A recent Dispatches programme on early education seemed to strike a chord with many of my friends and acquaintances working in this field. The overwhelming feeling was that the programme was right to suggest that we need to stop, step back and really look at some of our practices. Are they really beneficial to young children, or are we setting up problems that will surface in later schooling?
My daughter is about to make that important transition to primary 1. Scotland does not have the situation that arises in England where children can find themselves in a formal classroom setting. But can we be complacent? There are still a lot of immature children of four-and-a-half who find themselves in the school system.
Parents are better informed nowadays as to their choices and most take advice from nursery and pre-school staff on whether to delay entry for their child for another year. However, it is not always a straightforward decision. Sometimes staff find themselves having to "guess" whether or not a child will cope. This is not helped by the fact that parents have to enrol children eight or nine months before the new school session.
I attended a conference on the new pre-school curriculum framework, organised by the Scottish Office. One of the speakers was discussing the areas of development that had been identified. She stated that personal and social development was at the core of the document, that all other areas of development link and feed off this one. I agree wholeheartedly: a child who is happy, secure, motivated, independent and confident will be able to reach their potential. I wonder, though, how long nursery staff can keep personal and social development at the core when so many other demands are made on them.
Initiatives such as early intervention have shown excellent results. But in the wrong hands such initiatives can become an excuse to formalise the nursery, to emphasise one area of learning at the expense of others. Working to create a true "literary environment" is important and a very powerful learning tool. However, children can create their own contexts for learning given the right resources and well trained, supportive staff. Opportunities to develop literacy exist in every area of the nursery.
My own daughter has been interested in letters and sounds from the age of two. She now, at nearly five, writes all the letters of the alphabet phonetically and loves to "sound out" words and phrases. She is interested in books and recognises many basic names and words already. These are skills that I am aware of and can see for myself. What I want to know is if she is confident in a group. Does she make friends easily? Can she co-operate and share? Can she communicate her ideas to others? In short, I want to know if she is becoming a confident, social being. To me, these are the real signs of readiness for school.
I had a boy in my nursery class who was very confident and mature. He was always busy and other children always wanted to play with him. But his profile showed that he would never be found drawing or painting and so we had not been able to comment on his fine motor skills through these activities. However, he was quite expert at woodwork. His models were complex and he used the tools very competently. He also loved construction and could use even the smallest pieces easily to create intricate designs. The child gained the skills he needed for school, but in the learning style that was acceptable to him.
But would it be so easy to remain flexible and child centred if faced with the prospect of baseline assessment on entering primary 1? Will a child who cannot write their name or hold a pencil correctly be disadvantaged? Will nursery staff feel bound to prepare children for this assessment, making sure that the curriculum they provide narrows and concentrates on a mandatory list of criteria?
It seems to me that rather than the nursery having to adapt to meet the needs of the primary setting, it should be the other way around. Colleagues who teach in primary 1 speak of programmes of study and attainment targets that leave little time for any flexibility. There are not many occasions when the children's interests can be picked up and developed.
Recently nursery nurses have been employed in infant classes, but under early intervention schemes their role focuses on intensive work in the basic skills, and misses out on an enormous opportunity to gain a team member who is highly skilled in observing children's play and recognising ways to support and extend it, thereby creating many new learning contexts.
Charlette Brown is senior lecturer in child care and education at Jewel and Esk Valley College, Dalkeith.