Childhood moments that elude the checklist

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Critique of foundation stage profiling misses key point

Let's start by reminding ourselves what a five-year-old child is like. A good place to begin is with early-years teacher Vivian Gussin Paley's acclaimed new book A child's work: the importance of fantasy play (see TES Friday magazine, May 14).

"I could see that the children's play promoted a long list of social, emotional, verbal and physical skills that could be reported in a fairly straightforward manner," she writes of her early teaching days. "However, I skipped over the end result, a phenomenon not as easy to capture on a checklist. The children were inventing stories that sounded as if they came from an earlier place in the common narrative."

Five-year-olds, she says, are professors of fantasy play, exercising startling imagination, making sense of the chaotic world and taking control of it.

"Even when I overheard conversations that were startling and profound I seldom recognised the uniqueness of this activity that so preoccupied the children," she writes.

She describes one little girl making a switch from playing a baby to pretending to being "a big sister just like you". "No! Don't pretend that!"

says her playmate. "Don't be like me! Because I'm really bad!"

"Like the wolf?"

"Oh, wait, now it's OK. I'm a good sister now."

But how would that fit into the foundation-stage profile? Could it be "displays high levels of involvement in self-chosen activities" (dispositions and attitudes)? Or perhaps "considers the consequences of words and actions for self and others" (emotional development)? What about "retells narratives in the correct sequence" (literacy)? Perhaps it fits into "expresses and communicates ideas, thoughts and feelings using a range of materials, suitable tools, imaginative and role play, movement, designing and making and a variety of songs and musical instruments" (creative development).

Would a reception-class teacher be so busy scouring her 117-tick-box form for the right target that she would miss the magic and meaning of the moment?

In its criticism last week of the profile, which teachers must use to mark five-year-olds against 117 targets on 13 scales, the Office for Standards in Education did not express a fear that the profile was failing to capture the nature of childhood, although its value and purpose was questioned. The report said the profile was time-consuming and did not provide the information parents and Year 1 teachers needed.

One of the problems is the disjunction between the play-based foundation-stage curriculum, based on six "areas of experience" and the subject-based approach beginning in Year 1, and Ofsted tells the Government it should be doing something about it. It should "give detailed consideration" to the links between the two curricula, the report recommends.

Year 1 teachers, the inspectors say, often feel caught between the informal foundation stage and the impact of testing in Year 2. There will be no such problem in Wales, where the first schools are piloting a foundation-stage curriculum for three to seven-year-olds, carrying the areas of experience through the infant years.

With no Sats at seven, and no league tables at 11, it is easier for them to nurture childhood a bit longer.

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