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Play points the way to progress

A reluctance to create a distinct Early Years sector shows ministers fail to recognise this as the time when foundations for the future are laid. Leslie Staggs reports

I remember how excited I was in April 2006 when the 10-year strategy for the early years was launched under the banner Choice for Parents the Best Start for Children. I would have reversed those two statements, because I believe most parents would settle for the best start for their children above "choice". However, I was excited. The strategy promised a single framework from birth to five. It was based on play and a recognition that children are individuals and need to be treated as such.

The framework proposed would build on the good practice already promoted by Birth to Three Matters, a resource pack issued by SureStart, and the curriculum guidance for the foundation stage. Moreover, it drew on all that we had learned over the last few years, in particular the Effective Provision of Preschool Education research. At last, there was recognition of the need for long-term planning and investment.

Now the excitement is gone. I am disappointed that we have not moved on from the compromises and confusions that were present in 2000 when the Foundation Stage was implemented: compromises where diversity and choice are not about meeting the individual needs of children and their families but mean some children end up with fewer or less-well-qualified adults or no direct access to an outdoor learning environment.

These welfare requirements as they stand will not, in my view, deliver provision that reflects the themes, principles and commitments that underpin the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and which would really lift the quality of provision for children from birth to five. The requirements reflect an unwillingness to provide the long-term investment in funding and training that the 10-year strategy appeared to promise. And they certainly do not build on the much-quoted research evidence. By continuing with such minimal standards, national policy has abandoned its role as quality lead for young children, accepting instead the "good enough" option. Early years deserve better from government.

And the confusion still exists. We still have the language of "under-fives" and "pre-school" to deal with. Such terms make it sound as if the first five years of life were no more than a preparation for school days rather than a time when children would develop and learn more than at any other time in their lives a time when attitudes are established towards themselves and others that will be there throughout their lives.

The confusion continues with commitments that are responsive to the individuality of children, their progress and preferred ways of learning, which are juxtaposed with an approach to teaching phonics that promotes a single way of learning for all children and which is supported by a sharper policy priority and significantly more training than the rest of the EYFS. Again, early years deserves better from government.

Despite this, I retain some optimism as I see individual and groups of practitioners, local authorities, trainers, consultants and academics refusing to settle for compromises and confusions and determined to reflect the EYFS themes, principles and commitments in their provision and practice. Until government really does put quality at the heart of its agenda, they are the people we need to look to for leadership. They deserve the support of all of us who believe "good enough" will not do.

Leslie Staggs is an early childhood consultant


* From arguments around the cost and value of creating a distinct 0-5 years learning stage to the controversy over synthetic phonics, 20 seminars at the TES show address issues at the heart of early years and primary teaching.

* Pete Dudley, director of the Primary National Strategy Unit, asks whether reforms to primary English since 1999 have improved teaching and pupil progress.

* Mark Biddiss, educational consultant, explores new "fun approaches" to help creative science teaching inspire young pupils.

* Learning through play is the key to educational success, says Gail Ryder Richardson, developmental officer of Learning Through Landscapes, as she explores the benefits of those outdoor spaces beyond the classroom.

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