The latest ideas about what should be taught in the nursery risk imposing formal and sedentary tasks on the under-fives, says Liz Wood.
The recent document from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority sets out proposals for what four-year-olds should know by the time they are five. These "desirable learning outcomes"are intended to provide a foundation for achievement in later learning and relate to the national curriculum. In his foreword, Sir Ron Dearing acknowledges that the quality of children's early education influences their development. The question is, will these proposals fulfil such intentions? The answer has to be probably not.
These proposals are linked to the scheme to give parents of four-year-olds vouchers worth Pounds 1,100. Providers who wish to receive these vouchers have to "provide education appropriate to these outcomes". These are intended to create a framework for activities, but there is no prescribed curriculum. Flexibility is desirable given the range of services and the diverse needs of young children.
However, those places working towards achieving the outcomes will be subject to inspection "to judge the extent to which the quality of the provision is appropriate to the desirable outcomes, rather than on their achievement". This has to be seen as a major weakness, since there is no mechanism for evaluating the implementation, effectiveness and quality of the curriculum offered. Moreover, the model outlined in the Rumbold Report (1990) has been reduced significantly. Perceptions of what constitutes quality are subjective, and many pre-school educators do their best within limited means. But the fact remains that much of what is provided is simply not good enough and statements of outcomes not linked to a well-designed curriculum are meaningless.
Research indicates that effectiveness is not linked to the form of provision, but the extent to which certain quality criteria are used to guide and inform. As the Rumbold Report argued, these include a curriculum, which is broad, balanced, differentiated, culturally relevant, which promotes equal opportunities and provides real challenges to young learners.
The anxieties expressed to me by pre-school educators about the SCAA document are twofold. First, that parents may see this as defining a child's entitlement, but the guidelines are so minimalist they may not look beyond these to other areas of learning and experience, which are equally desirable. Many of the pre-school educators I work with, particularly in the private sector, express concern at the increasing formality of the curriculum for three and four-year-olds.
Second, in the hands of inexperienced or poorly trained adults, these outcomes may provide a recipe for unchallenging activities with an emphasis on formal, sedentary tasks and an imbalance between child-initiated and teacher-directed activities. The SCAA document makes frequent reference to "practical activities", but rather less to play. HM Inspectorate and subsequently the Office for Standards in Education have emphasised consistently that play should be planned, purposeful and educationally worthwhile. A valid viewpoint to a certain extent, but not if play only pays into these narrowly defined outcomes.
It is likely that these will be used to frame assessment for five-year- olds and may, therefore, define the curriculum. Educators may gear their work towards a narrow framework of attainments. The outcomes lack specificity, are biased heavily towards "the basics" and devalue other forms of knowledge and areas of experience. For example, the outcomes for creativity are not just minimalist, but reductionist and may deny rather than support children's potential. Educators will need an extensive knowledge base and considerable pedagogical expertise to translate these minimal guidelines into a creative, challenging curriculum, which enables children to achieve their full potential.
The desirability of these outcomes is debatable. Of equal concern are the mechanisms for improving and ensuring quality in the pre-school sector. The Rumbold Report enshrined high ideals and aspirations for the quality of early learning and experience. Their implementation was to be supported by a range of innovative policies, professional development and practice. The minimalist approach adopted by SCAA may lead to a betrayal of these ideals and of the nation's children.
Liz Wood is a lecturer at the School of Education, University of Exeter.