Determination to secure value for money lies behind the Government's drive to assess pre-school children. Linda Blackburne reports. Proposals for national tests for five-year-olds will be drafted by Government advisers in the next six months, Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, said this week.
The announcement was made after the publication of the new pre-school inspection scheme, and the goals the Government expects children to have reached by the time they are five.
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has been instructed to investigate how schools are testing their five-year-olds and draw up proposals for formal consultation on this "baseline assessment" in the autumn.
Robin Squire, minister responsible for the under-fives, said that the consultation would enable ministers to decide "whether to introduce a voluntary system of assessment using national materials, or whether a statutory national system is needed to ensure consistency and quality".
Last week, at the North of England conference in Gateshead, Mrs Shephard stressed the importance of value for money in the Government's scheme to give parents of four-year-olds vouchers worth Pounds 1,100. Asked about baseline assessment, she said: "We are investing Pounds 750 million in the voucher scheme. It must be seen to result in improved standards. Value for money is necessary. It is our duty to assess improvement."
Details about how vouchers are intended to work , quality assurance and inspection arrangements are outlined in Next Steps published by the Department for Education and Employment, while the pre-school goals are outlined in a SCAA document called Desirable outcomes.
The DFEE says the pre-school inspections should be "rigorous, but with the minimum of bureaucracy and disruption". A pre-school will fail if it does not provide an education compatible with SCAA's goals and there is no clear evidence that it will improve.
The goals published this week differ only slightly from the draft targets published last autumn. But the consultation did persuade SCAA to include a sentence on showing respect for people of other cultures and beliefs.
Some early-years experts were this week scathing about the wording of the goals which fall into six categories: personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematics; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development; and creative development.
Wendy Scott, chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, called them "insulting" because they were narrow and lacking in depth.
"When it is specific and linked with tests, there is a real pressure from parents or on parents to sit children down to rote learning. It is backwards to basics," she said.
Vicky Hurst, a Goldsmiths' College lecturer in early childhood and a member of the Early Years Curriculum Group, agreed. She said the targets would be meaningless or ambiguous in the hands of untrained early-years workers, and the Government had no plans to improve training.
She also said the national curriculum was "trickling down" and forcing an inappropriate curriculum on pre-schools. "This is all a coat of whitewash on a crumbling wall and the patches will show through."
The teachers' unions and the opposition parties were equally critical. David Blunkett, Labour's education and employment spokesman, said: "They set out a procedure for the issue and redemption of vouchers that is Kafkaesque in its dimensions."
And Margaret Lochrie, chief executive officer for the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said: "Our main disappointment is that the Government has not done more to standardise staffing levels across the spectrum of provision. Younger children require more individual attention if they are to achieve their potential."