school's willingness to welcome parents could make a difference in the long-term, she added. Whether the pre-school setting provided the right balance between offering children independence and direction was also crucial, she argued.

Environments that were open and laissez-faire did not serve young children.

They gave them confidence, but not focus. Settings where children were over-directed by a teacher or other early childhood specialist did not give children enough independence. The best environment offered a "mix of shapes" and choices to their day.

Professor Dunlop's argument is supported by a longitudinal study, still a work in progress, that started in 1997 when she tracked 150 children out of a year group of just over 1,000, six months before they entered P1 in six primaries in East Renfrewshire.

Over the last 10 years, she has contacted the children at various stages - pre-school, P1, P3, P7, S1 and S3. Out of the 150, she targeted 28 specifically, some of whom dropped out of the study. A core group of 18 attend East Renfrew-shire secondaries, and Professor Dunlop is in regular contact with about 12 of them.

"I am trying to tease out the factors which help them to be en-gaged and focused," she said. "When they were small, the things that were crucial were relationships, the curriculum and the kind of school learning environment. What is coming through is that the environment that gives them the long-term success is not necessarily the one that provides a quick start.

"I am increasingly convinced that the playful learning environment works for young children. The ones who were most engaged in their education are the ones coming through strongly now."

Peer relationships were powerful for members of her target group, she said.

The move into secondary had been seen by some as an opportunity to make new friends and to shed people who had not been good for them - secondary offered a chance to reinvent themselves.

An acknowledged early years expert, Professor Dunlop stopped short of advocating the presence of teachers in all pre-school settings, but did call for specialists with relevant degrees equivalent to those of teachers.

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