Let them grow up and develop in their own time

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Judith Allcott-Watson sympathises with the economic indices once known as children

Has anyone really stopped to think how well today's children will lead tomorrow's future? Sue Palmer appears to have done so ("Does early to school make Jack a dull boy?" TES, January 23).

Sue made supplication to God to intercede on our behalf once the children we now educate "grow up and take their revenge". Wishing to be around for many years to come, I too have pondered long and hard about the future impact of the hurdles we make our children jump during their time in formal education. The most devastating hurdles must be those faced in the early years.

Many years ago I bought some delicate, fragile wine glasses. They sat on show behind glass doors until one day my husband used one by mistake. With my heart in my mouth I watched our guest repeatedly raise and lower my beloved glass.

At the end of the evening I realised it was important to enjoy the glasses, and handle them well, for they were never intended as showpieces. Children too are to be enjoyed but in the current culture of testing, targeting and tracking, many are being driven to become showpieces of national standards.

On the way there are many more whose self-esteem is shattered like a fragile wine glass because we did not understand the best way to handle them.

As if to increase these doubts, the front page of The Times ("Five-year-olds face new school pressure", January 26) appeared swiftly on the heels of, and contrary to, Sue Palmer's article.

It appears that "pupils as young as five will face increased pressure to achieve" under the Tomlinson proposals for the 14-19 curriculum expected next month. Mike Tomlinson apparently stated that "pupils would need to do more between five and 14" because there would no longer be a common curriculum after that age. This could be applauded if "more" meant more activities appropriate to their ages. However, this was probably not what he meant.

If more meant developing the early-years curriculum to take in Year 1, children would achieve more later on. If children began their formal schooling at age six or seven, and they all had appropriate experiences up to that age, it does not require blue-skies thinking to see how well they would do and how there would be fewer disaffected children.

There should be serious study of the available research - and there is plenty of it about - to pinpoint models of best practice and to see that the pressures on schools to achieve percolates through all phases of education.

That pressure is potentially more dangerous in the early years. Here teachers and other practitioners seek to support their colleagues by thrusting worksheets and pencils at children who should really be role-playing Bob the Builder or finding out what it feels like to have the wind tugging at a crepe paper streamer in their hands. How sad that the subtle pressure to make children join in activities too advanced for their age is often not recognised by staff.

Mr Tomlinson said: "We cannot go on as we are with so many students attaining at levels they do now because it will have a negative impact on the economic success of the country."

There lies the problem. The policy-makers do not view students as children but as statistical economic indices. Pressure on children to engage in more inappropriate activities will not translate to an increased gross domestic product. Children need time to enjoy childish things. Analysis of children's performance in my own school simply confirms that the longer they have in our nursery school, the more they appear to be able to achieve in academic terms.

They are more receptive to early literacy activities (not worksheets); they listen with sustained concentration; they understand different social and communication conventions; and they become increasingly confident and independent.

Above all, each child knows they are valued. How I would love to provide that same scaffolding for children up to six in a proper early-years unit.

Judith Allcott-Watson is headteacher at Arlesdene nursery school, Hertfordshire

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