The Government has promised a bonfire of red tape in teaching. The match cannot be lit soon enough for playgroup leaders, reports Patricia Rowan.
How many schools get inspected three times in one year? How many teachers have to fill in a regular 20-page self-appraisal question-naire? How many are required to write an evaluation of each lesson, or to provide parents with details of activities and aims each term, on top of curriculum themes? Or to record grouping policy in daily plans?
The Government has promised a bonfire of red tape for teachers, but playgroup leaders - underpaid volunteers who are usually young mothers - are now required to carry an even heavier load of paperwork than professional teachers. This bureaucratic burden may not be closing as many playgroups as the enticement of four-year-olds into reception classes, but it is threatening the future of many, especially in rural areas. Gloucestershire education authority gives strong support through its pre-school officers and Playgroup and Toddler Association (PATA), but several of its playgroups are desperately looking for leaders because they are overwhelmed by the workload, and they are not alone.
"Everything is stacked against the rural playgroup," says one playgroup leader, Lou Winstanley. A former secondary science teacher, she is passionate about hands-on learning for young children, devoted to the group she took on six years ago, and in despair at the pile of paperwork which keeps her up late at night, and is discouraging likely candidates from taking over when she moves out of the village next month.
The Horsley playgroup was started 23 years ago for her own children by Min Hogg, the reception class teacher in the village school. Lou Winstanley's own two children are at the school, and one of the playgroup's three weekly sessions is held there. The key link remains Mrs Hogg, now deputy head, who is clear about what skills she wants from four-year-olds joining her reception class. However, they don't include everything that the Office for Standards in Education expects from the playgroup.
Mrs Hogg is happy that the playgroup sends her sociable children, trained to sit, listen, and to behave in company; to control hand movements; hold a pencil; follow a line of dots. She doesn't want them taught to read and write, but to be ready to start. Mrs Winstanley agrees and expressed her reasons to the recent OFSTED inspector who asked why she didn't teach reading and writing: "You don't have to teach reading and writing and number to have educational content," she says now. "You shouldn't be doing it if that's all you can do."
She got a top inspection grade anyway, but the issues she raises need urgent attention if playgroups are to be helped to keep up with the welcome upgrading of their educational content, and play a key part in the new national childcare strategy.
As a former science teacher in a rural setting teeming with hands-on learning ingredients, Lou Winstanley is better placed than many. She has lectured locally on science in the playgroup, drawing from both strands in structuring her curriculum.The same relationships show in the detailed daily plans she has always devised: four or five days devoted to themes like Creepy Crawlies or Bodies, with activities taking them perhaps from leaf litter, trays of snails, kitchen-roll butterfly, spiders in box, walk to find creepies, to scissor and glue practice, leg counting, language, variety of creepies, weight, balance and habitats; or through hand or foot-printing, water, dough , cooking shortbread men, dressing up, or relevant books to parts of body, touch, feel, music, similarities and differences in ourselves.
Mrs Winstanley studied The Next Steps from the Department for Education and Employment ("not user-friendly") as well as the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's Desirable Outcomes for Children Turning Five, and worked out how to match her curriculum to its six areas of learning. The worthy aim of the DFEE document was to help grant-maintained, private and voluntary providers judge whether they could meet the voucher scheme conditions, but it could produce panic in a lone playgroup leader, even with the support of a committee, training courses and a pre-school officer who worked her socks off.
As a former head of chemistry, well versed in GCSE assessment, Mrs Winstanley decided to introduce tick-sheets that could both show progression and were quick to fill in. Her assessment form lists 96 skills under the six areas of learning. The OFSTED inspector liked it, but demanded more written reports for parents, rather than informal chats, more information to be photocopied, photographic or video evidence of children's work, and more letters and numbers to be displayed. A friend helped with typing, her husband with spreadsheets, and the village school with photocopying. But the killer factor is the time all this paperwork takes away from the children (including your own). It doesn't leave evenings free for preparing sewing cards, collecting a tray of beetles, or fixing visits from a duck, a lamb, or an ambulance.
"I believe passionately that they have got it so wrong," says Mrs Winstanley. "They have lost the hands-on element. But that is how you can teach respect for living things. A tray of snails can be counted; it can also inspire awe and wonder. It's much more interesting than "3" written on a card, and it doesn't cost anything but time." PATA shares her concern about the time the workload takes away from play, and the difficulty of recruiting new leaders. "It's beginning to become a problem," says Vicky Fowkes, chair of PATA's playgroup support sub-committee, "because the responsibility they have to bear doesn't match up to pay and hours."
Changes to nursery policy begun under the last Government have brought real educational benefits to playgroups, to set against the negative fall-out from vouchers. But if they are to survive and flourish in the areas which depend on them most heavily, key issues thrown up by the first round of inspection must betackled.
The fine dividing line between nursery and primary education, between Desirable Outcomes and key stage 1, affects four-year-olds in reception classes as much as playgroup children.
Consistency of judgments is an item for OFSTED to address, but overload could be reduced by tackling the duplication of effort required by a ludicrous three inspections in one year. Junior minister Alan Howarth described the present regulation and inspection process as "a real dog's breakfast" when he emphasised the Government's very welcome commitment to integrated childcare andeducation early years services.
So it shouldn't miss the opportunity opened up by new policies to homogenise the separate inspections carried out by social services under the Children Act, local education authorities and OFSTED into one event.
Patricia Rowan is a former editor of The TES