Bring our two worlds into one

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Literacy specialist Sue Palmer and early-years consultant Ros Bayley have a meeting of minds over targets for toddlers.

Sue Palmer

The publication this month of the proposed early-years foundation stage curriculum probably went unnoticed in most primary staffrooms. Shame really, because if it comes into force it could have profound implications for primary teachers in future. The chances are it will make it even harder for teachers and children to reach their literacy targets.

The Department for Education and Skills has taken the targets agenda down to the cradle by tacking together well-established developmental milestones, such as cooing and babbling in the early months, with highly aspirational and contentious "early learning goals" for five-year-olds, such as writing sentences ("some of which are correctly punctuated"). While developmental milestones come naturally to human infants, writing and punctuation do not, and this conflation of child development and educational objectives is very dangerous.

Development can, of course, be facilitated by good early-years provision, but trying to accelerate it takes us into quite a different ballpark. Faced with inflated goals at the end of the foundation stage, nursery nurses and childminders could be drawn into the same target-driven insanity now rife in the education system. If developmental milestones become objectives, children will be chasing targets from the moment they leave the womb. They will be winners or losers from birth.

Primary teachers have learned the hard way that targets distort what happens in schools.

This reductionist approach begins with those aspirational early-learning goals. Many children are now required to achieve "literacy objectives" that are developmentally way beyond them. Not unnaturally, this gets them off to a very bad start: about 30 per cent of children don't reach a level 2B in the key stage 1 tests for reading, and nearly 40 per cent in writing. Since they're struggling at seven, the chances of a level 4 at 11 are low - unless, of course, we coach, boost and teach to the test.

If target-madness extends down even to toddlers and newborns, imagine the damage that could do - and how much more difficult it would make the lives of primary teachers?

This is why I believe that everyone in the primary sector (and the secondary sector) should be listening to the arguments of the early-years lobby. These people understand little children and how they learn - and every early-years expert I've met believes these "aspirational"

early-learning goals are doing damage. Eminent professors in linguistics and child development agree. (Indeed, when I interviewed the neuroscientist employed by government to review scientific research on early learning, she clearly had concerns. Although at pains to point out that there is no concrete evidence one way or the other on early-start policies, she is thinking of keeping her own summer-born son back a year so that he doesn't start school until he's five.) Unfortunately, there is a long-standing gulf between early-years professionals and other primary educators, who come at education from different perspectives and with different value systems. As a former KS2 teacher, I must admit that until a few years ago I privately believed most early-years people were "pink, fluffy" idealists, stuck in an old-fashioned child-centred dream world. Being forced to confront these prejudices wasn't easy.

I was, however, lucky to meet an early-years specialist called Ros Bayley, who turned out to be far from fluffy. Gradually, I learned to listen to her arguments without jerking my knees, and I began to see how teaching methods that work very well with eight-year-olds can be utterly counter-productive for children of four. She also helped me to understand (or perhaps rediscover) what "child-initiated learning" really means.

I now firmly believe that, if our profession is ever to stop the damage caused by the number-crunching, target-setting zealots at the DfES, KS2 people (especially the "literacy lobby") must work closely with colleagues from foundation and KS1. That means really listening to each other - in schools, local authorities, colleges and universities.

Professionals across the sectors must sort out for themselves the difference between child development and education, between what comes naturally to children and what society needs to impose, between facilitation and teaching. Perhaps in doing so they will, like me, remember why they came into this job in the first place.

Ros Bayley

In some ways, Sue Palmer and I couldn't be more different. For years we have moved in different circles and viewed education from different perspectives. Although our mutual desire to change things for the better brought us together, please believe me that this was not a partnership made in heaven. We may have been united in a belief that the "too much too soon"

culture of this country is damaging children, but agreeing upon what should be done about it was no easy ride.

But then why should we be surprised about this? When we met, I didn't understand where Sue was coming from, and she didn't understand my perspective. Partnerships need to be nurtured. Trust and respect have to be built. Partners need to learn the art of listening, and they need time to acknowledge and deal with the conflicts and prejudices that divide them. So how come the DfES can't (or doesn't want to) see this?

The major stumbling block in terms of children's progress is the guidance on communication, language and literacy. When learning goals for this strand of the foundation curriculum were devised back in 1999, the literacy lobby was very strong - it had the personal backing of then education secretary David Blunkett. In desperation to reach agreement and ensure the long-promised guidance was released, early-years experts were persuaded to accept some decidedly "aspirational" goals.

History has proved them wrong. As a result of this decision - and despite the valiant efforts of many excellent foundation-stage practitioners - many children, forced to aim too high too soon, simply fail. And then they give up. As Homer Simpson so memorably put it: "Kids, you've tried your hardest and you failed miserably. The lesson is: don't try."

It's bad enough that professional, hard-working teachers now blame themselves when children fail to reach the "aspirational" targets. But the far greater evil is that many children - especially boys - now fail in the literacy stakes before they've even begun. And please don't turn round and accuse Sue, me or my early-years colleagues of having low expectations. All we ask is that the goals are developmentally appropriate.

In order to understand what such goals might be, you need to understand young children. Many KS2 people out there still don't know that the early-learning goals being forced on their future pupils are wildly inappropriate. And, put bluntly, they don't know that they don't know.

(Incidentally, literacy colleagues - before you take a gun to my head, I'm happy to admit that there are many things about literacy that I don't know I don't know, as Sue regularly reminds me).

At the moment, there is real confusion about what is right for the youngest children in our society, and unless professionals work together to achieve clarity, the forces of ignorance will move into the space. So practitioners across the foundation and primary sectors need to understand how children are best taught at different stages - and why.

Sue and I have discovered how difficult it is to break down long-established barriers - everyone has prejudices to overcome. But we must overcome them and talk, as professionals, to each other about the needs of the children in our care. There's no time for territory-staking - we have to be ground-breaking. For my own part, I've probably been guilty of being too compliant, but all that's changing. In the face of this assault on children, I'm turning into a tough old bird - but not so tough, I hope, that I've stopped listening to colleagues in other parts of the profession.

It's not easy to listen in a culture in which everyone's so exhausted by constant change that they don't have time to think. But it has never been more important to create time to reflect. So many children now grow up reluctant to read (and unable to think) that we must be doing something wrong. We have to shrug off the defensiveness that comes from many years of watching our backs, enter into debate, and establish new understandings to move the profession forward.

Then, once we've begun talking and listening to each other - and re-establishing our professional self-respect - we can also start talking and listening to parents. We have to rebuild trust between the two groups of people who inevitably have children's best interests at heart. The Government's policy of "exhaust, divide and rule" must not be allowed to damage further generations of children.

Foundations of Literacy by Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley is published by Network Continuum PressAny thoughts? Write to

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today