There is an unusual bike at Earlham nursery school in Norwich. It's a bit of a push-me-pull-you type of machine. Two children sit back-to-back on low wooden platforms - one provides the power by pushing along with her feet while the other faces front and steers. Like Dr Dolittle's strange double-headed creature, progress relies on both ends working in harmony. And not just progress round the playground of their 1930s school. We're talking about a safe passage through the 21st century.
For the bike, like all the other resources at Earlham, is being used to develop the children's "dispositions".
The nursery serves the Larkman housing estate on the edge of Norwich, one of the two poorest estates in Norfolk. Even a sunny day cannot hide the old cars on jacks in front gardens, the smoking, pregnant women and the fake football-strip fashions of poverty. A pot-bellied man slouches past carrying his shopping bag. He seems to be heading for the pub that proclaims "It's all happening here". It clearly isn't, but it might be at Earlham nursery.
Last autumn, Felicity Thomas, Earlham's headteacher for the past three years, attended a conference addressed by Professor Lilian Katz, a British-born early-years guru based at the University of Illinois. Professor Katz is used to stirring things up. Opposed to the testing culture that has been knocking at the nursery door in the US and the UK, she has been saying for years that what matters is not what young children know, but that they develop dispositions for learning - and that forcing one can damage the other. Encourage them to be excited about language and help them to enjoy books, but don't rote-teach them the ABC; develop their intellect, but ease off on the academic stuff.
It seems obvious, but only now is the Government finally moving towards acknowledging the validity of such approaches with its early learning goals for three to six-year-olds.
Earlham nursery has long resisted the temptation to mould children for years of literacy hours and national tests. As a self-contained and successful nursery school, one of only four in Norfolk, this was relatively easy; reception class teachers in primary schools can come under pressure to dilute their commitment to play and active learning.
After hearing Professor Katz, Ms Thomas decided on a "curriculum of the dispositions". This meant developing positive attitudes in Earlham's three to four-year-olds to support the skills they are acquiring. She says it was "so important that the children enjoy their time here. We try to make the environment as rich as possible, so they discover that learning is fun." She wanted the children to "have more time to go deeper" and says that focusing on dispositions has helped their play become richer and more purposeful. (An inspection in March endorsed the strategy. A combination of strong leadership, very good teaching and a stimulating curriculum was helping the pupils to flourish, the inspectors reported.) Ms Thomas and her staff picked five dispositions. The choice was influenced by weeks of observation and by Te Whaariki, a mould-breaking New Zealand early-years curriculum they customised to suit their own needs.
These needs are sometimes acute. Most of Earlham's children come from "limited" home backgrounds. There is poverty and conflict. There are young single mums resentful at having given up their social lives, and older women coping with more than 10 children. Many of Earlham's pupils - 41 out of 156 - have speech difficulties; 39 per cent have special needs. One boy was mute when he started at three and has only just begun to babble like a one-year-old.
Nevertheless the children are good communicators. Using a mixture of facial expressions, body language and pointing, they make their wishes clear. Felicity Thomas suspects a Norfolk tradition of not using six words where one will do. The staff wanted to celebrate this trait so they made one of the five dispositions "richness and flexibility in communication". They also all went on a sign language course to improve their own expressiveness.
Dispositions can be strengths and weaknesses. Curiosity, a strength, became a disposition, as did persistence, which was one of the children's weaknesses. The other two - they are pinned up on the wall for all to see - are "pleasure in learning and finding out about things" and "co-operation". Marian Whitehead, an early-years consultant and Earlham's critical friend, says the new approach "slows the pace so staff are not content to just skate on the surface of learning and tick things off. You have to give the children time because no one can show curiosity, persistence and true intellectual interest without time.
"It is a curriculum that requires that you observe children closely; you can't just impose a test on them and then check to see if they can do it." And it changes the nature of the demands being made on teachers. You cannot "teach" someone to be curious; you can only exhibit the quality yourself. It is not easy. As Lilian Katz wrote in 1993 in Dispositions: definitions and implications: "I have yet to observe a teacher say something like 'I've been wondering whether this is the best time to do so-and-so. What do you think?' or, 'I'm not sure if this is the best place to put this (piece of equipment). Anybody got any ideas?'" So how does it work? Take a child who gives up easily. How do you encourage persistence? Hand over a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and say the child can't go home until it's finished? No. Instead, set an activity that can be easily made more challenging, such as building with blocks. When the child constructs a small tower, offer praise and urge him or her next time to build a small castle - and perhaps build one yourself.
On a more complex level the new curriculum is paying off in terms of language development. The staff have worked on their approach to reading. They have invited storytellers to visit and encourage the children to share their stories. They make up book bags with toys to illustrate a tale. They record stories on tapes and cannot keep up with demand. Now all parents take books home with them - when Felicity started, no more than 40 did.
Earlham has three research projects under way. One teacher is studying the children's communication skills for her MA. She has encouraged more imaginative use of role-play, which has come out of the "home corner" ghetto to help back up the "pleasure in learning" disposition as well as "communications". Take the push-me-pull-you bike, for example. Always a machine to encourage sharing, its role has broadened. It was recently parked in a garage the children had set up. It witnessed the youngsters co-operating, debating, negotiating and acting out imaginative roles. It may even have heard them wondering who on earth would have made a bike like that (and scoring 10 out of 10 for curiosity along the way).
By September the Conservatives' attempt at a curriculum for the under-fives will be in the bin and children will be back in the driving seat. The Government's early learning goals and the accompanying guidance, released last month, acknowledge that a teacher's job is to listen and observe, to work out what the children are doing and thinking and build on that.
"It is all self-evident," says Wendy Scott, chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, "but it hasn't compelled policy-makers until now. The guidance incorporates a broader definition of teaching - that it is about supporting children's learning. It doesn't talk about teaching and learning, but about learning and teaching." She hopes the guidance, the result of exhaustive consultation, will open up new ways of thinking about children's learning - such as the focus on dispositions at Earlham nursery.
While most people regard the goals as a vast improvement on the Tories' desirable outcomes, doubts remain. Mary Jane Drummond, who advises the National Children's Bureau on early childhood education, was involved in the review of the desirable outcomes. "We can work with the goals, but we are still bound up with targets and outcomes," she says. "People have been pushed about for years so they have lost the grit to hold on to the best bits of practice, and just fret about results."
She says she didn't see the need for the weighty volume of guidance now going out to anyone - from childminder to state nursery - who accepts four-year-olds and the money that comes with them. "I'm the only person I know saying we don't want more guidance. I'm disappointed that everyone wanted examples and everything spelled out in the minutest detail. They should have said, 'We've got creativity, we've got imagination, we've got expertise and we can use those to build a jolly good curriculum ourselves'."