How we trip the boys who fall behind at five
It is a special day for a group of four and five-year-old boys at Bedgrove Infants in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. They have plunged their hands into a gooey mess of orange jelly - words like "squidgy", "sticky" and "squeezy" are being used.
Diane Smith, their teacher, is delighted. "They were using language they just wouldn't have done if they weren't able to feel the jelly," she says. "Unless you provide all those different opportunities, you won't see what they can do."
Boys can do a lot, but under the current assessment system for pre-school children, girls can do far more. Figures released last term show five- year-old girls trumping boys in all but three of 117 areas assessed - boys do better at using construction toys, ICT and being able to add and subtract.
A quarter of boys, said the headlines, cannot write their names at age five. Next month, more statistics will show how reception pupils did last year in the early years foundation stage (EYFS) profile. They are likely to show, again, that boys trail far behind girls, especially in literacy.
Lesley Staggs, formerly head of the foundation stage for National Strategies, is angry. "The bigger story is whether we are assessing children at the right moment," she says. "We have put so much investment in reading and writing: how long will it be before people get the message that it may be the goals that are wrong, not the children."
The profile is the only assessment of pre-school children that must be done by law. But those working in early years need a way to assess younger children, and some assessments focus on dispositions, attitudes and emotional development.
Next month sees the national launch of the AcE (Accounting Early for lifelong learning) programme and assessment scale, developed by Chris Pascal and Tony Bertram, professors at the Centre for Research in Early Childhood, Birmingham. This ranks children on 17 items in four domains: communication, language and literacy development; attitudes and dispositions to learn; social competence and self-concept; and emotional wellbeing.
Maureen Saunders, programme development manager, has overseen the pilot schemes. She says all 117 of the EYFS profile points are covered within the 17 AcE areas, but the tone is different.
"It's about creating a holistic picture," she says. "It's looking at what children can do, not what they can't do, and looking at what they can do in a very wide way."
Ms Staggs, now a consultant in Tower Hamlets, east London, has introduced a different system, the Leuven scales, which look at involvement and wellbeing. Devised by Professor Ferre Laevers, of Leuven University, Belgium, they work by rating a child's engagement on a scale of one to five: a child is rated one if they think something is very boring, five if they are fascinated.
Ms Staggs says: "We were focused on boys' language development. We identified boys who were not talking confidently. What staff found, using the scales, was the moment they took them outside into the environment, they started to talk much more."
The early-years curriculum says all six areas - emotional, language, mathematical, creative, physical, and understanding the world - are of equal worth, but the profile has more ways of assessing knowledge of letters than of how to make things.
Margaret Edgington, early-years consultant and member of lobby group Open Eye, suggests a simple solution to the problem of "failing" boys. "The profile should be more equally weighted," she says. "Knowledge and understanding of the world has one scale, communication, language and literacy has four. Boys do better in the former aspects, so the scale disadvantages them. I would take literacy out altogether and scale up physical development, knowledge and understanding of the world and creative development. These are skills they need to do well in literacy."
But could that conceal the problem with boys' results?
Government statistics reveal that in "dispositions and attitudes", 82 per cent of boys were excited about learning compared with 89 per cent of girls. This is the type of data many experts think is more useful than whether children know the alphabet.
Research published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families adds weight to the argument for rethinking the scales.
Academics from London's Institute of Education (IoE) looked at the link between self-regulation - broadly the ability to concentrate, motivate yourself and work in a team - and learning. They found that although the effect was small, there was little doubt that self-regulation had a positive impact on academic attainment, could be taught to young children, and the benefits were the same regardless of gender.
Bernadette Duffy, head of Thomas Coram Children's Centre in London and chair of Early Education, says: "We don't want to narrow the curriculum, but we need to get away from some of the more subject-based points and look at the dispositions and attitudes, skills and competencies. All the time in early years, the personal, social and emotional scale comes up strongly - not only in terms of happiness and wellbeing now, but also for success in future, because there is a strong correlation with academic success."
It is clear to many that the current system may be unfairly branding boys as failures by focusing so heavily on literacy. The flipside is that some of the successful children are not as successful as they seem.
In December 2008, the IoE's Andy Cullis and Kirstine Hansen looked at whether doing well at aged three was a pointer to the future. They concluded: "Not all children who perform badly at three also perform badly at five, and vice versa. Intervention therefore needs to follow children as they grow up and ensure that interventions do not label or stigmatise young children who may escape low performance anyway, nor miss children who start well but fall behind later."
Back in Aylesbury, Mrs Smith welcomed her new reception class last week. She recalls one boy who has now gone into Year 1.
"He was one of the best children last year at role-play and acting," she says. "He did struggle with writing, but I'm confident that will not cap his language development because he has solid foundations through acting and role-play. It is also good for some of the children who are high- achieving in writing to know that someone who may struggle in writing can be really good at acting and role-play. It's important for them, too - because confidence is almost everything. Confidence will lead them to learn in time."
FOUNDATIONS OF THE PROFILE
Under the early years foundation stage profile, teachers assess children on 13 different nine-point scales, where points 1 to 3 are below expectations, point 6 is good, and point 9 is exceptional.
There are three scales that measure personal, social and emotional development, four that measure communication, language and literacy and three within problem-solving, reasoning and numeracy, but only one each for knowledge and understanding of the world, physical development and creative development.
Last year, the biggest gender gap was in point 6 on the writing scale, which measures whether children attempt writing for a variety of purposes, using features of different forms. This was achieved by 74 per cent of girls and 54 per cent of boys.