It is difficult to implement a nursery-style curriculum without nursery style resources, point out Sandra Brown and Shirley Cleave in the second edition of Four-year-olds in School: Quality Matters . With Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools having noted ratios of staff to pupils varying from 1:6 to 1:36 in 1993, it is hard to get a coherent picture of existing provision for four-year-olds in primary schools. Yet their numbers are certainly on the increase and professionals are concerned that without suitable resources, young children will be forced into a formal curriculum before they are ready for it.
Brown and Cleave's book draws on their earlier research (1988-90) and other reports which have appeared since. However, this is not a scare story about age-inappropriate provision. Brown and Cleave offer a fictional account of one young child, Ben, in his progress through the first year of school. From home visit to induction to classroom organisation, everything which the British Association for Early Childhood Education has learned about optimum introduction into school is spelled out: but is it too late for the many children who are being poured into overcrowded classrooms with insufficient and ill-prepared adults?
Four-year olds in School: Quality Matters offers a useful checklist and guidelines for good practice for every eventuality from activity sheets to parents' evenings, and looks at the demands which will be placed on reception classes by national assessment. Will the balance between "work" and "play" be put at risk? How much should activity be teacher-initiated and how much child-led at this stage? How should these patterns alter as children mature and become "at home" in school? And what are the practicalities of building a curriculum to enable development and education?
Within even fairly limited resources - and the notoriously low status accorded those working with this age group, as Brown and Cleave note - there is much that can be done to make the early years as positive as they should be. Above all, supportive planning by the school management, coupled with meticulous observation and classroom organisation by teaching staff should provide an environment in which staff and pupils feel valued. Other factors such as proper consideration of equipment and space - to provide safe but challenging play and learning - and the gradual integration of reception pupils into the life of the rest of the school while building up relations with the parents at this crucial stage are nearly as important. Early years are the key to later key stages.
Yet all this sound advice and pleas for teamwork, in-service training and supportive planning by headteachers will fall apart if primary budgets continue to be squeezed.
If a young child does not have a safe, structured introduction to school, his or her learning is unlikely to progress smoothly, he or she will be less happy later and the child will cost more in the long run. Brown and Cleave point to the crunch, but they cannot solve it.
Four-year-olds in School: Quality Matters, by Sandra Brown and Shirley Cleave, NFER, Pounds 6.50.