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A rock to build on

Julia Kay examines the effects of the new foundation stage on children about to enter Year 1.

The new foundation stage, which enshrines a play-based curriculum for three to five-year-olds, came into force last September. Although the first children taught under the new system will be entering Year 1 next term, the detail and practice still seem largely a mystery to many infant and junior teachers. The Government has spent pound;13m nationally on early years co-ordinators to help with methodology and deal with queries. One of their challenges is to explain the significance of the changes for the whole school.

Many practitioners felt that the previous targets for five-year-olds, stressing early literacy and maths skills, were inappropriate, making children frightened of the school system at a very young age.

The new stage encompasses nursery and reception. It recognises the distinct needs of three to five-year-olds, and attempts to unify their learning experience through the first clear and comprehensive government guidance ever issued for this age group.

This philosophy is reflected in early learning goals which emphasise social, personal and physical skills. The guidance says children should be encouraged to learn skills such as concentration, persistence and co-operation. They are to be allowed time to work in depth and complete activities. The importance of children feeling successful and confident is stressed.

By emphasising play-based learning, the guidance reflects what has long been deemed best practice. The new system has been welcomed by the hard-to-please early years lobby, which has been worried about over-formalisation. The aim is to extend it beyond state nursery schools and classes to the private sector and even to child-minders. This could mean better prepared children coming into schools in future.

The Office for Standards in Education concedes that the current mix of foundation, literacy and numeracy strategy and national curriculum documents makes reception complex to plan. Keith Lloyd, head of its primary education division, says: "The three areas overlap. They're not pulling in different directions."

For reception, the guidance looks to a single framework to address divergent needs and different starting points, with play as the main teaching tool. Examples include using sand ad water play to explain measurements, or discussing 3D shapes through building with bricks. A gradual change in teaching styles means numeracy and literacy become distinct, usually by the end of the summer term. Children should have plenty of opportunities for outdoor play.

Reception teachers are largely positive, according to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, but traditionalists fear the programme will weaken standards. And the potential effect of the foundation stage on SATs is causing anxiety.

Nansi Ellis, primary education adviser at ATL, raises the question of whether foundation principles should underpin the whole of primary years or stop after reception. "There's been no guidance on how the goals fit in with SATs," she says. "Issues arise about how foundation links with key stage 1 - they're so different; one has areas of learning, the other has subjects."

She wonders whether KS1 scores will fall due to a change in emphasis. "But KS2 could be higher because of developed motivation, and disposition to learn successfully."

Colin Richards, professor of education at St Martin's College in Cumbria, says it is too early to judge the new style. "Children entering KS1 are likely to be more confident, have better speaking and listening skills," he says, "but formal attainment may be slightly lower - only slightly." He says infant teachers may face a challenge. "Children will probably be more independent and difficult to settle."

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is cautious about commenting before it has evaluated responses to the first year. Experimental schemes are proving remarkably positive. Clapgate primary in Leeds has had four years of integrated education, which have mirrored the foundation programme in large measure. Teacher Cecily Hanlon says: "There's been an element of choice, independent learningI but directed time builds up over the year. A lot depends on planning."

OFSTED reported that a cohort that entered at age three with significantly lower than average attainment ended KS1 with expected results of average and higher. Cecily Hanlon says infant staff are very happy and she is convinced: "The children absolutely have benefited. We have experienced no disadvantages, even with the strongest academically inclined children. The results have been amazing."

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