Although there are no plans to change the school starting age, ministers have asked curriculum advisers to examine whether there should be a distinct curriculum for three to five-year-olds, with key stage 1, baseline assessment and the national curriculum starting in Year 1 (the year in which children turn six). This will form part of the overall national curriculum review geared toward changes in the year 2000.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is also re-thinking the "Desirable Learning Outcomes" - the targets for children reaching five - even though they have only been in use for two years. "The idea then was to make children do what they can do later, earlier. I share the view that there may be more sophisticated and open methods in the way we prepare children for formal schooling," education minister Estelle Morris told an early years conference last month.
Meanwhile, the Teacher Training Agency has already decided to run special courses from September for those wishing to specialise in teaching children aged three to eight.
Although no decisions have yet been made, the result could be a cohesive and less formal curriculum for three to five-year-olds - something the early years lobby has been seeking for some time. One possibility is that there will be heavily play-based provision for three and four-year-olds, with slightly more formal education in reception, leading into key stage 1 for five and six-year-olds.
Britain is unusual in requiring children to start formal schooling as young as five, with many entering reception classes shortly after turning four. Throughout Europe the starting age is six, or even seven. Politicians are beginning to wonder whether an earlier start really leads to better reading and adding up by age seven or eight.
But as ministers were telling conferences about the new thinking, the teaching framework for the National Literacy Strategy was landing on headteachers' desks setting out details for a structured daily literacy hour from age five. Early years specialists fear this will increase the formality of the teaching being offered to four and five year olds in reception classes. They argue that children from deprived backgrounds with less experience of talk and books at home will lose out, with boys being in particular danger of becoming disaffected.
Included in the programme for this age group are learning to read 45 high-frequency sight words; reading and writing letters that relate to the sounds a-z, ch, sh and th; and how to form letters. Within the literacy hour, which the Government is urging all schools to implement from September, reception teachers would be expected to cover areas like developing children's grasp of sound-letter links, building word recognition skills, developing a basic awareness of grammar, and helping pupils find out how books work.
The House of Commons education select committee will investigate the early years curriculum in the autumn.
THE EUROPEAN APPROACH
On the Continent, pre-school education focuses on fostering a range of skills that form a foundation for reading, writing, maths and social development. In Flemish Belgium, Hungary, and Switzerland, children learn:
* Attention, listening, memory skills.
* Appropriate group behaviour.
* Conceptual understanding (space, size, quantity and time, seen as essential for later success in maths).
* Phonological awareness and motor skills - preparation for reading and writing (music lessons are seen as a key place for teaching about distinguishing different sounds).
Source: Dispatches: 'The Early Years' by Clare and David Mills,Channel 4 publications pound;3