Wherever I went in the north of England last week, people were enthusing about First Steps. Primary teachers in Knowsley raved about the woman who developed it, the charismatic Alison Dewsbury, who was over from Australia earlier this year tospread the word. Then, in Wigan, a primary adviser rhapsodised about the First Steps publications, which are now published in the UK by Heinemann.
Co-incidentally, David Blunkett, the new Education Secretary, was talking about it too. He told a press conference to announce the Government's new targets for 11-year-olds' attainments in the Three Rs that the Government wanted to build on First Steps.
What is this programme? Quite simply it is a framework which supports teachers as they meet individual needs in the classroom. It helps them link assessment to practical teaching strategies and activities in the areas of oracy, reading, writing and spelling.
Based on children's development, the scheme helps teachers to pinpoint their pupils' attainments and offers teaching strategies and activities which will help move them on to more advanced work and understanding. Alison Dewsbury, who developed it for the education department of Western Australia, has said its purpose is to make life easier for teachers.
The four First Steps "Developmental Continuum" books provide an overview of children's development in each area of literacy - oracy, reading, writing or spelling - throughout primary years, with clear guidance about the sorts of teaching that helps them progress speedily from stage to stage. Thus, although the project is clearly developmental, it is still, as Alison Dewsbury puts it, "very hot on standards".
Opposite I've applied the First Steps framework to the first five levels of the national curriculum. (Ideally, the levels should be lined up alongside each other, so that teachers can read across the continuum as well as down. )
Teachers at the start of key stage 1 can see immediately where their work leads in later stages of the primary school; teachers towards the end of key stage 2 can see clearly what has gone before. A teacher with a class mainly at, for example, level 3 has a concise guide to the sorts of things she should do to move them on to level 4. At the same time, the teaching emphases for other levels show where the focus should fall for children above or below the "average": it's an instant guide to differentiation.
My example is not a proper First Steps continuum - the real frameworks are based on well-researched data about children's language development rather than arbitarily-determined national curriculum levels, and do not conflate writing and spelling which are totally different processes - but it shows the way the project works. It also demonstrates how easily it can be adapted to fit the needs of teachers in particular circumstances. Two great strengths of First Steps are its flexibility, and the way it builds on teachers' professional knowledge.
The real "Continuum" books look at the different stages of development in detail - providing teachers with much more data about children's literacy skills than national curriculum "level descriptions" - and include much helpful assessment material to determine which stages individual pupils have reached.
In addition, each "Continuum" document has a sister volume, a teacher's resource book. This includes a wealth of classroom teaching suggestions, gathered from real teachers in real classrooms. In Stalybridge, part of Tameside LEA, Greater Manchester, where I visited the UK's first-ever First Steps school (see story below), I heard teachers talking about the ideas they'd gleaned from these books, and saw some of the work children had produced in response.
However, although the books are valuable in themselves, the Stalybridge teachers made it clear that best use of First Steps depends on good in-service training. And the First Steps INSET is, apparently, very good.
INSET is also important because, as Alison Dewsbury admits, all publications are "prisoners of the time when pen went to paper". The present First Steps documents are, in my opinion, weak on phonics because the great mass of recent New Phonics research - mostly emanating from the UK - had not reached Australia when they first went to press. INSET can help compensate for this, until revised editions and further publications fill the gaps. Also, as First Steps is so clearly a teacher's project, individual teachers can always add to and subtract from it to suit their children's needs.
Alison Dewsbury and her Australian training team will be back in the UK later in the year; competition for places on their courses will probably be fierce. However, one of the principles of First Steps is that it should adapt to the locality in which it's used, so home-grown training is now also available, co-ordinated by Heinemann. There are two UK based tutor-trainers (see below).
And does it work? Well, there's been research in Western Australia - reviewed in The TES in September 1995 - which clearly suggests that a First Steps approach raised standards in schools there, including many in the most disadvantaged areas of the state. Longitudinal research studies are at present being set up in other countries, including the UK. But most people I heard talking about the project weren't particularly interested in statistics. They were teachers, and the project spoke to them as teachers; they were professionals, with a professional eye for good principles and practice, and they could see immediately - from their first flick through the books or their first half-hour of training that First Steps is a great leap forward.
First Steps Developmental Continuum books about #163;15.50 each; Teacher's resource books about #163;22.50. Further information on books and INSET from Emily Davies at Heinemann Educational Publishing (O1865 311366) First Steps UK tutor trainers: North of England: Ann Tregenza, 21 Beresford Road, Wallasey, Wirrall, Merseyside, L45 0JJ; South of England: Rhonda Jenkins, 42 Lynton Mead, Totteridge, London N20 8OJ