Something had to give when government policy did not fit in with a school's ethos
If, when the literacy and numeracy strategies came along, you decided they didn't line up with your vision of what early learning ought to be like, then you weren't alone. At Crabtree infants in Harpenden, for example, head Hilary Hollick and her staff created an approach for reception classes that reflected the school's values.
"We felt we needed to keep the focus on play," she says. "We developed our own curriculum which set the aspects we had to cover within our own format."
They chose to have four classroom areas: "quiet", "numeracy", "investigations" and "creative", along with a plan to develop an outdoor area.
What they were doing was anticipating the emerging foundation stage, a strategy which won them a good report from the Office for Standards in Education and Beacon status.
From that start, the school moved forward in three interlinked ways. It continued to develop the approach in reception, learning from consultants and from other schools (Ridgeway in Croydon, Mount Pleasant in Dudley and Kingsway infants in Watford). An outreach programme was started in line with their Beacon status. "We had visitors every week," says Mrs Hollick.
"Groups from 200 settings over three years. Never believe that Beacon status is money for nothing."
The third strand was to look at extending the foundation stage approach into Year 1. "We originally tried to work Year 1 as prescribed by the strategies, but the children were unhappy and becoming switched off," says Mrs Hollick.
"We still had the sand and water and the role play, but it clearly wasn't enough. One option was to become authoritarian and say 'you will do this' but it was clear to us that if the only way to control behaviour was to go against our own ethos - which is to develop children as learners - there was something very wrong."
The answer was to make the curriculum fit the learners, and this meant changing the Year 1 regime so that it became a continuation of reception.
For deputy head Jane Whitehurst it seemed a natural progression. "You can't just stop it at the end of reception," she says. "We looked at the stuff from Europe, and we're very aware that children there don't start formal education until age six. We see Year 1 as the transition year."
There was a period of trialling and debate, but this term Crabtree took the plunge. "We decided to bring the system in completely, continuing reception learning in Year 1 for the first half-term. We reorganised the whole learning environment to match. So when the children arrived they saw the same areas of learning and the same resources. They felt in control."
Staff kept a close eye on learning, and found that no child had regressed over the half term, and at that the pace of learning had speeded up.
"We introduced longer specific literacy and numeracy sessions in differentiated groups," says Mrs Hollick.
A typical day in Year 1 starts with 15 minutes of drawing and writing to develop fine motor skills. After assembly there is a short "brain gym" session and exercise, held outside whenever possible. Then there's a very short session of literacy and a slightly longer one of numeracy, the whole taking less than an hour. After break there's "focused learning" where children work in groups of 15, with a teacher or a teaching assistant, on art, design and technology and science. An hour in the afternoon may be given to "independent learning" with a wide degree of controlled choice, including the chance to practise skills taught in other sessions.
On paper it seems prescriptive but in practice it is free-flowing and active, as children move from area to area. Groupings differ through the day in response to learning needs, ranging from whole class for numeracy through the frequently-used half-class groups, to the ability-differentiated groups of different sizes in short closely-focused literacy sessions. It is particularly impressive to see children coming to their independent learning time in the afternoons and "signing up" for their chosen work on a large sheet in each learning area. Children handle all of it - knowing where their groups are, moving through the areas, finding resources - with impressive confidence and purpose, always eager for the next thing.
At the heart of it is the notion of "contexts for learning", inspired by Ridgeway primary in Croydon, but taken forward in a different way. As practised at Crabtree, it means basing much of the children's learning, including literacy work, on topics.
"We took all the programmes of study for all subjects and grouped them into topics, and then identified lots of different ways you could access each topic," Mrs Hollick explains.
Importantly, teachers ask the children for their own ideas about what they'd like to learn about each topic. So, for example, when Jane Whitehurst introduced Year 1 children to the topic "Once Upon a Time", and asked them what they'd like included, they plumped for the romantic and entirely appropriate subject of "Rainbows".
"We looked at what we could cover," says Jane. "And there was geography, art, weather, design technology. All the skills we needed to include were there."
The story is one of steady development over a long period, trying things, winning people over, according to teaching assistant Penny May. "When this was discussed with me I was wondering how it would work. Now, though, I can see the children fully engaged in their learning. There's a buzzy atmosphere, and learning is fun."
Walk round Crabtree now, and you begin to see, made flesh before you, the teaching team's vision of children as willing, switched-on learners.
There's laughter and bright eyes. There are children in the water play area gleefully making pretend hot chocolate "with some poison in it", and there are lovely winter poems on the wall.
THE CRABTREE PRINCIPLES
* It takes time. "You have to do the learning yourselves, with constant reflection and evaluation - is it right in my school?"
* Don't try to do it on your own. Share your learning and share other peoples' learning.
* From learning comes belief. If you don't believe, you can't do it.
* Give teachers confidence to be in charge of the curriculum. "It's their responsibility to say what the child should do next."
* Insist on quality, but also provide quality.
* Always, the importance of play.
* Give priority to the learning environment.
* The curriculum should be skills-based and not knowledge-led.