Born to learn

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Now that the Government is planning to extend nursery education to all four-year-olds, Gillian Pugh offers a wider vision for the future.

Let us pretend the year is 20l0. My early childhood centre is a unit for children from birth to six attached to a community primary school. Two important concepts inform the school's work. First, that early years education runs from birth to six or seven, and, second, that the needs of young children for education, care and health care are inseparable.

The school is a community resource that provides a free nursery education place for all children from the age of three to six, when more formal schooling begins. It also offers an extended day for all children whose parents are working or studying; care and education for any under-threes whose parents want it; and after-school clubs and holiday play schemes.

Mothers and fathers are working in about equal numbers, but working hours have become much more civilised, and so few young children have to spend long days in institutional care. Britain finally adopted the European Union proposals for parental leave which either parent can take until their children are 12 months, and there are good arrangements for leave when children are sick, or when parents want to spend a day in the school.

All parents are entitled to up to 10 days leave a year. There are few babies in the school as most parents take advantage of the parental leave, but there is a scheme linking child-minders into the school, and they can use the community room as a drop-in centre. The community room is fully used every day, either by child-minders or by parent and toddler groups using the toy library. The swimming pool, the gym, and the small "soft play" room are also used by parents and their young children. There are good links too with the local library, which has helped. the school build up a collection of books for parents and staff as well as children.

The health centre is next door and the health visitor spends two half days a week in the early childhood unit, working with parents, staff and children. Children with disabilities and special educational needs are integrated into the unit and paediatricians, psychologists and speech and physiotherapists are on hand, sometimes leading discussion groups on aspects of child health and parenting. Parent discussion groups are popular, and it is now widely recognised that bringing up children is a complex and demanding task and that opportunities to share ideas with other parents and not just ask the experts can be very helpful (see Pugh, De'Ath and Smith, 1994).

Discussions on discipline and sibling rivalry always seem to attract particularly large numbers, and the headteacher often joins in, linking parents' concerns with the way in which the school approaches similar issues. The termly group for parents on "starting school" also draws large numbers, and the whole concept of "parents as their children's first educators," is an accepted part of relationships between staff and parents.

The adult education service uses the school as a base for some classes, particularly English language classes for parents whose first language is not English, who can leave their children safely while they grapple with the complexities of grammar. As a result of these groups many parents have become involved in the school, some becoming bilingual assistants, some going on to teacher training.

As a community resource the school also has links with, for example, the local old people's home and the secondary school, whose pupils visit occasionally. This is central to their personal and social education course which includes a core component on child development.

For the children, the experience of continuity from when they first join the school - whether at 18 months or at three years - to when they move up into the first school at six is something that is quite novel in a British setting. The norm for children whose parents are working has tended to be a very disjointed day - perhaps starting with a child-minder, then on to a playgroup, then back for lunch, then on to afternoon nursery then back to the child-minder and finally home again. Now it is one setting all day. The hours that children attend are negotiated with parents, but most children are there by 9am at stay at least until 3pm.

Early childhood workers persuaded the Government in the 1990s that the national curriculum should not start until children went on to mainstream school, but guidelines developed by the Early Childhood Education Forum (ECEF, 1994) create a framework within which the staff have developed the curriculum for children from six months to six years. This is based on a number of generally agreed principles - for example that children are active learners, learning best through first-hand experience, with plenty of opportunities for exploratory play and talk - and on the arguments in the Rumbold report (Department for Education and Science, l990) that where children learn, how they learn, and how they feel when they are learning are as important as what they learn. What they learn has not been neglected, but has been approached through themes rather than subjects - being and belonging, education for personal worth, identity and culture, knowing and understanding. Social relationships, play and exploration and communication are central, as is the development of positive attitudes towards learning.

There is an exciting curriculum for babies and toddlers, influenced by the work of Elinor Goldschmied (Goldschmied and Jackson, 1994), using treasure baskets filled with everyday objects with different textures, smells and sounds. The capacity of babies to concentrate on these, and to enjoy doing this in the company of other babies, has astonished staff, and has had positive spin-offs as they go up the school.

Creative work, through painting and collage making, through fantasy play and music making infuses the curriculum.

Children's social and emotional development have also begun to assume more importance as the staff have developed their early-years curriculum, and they have worked to ensure that children from black and ethinc minority families feel that they and their culture are respected and reflected in the nursery unit's resourcing and staffing. The development of self-esteem and self-confidence are central to the whole school's personal and social education policy, and social responsibility and the move towards independent learning are an important part of the curriculum.

Staff plan for children's learning through observing their play and interactions, and through sharing the records that they keep with parents. But they have also been influenced by Sylva's paper (1994) which argued that a child-centred curriculum based on autonomy and decision-making gives young children a sense of mastery which stands them in good stead when they start school.

Many of the children are beginning to read and write stories and to do complex mathematical and scientific experiments as they progress through the unit, and the nursery staff work closely with reception class teachers to ensure that the integrated child-centred curriculum can provide the basis for the school's year one curriculum.

Because young children learn so much better in small groups, where there are adults who can answer their many curious questions and plenty of opportunities for talking, ratios have been based on doubling the age of the child. Children of two are in groups of 1:4, three-year-olds are 1:6 and five-year-olds l:l0.

In the 1980s and l990s parents still felt that they were being judged by the teachers if they didn't turn up for a school outing or help with a cooking session. Since parents became actively involved in the management of the early childhood unit, however, it became possible to work on a more equal basis.

Decision-makers in central and local government now understand that money spent on families and children under five is a sound investment. Structures are in place at a national level, and all services are now the responsibility of the Department for Education. Grant levels to local authorities are set at realistic levels, but with the expectation that parents who are working will make some contribution to day-care costs. Proper priority is now given to training and to research.

Britain has finally decided that it is a child-friendly society.

Gillian Pugh is director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children's Bureau, and chair of the Early Childhood Education Forum. This is an edited extract from a paper she will deliver to the Primary Schools Research and Development Group at Birmingham University next weekend.

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