Let children play until 6, demand Steiner parents

1st February 2008 at 00:00
They reject 'nappy curriculum' of early years framework and want teaching of three Rs to be delayed.

A school is campaigning for the right not to be required to teach its pupils the "nappy curriculum" of reading, writing and addition until the age of 6.

In what could become a test case for the sincerity of government claims to support parental choice, the private Wynstones School near Stroud in Gloucestershire is fighting a battle against a new official directive on childcare.

In a statement, parents said: "Teachers will (be required to) teach our under-5s to read and write and develop their 'understanding of numeracy'. It is our belief that this would seriously compromise the quality of the children's kindergarten experience."

The Early Years Foundation Stage, which is due to come into force for both independent and state childcare providers in September, has provoked outrage among parents at the 275-pupil Steiner school.

The plan has caused nationwide controversy and has been attacked by many teachers and academics. But it is particularly contentious in Steiner education because the alternative schooling movement does not believe in formal three Rs teaching when children are so young. Instead, kindergarten pupils sing every day, make bread each week and enjoy themselves.

Yet the new foundation stage, widely dubbed the "nappy curriculum", requires that all early years settings teach under-5s literacy and numeracy. Ministers believe this is the key to helping all children reach their potential and close the achievement gaps between poor and middle-class pupils. They stress that the emphasis of the new directive is on play.

But the new framework for early years stipulates that by 5, children should be able to "use their phonic knowledge to write simple regular words"; "attempt writing for different purposes"; and "begin to form simple sentences".

They should also begin to grasp the concepts of addition and subtraction. It also requires that children should be assessed against 117 indicators, including reading, writing and problem-solving.

In 2006, when the Childcare Act enshrined plans for the new key stage in law, it appeared not to bar exemptions for providers with alternative educational philosophies. However, after a consultation last year in which the Government said many of the 36 respondents questioned the need for exemptions, it said it would allow them only for a maximum of six months.

Ofsted will inspect all providers' implementation of the framework's requirements. Wynstones' parents, who have taken legal advice, fear the school could be closed if it sticks with its educational philosophy. They have written a letter to the Government asking for a permanent exemption. A reply, due last week, has not yet been received.

John Houghton, a former supply teacher, decided to educate his children at Wynstones after becoming disillusioned with the months of test preparation he was expected to provide in state primaries.

He withdrew his son, Noah, 7, from a state primary after witnessing him being turned off reading by being pushed to progress too fast. His daughter, Cara, is in the school's kindergarten.

Mr Houghton said: "I have opted out. I have looked at what is going on in the state system and I have decided I do not want that for my own children. The Government, it seems, does not believe that I have the right to opt out. I am furious that it is stalking my children, following them into this safe haven I have chosen for them."

Marc Palmer and his wife, Sam, moved from Salisbury, 50 miles away, to send their two daughters, Amy and Anna, to the school.

Mr Palmer said: "I firmly believe that children up to seven should be learning just through play. There are a lot of people in mainstream schools who will feel the same. They do not want the pressures (on children) being pushed down and down into the early years."

Ken Power, head of Wynstones, which educates children from 3 to 18 and where fees in the kindergarten run to a relatively modest pound;2,796 a year, said: "We are not trying to pick a fight with the Government. We are just thinking of the children, that's all.

"Parents have chosen to send their children to this school so that they can still be children: they can play without having to learn formally until they are 6 years old."

A later introduction to formal education is also favoured in Finland, Sweden and Germany. However, ministers argue that evidence shows that children who perform well at an early age go on to do well later.

- Research in the United States has suggested a lack of play may be a cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among young children. Dr Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist, has published findings from more than a decade of research suggesting that rats which are given opportunities for play are less impulsive, more socially successful and show greater development in the brain cortex.

Brain and Behaviour, Magazine, page 36.

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