Primary and infant headteachers should be given a grounding in the principles of the foundation stage - for three to five-year-olds - to stop them pressuring staff to teach the 3Rs, writes Julie Henry.
Early-years consultant and trainer Margaret Edgington claims the play-based phase for three to five-year-olds is being undermined by mixed messages. She said: "Reception teachers and local authority early-years advisers all over the country have told me that they are under pressure to work in ways that are inconsistent with the principles of the foundation stage. This pressure seems to be coming from headteachers, key stage 1 colleagues and literacy advisers."
The foundation stage has been in place for a year (see box). Children in nurseries, creches, playgroups, nursery schools and reception classes learn by structured play, working towards early learning goals. By the time they start school, the five-year-olds are expected to be able to count to 10 and write their name.
Many reception class teachers have pointed to tensions between the informal nature of the foundation stage and the demands of KS1. Ms Edgington has started a petition urging the Government to give foundation stage training to heads and scrap national curriculum targets for seven-year-olds.
Paul Lockwood, headteacher of Martongate primary school in Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire, said: "Like many schools we have had to think very carefully about how to dovetail the foundation stage and the first year of statutory schooling.
"We have extended the foundation stage into key stage 1 to try to make a seamless transition between the two. But keeping the child-centred approach is difficult when you get into a more formalised curriculum."
Some schools have suggested that in the short-term, KS1 scores could fall because of the change in emphasis in reception class.
Nansi Ellis, primary education adviser at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "The foundation stage should eventually push up key stage 2 scores because children will have higher motivation and a greater disposition to learn successfully."
The foundation stage encompasses nursery and reception. It emphasises social, personal and physical skills. The guidance says children should be encouraged to learn skills such as concentration, persistence and co-operation.
They should be allowed time to work in-depth and complete activities. The importance of children feeling successful and confident is stressed.
Examples include using sand and water play to explain measurements or building with bricks to discuss 3D shapes.
The guidance places more emphasis on outdoor play. Early Years Development and Care Partnerships now have government funding to improve play areas in some early-years settings.
From September, nurseries, cr ches, playgroups and childminders will be inspected by the new Early Years Directorate, an arm of OFSTED.
School nurseries and reception classes will continue to be inspected by Ofsted.