Early years plans sound an early warning

We are writing to express our concern about some of the early years interventions announced in the recent education white paper.

The education secretary has stated that he will reduce the amount of central control, instead trusting professionals to make principled decisions. The Department for Education's business plan also recognises the importance of high-quality early years education. These are entirely sensible aspirations.

However, they do not sit well with a number of proposals in the paper. The proposed phonics teaching in the nursery and reception years, and phonics test in Year 1, are not supported by research evidence. Phonics is an essential element of learning to read, but the timing of the introduction of a systematic programme is crucial. The white paper starts with a comparison of educational standards which shows that the UK appears to be falling in relation to other OECD countries.

Yet - in contrast to the successful models elsewhere, where formal schooling and the teaching of reading do not begin until children are six or seven - the plans would impose increased and earlier emphasis on basic phonic skills.

There is evidence that children who are given plenty of time to develop their communication skills and to enjoy books before they are expected to crack the irregular phonic code for English do just as well at the age of 11 as others whose enjoyment of literacy is undermined by premature pressures to decode text.

This is all the more true for children who do not get rich experiences of language and literacy at home. The introduction of a test in Year 1 in which they would decode non-words is particularly unwelcome. At this age, children learn by making sense of the world around them, and it is hard to think of anything more confusing than words that are nonsense.

As for the teacher training proposals, the most recent annual report from Ofsted finds that more outstanding initial teacher education is delivered by higher education-led partnerships than by school-centred initial teacher training partnerships and employment-based routes. It is difficult to reconcile this evidence with ministers' determination to focus on work-based training.

Wendy Scott, president, Association for the Professional Development of Early Years Educators (TACTYC); Pat Beckley, Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln; Professor Pat Broadhead, Leeds Metropolitan University; Maulfry Worthington, doctoral researcher, Vrije University, Amsterdam; and 12 other signatories on behalf of TACTYC.

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