Nick Holdsworth reports on the latest findings of a major research project into early years education. Securing a place at a high-quality nursery is a lottery, according to the first-ever systematic study of early years learning in Britain.
Professor Christine Pascal, director of the Effective Early Learning Project, based at Worcester College of Higher Education, said that chance is the strongest determinant of whether a child has access to "world-class" teaching and facilities, or a pre-school place with poor teaching and resources.
Announcing the latest findings of the three-year project, launched in May 1993, Professor Pascal told a seminar in London last week: "Over the past 18 months we have worked with practitioners and children is some 300 settings across the UK . . . some of this practice is of the highest quality and some of it is sadly lacking.
"However, we can already confirm the variability and inequality in the opportunities for early learning that face many young children in the UK today. It remains a lottery as to whether children receive the high-quality early experiences they need if they are to progress through life with the advantages of a sound start to their education career and positive attitudes to their learning."
The lessons from this and other research into improving the quality and delivery of early years education could contribute to raising standards if integrated into the national curriculum, Professor Pascal told the seminar which was sponsored by the National Commission on Education.
Initial findings from Professor Pascal's study and research by Goldsmiths' College, London, into education to the age of eight, suggests that a broadly-based curriculum which helps to identify good practice by teachers could make a valuable contribution, particularly in the seven-plus age group.
The quality of lessons in some schools at key stage 2 was criticised in the annual report of the Office for Standards in Education for 1994. Chris Woodhead, OFSTED's chief, called for a national debate on the most effective strategies for improving quality at this critical stage, where inspectors judged the teaching quality of 30 per cent of lessons as "unsatisfactory or poor".
Professor Pascal said early findings suggested that identifying key indicators to show that children were achieving "deep-learning levels" could contribute to raising quality in the early years and beyond.
She told The TES: "The Education Secretary Gillian Shephard needs to remain critical of developments in early and primary education but should also look carefully at the detail of some of the exciting and rigorous methods that are being developed in evaluation of early years and how some of these ideas can be taken forward throughout the education system."
The Effective Early Learning Project has developed two simple and measurable methods for evaluating the quality of learning children receive. A five-point scale enabled researchers to assess swiftly the level of a child's involvement in any classroom activity - academic, creative and sporting. High levels of involvement - reflected in focus, concentration and engagement - indicated "deep-learning levels".
Similar scales measuring the extent to which teachers and others supported effective learning, through observations of their sensitivity to individual needs; degree of stimulation and motivation of children; and encouragement of responsibility and autonomy, could also be used to determine the effectiveness of the curriculum and its delivery.
"If teachers at key stage 2 want to know whether they are being effective this is a mechanism which allows them to do so," Professor Pascal said.
Vicky Hurst, deputy director of the Early Childhood Education Research Project at Goldsmiths' College said that the indications that children up to the age of eight benefited most from a broad-based curriculum, and not from narrow subject specialisms, need not necessarily conflict with the current approach in the primary sector.
Early years' teachers - from playgroup leaders to prep school heads - were united in their agreement that a developmental curriculum, which included subject learning, but did not exclude "play, conversation, exploration and being outside," was the best way forward. The challenge to the 36 organisations in the Early Childhood Education Forum, which was involved in the research, was to "break through the sound-proof glass ceiling," which appeared to divide policy-makers from those working in the field, Ms Hurst said.
Gillian Pugh, director of the early childhood unit of the National Children's Bureau, argued that educationists "must be clear about how an early years curriculum will provide the foundations for the national curriculum, but they must also remember how young children learn, and how important it is to engage children in the here and now."
Margaret Maden, chief education officer for Warwickshire and a member of the National Commission on Education, who was at the seminar as a delegate, said that a "harder-edged analysis" was needed if radical solutions were to be found to the pressing problems of early and primary education.
Many local authorities were already finding themselves involved in activities which were technically ultra vires - legally beyond their powers - in the search for imaginative and semi-commercial ways to support beleaguered services, Ms Maden said.
The financial rules governing the activities of local authorities frequently prevented them offering parents, teachers and schools, imaginative and flexible solutions to wide ranging problems, she added.