Beyond learning versus play;Platform;Opinion

27th August 1999 at 01:00
As the Office for Standards in Education takes over the inspection of childcare, Tony Munton says current debate must let go of the idea that care, education and play are competing priorities.

THE recent announcement that inspection of childcare is to be taken over by the Office for Standards in Education has once again opened up the debate about what is best for young children. The arguments are not new. While the Government backs learning goals and an early-years curriculum, some specialists and parents claim that young children need play, not formal education. Two different issues shape the debate, one about education versus care, the other about learning versus play.

The education versus care issue is mainly a political one. The debate has a lot to do with beliefs about the role of government in the lives of children. Since the middle of the last century, it has been accepted that the state has a duty to provide all children with an adequate standard of education. Providing care, on the other hand, has remained the private responsibility of families. Only when families have been unable, for whatever reason, to look after their own children has government been justified in getting involved. On this basis, education has been defined in terms of children's intellectual needs, and care in terms of their physical and emotional needs.

The job of providing care and education has, until very recently, been split between different government departments. The Department of Health has been responsible for childcare, while the Department for Education and Employment has looked after school. The effects have been crucial.

Public funding for education has far outstripped funding for day care; training - and hence the professional status - of care workers has fallen well short of that enjoyed by teachers; lack of training and central planning has created a fragmented service offering variable standards of care.

The Government's National Childcare Strategy, of which the proposed new inspection system is a part, aims to address these issues. A budget claimed to be around pound;8 billion will provide parents with access to high quality, affordable childcare. The childcare strategy is perhaps the most radical social policy since the introduction of the welfare state. Popular opinion has shifted towards accepting that the state has a greater responsibility for providing childcare. In this sense, the education versus care debate is all but dead. The Government is funding services for very young children, and is calling it education.

The learning versus play debate has its roots in competing theories of child development. One of the most influential figures in education has been Jean Piaget. Since the 1960s, Piaget has had a major impact on classroom practices. His theory suggests that children's thinking and learning abilities develop through a series of age-related stages.

Education experts have taken the theory to mean that what children are taught should be determined by the developmental stage they have reached. For example, they argue that teaching children mathematics is pointless unless they have reached the age at which they can understand the notion of number. Although my three-year-old son can happily recite the numbers one to five, he has no idea whether two is more than three, or one is less than five. This popular view of teaching and learning sees education very much in terms of formal instruction. It is this idea of formal teaching that some early-years experts and parents object to. They argue that education defined in this way is not appropriate for very young children because they have not yet developed the ability to understand the ideas being taught.

However, Piaget's stage theory has attracted a fair amount of criticism in recent years. Developmental psychologists have found more evidence to support a theory of learning first put forward by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Teaching, he claimed, should not be led by a child's developmental stage. Instead, it should encourage children to do things they can't yet do. Children should be given the chance to develop new skills, not be limited by adult opinions of what is or isn't appropriate. Vygotsky agreed that thinking and learning abilities are closely linked. But he didn't believe that ability develops in age-related stages. Instead he suggested that thinking and learning skills develop through language. In a good learning environment, adults help young children to extend their thinking by talking to them in a way that takes account of their individual abilities and stretches them to learn new things.

Education is moving on from Piaget's ideas. The divide between learning and play is largely artificial. Learning is not something that just happens as a result of formal teaching. Teaching very young children is more to do with sensitive, responsive adult communication that encourages learning. Learning doesn't start when children get to school. Learning starts at birth.

Government proposals for expanding affordable childcare and raising standards opened up two debates about what is best for very young children. Most people would agree that childcare should serve the intellectual as well as the physical and emotional needs of children. In this sense, the education versus care debate is all but dead. A similar fate awaits the learning versus play debate. Children learn through effective communication with sensitive, responsive adults; they learn through play. We need to move on. The next debate is how to develop an inspection system that will be effective in raising standards in early years settings.

Dr Tony Munton is research officer at the Institute of Education in London

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