Ministers set new benchmarks at five after worries that 'early learning goals' are too tough. Helen Ward reports
Fewer than half of five-year-olds in England have the social and communication skills the Government thinks they should, according to official figures.
The statistics, based on assessments by reception year teachers, show 48 per cent of children are "good" at dealing with social situations and communicate well for their age. The Government has now set a target that half should be "good" by 2008.
Children are assessed against 13 nine-point scales which track progress from the age of three to five towards "early learning goals".
Those at the lowest end of the scales typically can dress themselves, will listen and respond and can count up to three.
Five-year-olds who are working beyond expectations can use a range of strategies to add and subtract, can read and write independently and communicate ideas and feelings through art, music and pretend play.
Possible reasons for differences in achievement include the time of year the child was born - a few months matters at this age - and the differing rates at which youngsters develop.
There have been fears that expectations for five-year-olds had been set too high, especially in writing. Since the launch of the profile in 2003, fewer than a third of children have scored eight points in writing, the score needed to meet the early learning goal.
Children who have six points may not have met the goal, but still have a "good" level of development, says the Government. It has now set a target of half of children reaching this level in all seven measures of communication and social development by 2008.
It deems six points "not too high to raise concerns about putting excessive pressure on young children, and not too low to be unchallenging". In writing, 61 per cent of children scored six points in 2005.
In all 13 scales girls outperform boys. The largest gap is in writing where 70 per cent of girls achieve a good level, compared to 53 per cent of boys.
The smallest gap is in counting, where 89 per cent of girls and 85 per cent of boys are at a good level.
Margaret Edgington, an early-years consultant, said: "In this age group there is such a massive development difference between children who are a year apart. Children are seen as less able when they are actually just young and have less experience.
"These targets are just arbitrary. We expect such a lot of young children in England. They don't expect the same things in France, Germany or Finland. The danger is teachers will put more effort into the areas with targets, such as writing, because they are valued and that could be at the expense of things which are more important for the child, such as being creative or learning physical skills."
Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "We're putting pressure on parents and teachers. We should be using assessment to help, not pressurise. A child isn't not good just because it doesn't make the grade the Government says it should."
In October the National Assessment Agency sent a note to teachers using the foundation stage profile scales to correct its previous definition of "good". Previously it had said that six points indicated "typical"
achievement, and seven points or more a "good" level of achievement. It now says that a score of six is good.