A solid start for those early learners

3rd November 2007 at 00:00

Starting School at Four a Joint Endeavour by Marion Dowling. Paul Chapman 10.95 1 85396 270 8

Can four-year-olds' educational needs be met adequately in reception classes, or do they rather merit specialist provision in nursery education?Marion Dowling argues that it is not appropriate to admit four-year-olds prematurely to the school system but she acknowledges that many are, and that furthermore this is what many parents want.

So if children are to enter the reception class at four, what, asks Dowling, is developmentally appropriate quality provision? What does research tell us of the effects of admitting four-year-olds to school, especially in relation to their achievements?

High quality provision contains several vital factors. First, it involves the whole school community, and the respective roles of parents, governors and teaching staff from head to voluntary assistants, are outlined in some depth. Second, the child's pattern of learning for his or her entire school career will be founded on the successful transition from home to school. (It was encouraging to see such emphasis placed on the child's need to understand the rules of classroom discourse if they are to function effectively). Third, the rationale for the early years curriculum is based on a knowledge of the personal development of young children. Fourth, there is a close relationship between the teacher's expectations and child achievement.

Central to Dowling's argument is the chapter on children's learning. It outlines characteristics of thinking, linked to patterns of behaviour. It discusses moving the child from embedded thinking (familiar and concrete) to disembedded thinking (formal and abstract), and it acknowledges the belief that children learn through social interaction with other people, and language exchanges are particularly significant in developing abstract thought. The argument is heavily founded on research on children's thinking Donaldson's disembedded learning, Vygotsky's socially influenced learning, Nelson's social scripts, and Meadows' and Cazdens' research on meta-cognition (children's awareness of their own thinking). Dowling reviews the debate on the extent to which self-directed activities encourage learning, and although this centres on the child, the teacher's role (as the most experienced learner) is not diminished.

Dowling declares her preferred professional stance, and then moves flexibly and positively to ensure that those who are faced with the challenge of offering a valuable learning experience to very young children offer one which is based on the best of empirical knowledge, and which is intrinsically coherent and workable.

Principles and planning of an early years foundation curriculum are outlined, based on the personal and learning characteristics of young children. Dowling acknowledges some anxiety about the appropriateness of the national curriculum for young children. However, she concedes that it encourages the creative use of change, raises awareness about quality provision, has led to minor resourcing, and it offers a useful reference for the teacher's own planning.

This is a comprehensive book, based on sound judgements backed up by extensive reference to research material. The author combines knowledge of research with practical guidance for all those involved in the first year of schooling. Starting School at Four is of value both to intending teachers and to those of long standing.

Maureen Hughes is head of Milecastle First School, Newcastle

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