Monday's child

15th September 1995 at 01:00
It looked at the beginning of this week as if Sir Ron Dearing had once again pulled off a curriculum compromise to please both professionals and critics. This time it was pre-school learning which was in question, an area where the early-years specialists knew what they wanted, and it wasn't tick-lists and tests.

With apprehensions heightened by the link between Sir Ron's exercise and the nursery voucher scheme, the guidance document from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority on "desirable outcomes" brought some relief as both non-prescriptive and backable. Sir Ron rightly emphasised the nurturing of personal and social skills, and while early literacy and numeracy were there too, the feared tick-lists favoured by influential voices inside and outside SCAA were not. Targets were set to be aimed at, but Sir Ron did not expect five-year-olds to be tested on them.

That was Monday. With the Prime Minister's education speech on Tuesday, everything was turned on its head. John Major was claiming that the SCAA proposals could provide for baseline testing at the start of primary school, and hence the foundation for the whole testing edifice. Had the chief inspector's voice prevailed again? In any event, Mr Major and Sir Ron were not speaking with one voice, and the fragile alliance with the nursery world was in danger of crumbling within 24 hours.

Of course, the Prime Minister and his advisers are not the first to have thought of baseline assessment. Tony Blair and David Blunkett claimed the idea for Labour in July. But their version was based on the Birmingham experience, where teacher assessment (not testing) has been a bottom-up process owned by the teachers, rather than top-down prescription.

But there are other doubts, fears and question marks which arise when the SCAA consultation is viewed in the context of the nursery voucher scheme. One of the difficulties for Sir Ron was that his blueprint had to be applicable in a variety of settings and handled by staff or parent helpers with a variety of qualifications, or none. Though he might have solved that by offering guidance rather than prescription, once you start talking about using the outcomes for baseline testing, it matters very much if children are brought to the starting gate by different routes, with varying levels of guidance.

Even sticking to the gospel according to Sir Ron, there are difficulties. Although his desired outcomes chime with the views of early-years specialists, and inspection will be minimal, it could be all the more difficult for those without a professional training in child development to understand what curriculum will best deliver those outcomes. But money for training is not part of the Government's voucher package, and parent pressure in a competitive market could demand basic skills drilling with the first tests in mind, rather than the social skilling which may better serve the age group.

Then, too, the SCAA guidelines should really be directed at least to the whole three-to-five age group, rather than just the four-year-olds in the Government's voucher sights. Some will have started nursery school earlier, most part-time. Some will have been with childminders or in playgroups, and most four-year olds will in fact be in primary reception classes and perhaps already embarked on the national curriculum. Will that put them ahead when it comes to baseline testing or just confuse them?

What is certain is that children are not all ready for school on equal terms. It depends on home background, but also on whether good quality nursery provision has provided the right complement in both educational and social terms. Little real progress is possible while the Government faces both ways.

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