In the early years it's 'how' not 'what';Opinion

9th July 1999 at 01:00
THERE is just one thing more striking than this Government's commitment to early years, and that is the way that they have become the latest educational battleground. Already, "traditional v. progressive" arguments are starting up, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's early learning goals have become Targets for Toddlers.

Is it another phoney war? Education minister Margaret Hodge insists that children from disadvantaged backgrounds deserve the well-structured nursery education that is seen as a matter of course in middle-class homes. But heads of the Government's hand-picked early excellence centres claim that an over-formal curriculum would create "failures at five," a concern shared by many academics.

How could ministers ignore their own pioneers of good practice, who say that children under six need to develop social skills and learn through play, rather than parrot the alphabet? The chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, sounds like the voice of reason when he says the debate is sterile, and points out that both extremes can be damaging. Four-year-olds can enjoy structured learning, but need chances for play and to choose their own activities too.

Yes, there is a third way for under-fives, and it will be a tremendous let-down if the politicians and their critics can't agree, now that we have come so far on provision. For this is a case where the devil is not in the detail, but in the delivery.

Children develop in different ways. Providing the right balance of structured learning, play and child choice requires the right mix of experience, understanding of child development, and training. Allowing three and four-year-olds to choose activities, basic materials and team-mates might look like play, but it can present tougher challenges to young children than basic learning tasks which do little to develop their imagination or social horizons.

What matters is whether teachers have the confidence and understanding to do the job - whether they can create an environment in which number and literacy skills are absorbed without stress (Margaret Hodge's "jumping off logs" vision), and without sacrificing the freedoms of early childhood. It is those who are most unnerved by those learning goals, or most susceptible to misguided parental pressure, or simply lack the know-how, who turn targets for five-plus children into a three-Rs straitjacket for three-year-olds. And sadly the confusion between nursery and primary curriculum-land has already been made worse by the forced flight of the four-year-olds into reception classes.

The squeeze on the playgroup movement is not the only result. Another unexpected consequence has been that playleaders and mums, with limited pay and training, have had to handle the inspection, bureaucracy and unpaid overtime that goes with it. These professional pressures don't help to keep playgroups going, whether they are doing a brilliant job or barely adequate.

Margaret Hodge set up her Pre-school Review Panel after dispensing one last financial sub to keep playgroups going. We surely need all the early years provision that we can get, voluntary, private and state, so one critical issue for the review panel must be training. We need more trained assistants and the money to pay them. The Government has not so far invested in a training programme to match its early years ambitions.

And is it listening to Sir David Winkley, former headteacher and founder of the National Primary Centre, whose recent TESKeele lecture (TES, 18 June) analysed the way the brain develops? Our society has little understanding of young children, he warned. The child's capacity to play, to experience music, painting, drama, dance and creative writing is as important as learning to structure thinking, develop specific skills, and to think in abstract and linear ways. "The reality is that the teacher is more important than the curriculum."

Patricia Rowan was TES editor 1989-1997.

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