The aims are good, but hitting targets will be hard
"I now find myself in a rage over just about the stupidest, cack- brained, sherbert-headed nonsense, likely to do more damage to children than a pile of witches."
That was the view of the early years foundation stage (EYFS) put forward earlier this year by comedian and columnist Armando Iannuci in The Observer.
He is one of many who have been angered by the "nappy curriculum" for under-fives, which will become compulsory from September. Dozens of authors, teachers and educationists have criticised the new foundation stage, warning that it will land a prescriptive curriculum on young children and put them off learning.
From their comments, one might expect that teachers were furious with the plan, and are busy preparing to resist it. But when The TES asked 1,500 teachers in England and Wales if they supported the foundation stage in principle, nearly nine out of 10 (88 per cent) said Yes. Two thirds (64 per cent) felt it would improve the overall experience of under-fives.
So why is there such a difference of opinion between the critics and those working in the classroom?
One reason is that the teachers appear to be judging the foundation stage on its overall aims and merits. Many dislike aspects of it as much as its critics - specifically the targets it contains. But, when faced with a blunt Yes or No choice, they choose to support it on balance.
Last week authors, including Philip Pullman, joined calls to drop the expectation on five-year-olds to be able to "write their own names . and begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation" and "use phonic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words".
Responding to our survey, Laura White, a reception teacher at Highfield Hall Primary in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, agreed with the authors' criticisms.
"The two aspects that are difficult and always have been are writing and linking sounds and letters. I think quite a lot is expected at age four and five," she said. "But overall, I think the EYFS is a good thing. I don't think it is hugely different to the current foundation stage, but when I've been on early years courses and talked to other reception teachers and asked how much outdoor play and learning they are doing, they say `none' - they're just developing it. The foundation stage will promote outdoor learning with headteachers."
The idea that the foundation stage could lead to more play-based learning may surprise some critics, but it is a view held by many teachers. They were six times as likely to say it would lead to more outdoor play than less, although most felt it would make little difference.
Sandra Webster introduced the foundation stage to her mixed reception, Year 1 and 2 class at Wimborne St Giles CofE First School, Dorset, in September 2006. She has been praised by Ofsted.
"We're the ones at the grassroots who are doing it." she said. "One of the things dearest to my heart is learning through play and using the outdoor environment.
"I've been teaching since the late 1970s. I know if I can capture the children's imagination they will choose to write, I'm not forcing them to write. Now in Year 2, I have boys who choose to sit and write on a Friday afternoon rather than ride bikes and trikes, that is because we have free- flow. Because they can go and choose the bikes and trikes whenever they like, they don't feel they have to."
Her view contrasts sharply with those of Elizabeth Truss, the education director of the right-of-centre think-tank Reform, who wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph that the foundation stage was "likely to create a group of pupils turned off learning before they even enter primary school".
She said the Government should follow the example of Montessori schools, which emphasise physical activity. Montessori schools, however, have been outspoken in their support for the new foundation stage, and were involved in its creation.
For many, teaching the foundation stage will make little difference - the key change is that it will be compulsory for all, including childminders.
Teachers were evenly split over whether there should be exceptions: 40 per cent favoured them, while 42 per cent felt no opt-outs should be allowed.
Of those who favoured exceptions, 47 per cent said childminders should not be bound by the curriculum. A respondent from Birmingham said: "I feel there are too many expectations on childminders to implement the EYFS. They know the children through their daily routines; they should not be expected to complete observations, planning grids and assessments."
Teachers may be more likely to support the early years foundation stage than others because campaigning by early years staff helped lead to its creation.
Although teachers supported it in principle, they were still concerned about its practicalities. One third said it would increase their workload by an average of more than one and a half hours a week. A significant minority were concerned about the assessment involved. One in four say they are still not ready for its introduction.
The high-profile Open Eye campaign, backed by educationists and authors, is calling for the curriculum to be introduced as guidance rather than made statutory.
Sue Palmer, a supporter of Open Eye and author of the book Toxic Childhood, said: "People are innately optimistic. They like to look at the good side. I was one of those people when the National Literacy Strategy was introduced in 1998. There is a surge of optimism when you're working on something new; you think this could really work.
"But when you realise several years later it's not making the differences you expected, you start out trying to make children literate and end up training them to take tests. That is why I feel passionate - because I was fooled and I won't get fooled again."
ALL THE UNDER-FIVES ARE GREEN NOW
Teachers will no longer be able to describe their under-five pupils as green, grey or pink.
The terms have been used since 2003 as part of the foundation stage profile, a record of pupils' achievements by the end of that stage, which for almost all pupils is reception. It featured bands coloured green, grey and pink, which began with green and progressed to pink.
The profile for the new early years foundation stage being introduced in September replaces the different colours with darkening hues of green. It is one of a few changes to the profile, which remains of high significance to early years teachers.
Children will continue to be assessed on 13 scales, as they are now, ranging from linking letters and sounds to creative development.
Each scale has nine points. The first three indicate pupils who are "progressing towards the foundation stage". Points 4 to 8 show children are "working within the foundation stage". Point 9 is for those who have achieved all eight points and now work beyond the early learning goals.
Children can complete them out of order, so a child may be able to set up skittles and knock them down (point 6 in physical development) before "succesfully negotiating small and large spaces" (point 4).
The optional foundation stage profile booklet has been scrapped. Instead, schools can use their own recording systems or an online eProfile. The handbook states that the profile is primarily for use by Year 1 teachers, but, as before, the data will be collected by local authorities.
WHAT TEACHERS SAY ABOUT THE EARLY YEARS FOUNDATION STAGE
Do you support the EYFS in principle?
Don't know: 7%
Do you think the changes will improve the overall experience of children in early years?
Has the EYFS made it more or less likely that you will continue working in early years?
No effect: 61%
More likely: 19%
Less likely: 15%
Will the EYFS change the amount of time children in your setting spend playing outside?
No change: 54%
Do you think the changes will improve the status of early years staff?
Will the EYFS change the amount of time children in your setting spend reading and writing?
No Change: 69%