Taste before the sell-by date


A (child's) day should be not so much an a la carte menu of defrosted facts, as a simmering broth of knowledge, fun and fantasy." This arresting culinary quotation comes from Firm Foundations, a professional development package of two videos and a substantial book of in-service activities designed for early years staff.

It is up-to-date, incorporating SCAA's Desirable Outcomes, reference to OFSTED early years inspections, vouchers and baseline assessments. Although part of the pack could date quite quickly, it will be undeniably useful to those who need training packages now.

It is mostly carefully compiled with an easy-to-follow structure. The opening sequence of the first video, "Early Years - the context", shows signs of haste and seems uncertain about its frame of reference, but most users will probably concentrate on the second part, which covers key issues and what is meant by quality education in the early years.

The issues include partnership with parents, the assessment and recording of the curriculum and play. "Quality Education" covers the nature of early learning and appropriate provision, and emphasises the importance of a holistic approach.

Well-chosen quotations from the Rumbold report and Sir Christopher Ball's Start Right strengthen this viewpoint and any discrepancies between these and the priorities of SCAA's Desirable Outcomes are tacitly ignored.

The second video is made up of case studies which follow the key areas of the outcomes, such as "Understanding the world", "Language and literacy", "Mathematics", "Creative development", etc.

Each area is usefully illustrated by more than one case study and is matched in the accompanying book by a variety of practical and well thought out training activities.

Most of the activit-ies encourage real reflection and obser-vation, for example, having watched one of the case studies, trainees are asked (a) "What did the adult want the children to learn"? and (b)"What were the children actually learning"?

These two questions are of crucial importance when assessing any structured experience we put in front of young children. If children are to learn effectively, we need to develop observational and listening skills that give us feedback information and prevent us from "playing at teachers". One or two of the filmed examples come perilously close to this.

The case studies which involve children's self-initiated and heuristic play are a delight. The emphasis on quality of play and provision is most encouraging to practitioners, but should also give newcomers real confidence and understanding when defending the integral part of play in early learning.

There is so much valuable material in this pack that it would be a matter of real regret if those teaching reception and key stage 1 children felt that it did not apply to them. The continuity that is so frequently referred to should mean just that: there is growing evidence that reception and key stage 1 classes are becoming more, rather than less, inimical to the real needs of young children, as a 20 per cent rise in exclusions from these classes should be telling us.

This pack addresses itself not just to an age group but to the very nature of early learning. Its important conclusions should be heeded by all those involved in primary education.

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