Experts say that Government targets for under-fives in the Principality are more child-friendly. Emma Burstall reports. Welsh pupils will have a better start than English children and are likely to achieve much higher scores in primary school because the new Government targets for under-fives in Wales are superior to the English version .
This is the view of English and Welsh early years specialists who have roundly condemned the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's document on desirable outcomes for English pre-school children's learning for being too narrow and prescriptive.
They say the Welsh version, published last month, is less formal, emphasizes play more and will be more helpful for providers working with under-fives, such as playgroups, private and state nurseries and reception classes.
Vicky Hurst, a lecturer in early childhood education at Goldsmiths College, London, said: "English children will get a dreadful deal. Practitioners are being given the impression they have to prepare children to a rigid and low standard. But the Welsh document is written by people who have the wisdom to recognise the importance of play and is supportive of the work of Welsh playgroups who have their own, interesting and distinctive approach."
Unlike the English under-fives targets, published last January, the Welsh document - produced by the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales, - begins with the opening of Gerallt Lloyd Owen's epic poem Afon (River) "When I had a child's talent to see a voice and hear an image" and adds that the poet is longing for "the magic of early childhood. It is the time when the world is there to be explored and the adventure of discovery is all around. He has evoked the essence of childhood. That essence is the foundation of early childhood education".
In a section called The Importance of Play the document says play is often a serious business. "It needs concentrated attention. It is all about perseverance, attending to detail, learning and concentrating - characteristics usually associated with work. It is fundamental to intellectual development. "
Another section - The Principle of Appropriateness - emphasises the different stages at which children develop and stresses the importance of gearing activities to individual needs.
Both detail areas of learning - personal and social; language and literacy, mathematics, knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development and creative development - and give advice about relevant activities.
Ms Hurst said under-fives providers she had come in contact with felt the Welsh document offered useful guidance on the general philosophy of early years teaching. But the English document would send people off in the wrong direction.
Research suggested that the more formal the early learning, the more worried children became and the less effective the teaching was, she explained.
"The Department for Education Employment has been at pains to emphasise that the SCAA document is not a curriculum but people will teach to it because children will be tested to it.
"The formalisation of under-fives education is going to have a terrible effect on later maths and English scores because children will be so anxious. It will inhibit them from being adaptive, creative and self-confident," she added.
Liz Wood, a lecturer in education at Exeter University who specialises in early years teaching, said nursery inspectors would have to take account of the different emphasis in the English and Welsh versions.
She was concerned that inexperienced English practitioners who were not confident about how young children learn and the role of adults would resort to a flashcards approach to reading in order to meet required standards.
"Unless the targets are tied to very extensive professional development across the whole range of provision the document will validate a more formal curriculum for four-years-olds," she added.
And Pat Davies, head of the early childhood unit at Children in Wales, a charitable organisation, said the Welsh document had been more warmly welcomed because it captured "the essence of childhood".
"There are fundamental differences between the two documents," she said. "By retaining the importance of play in the process of learning in the Welsh document, people will be less inclined to work through a list of areas of experiences and tick them off. They will be less likely to say: `Have we done letters and sounds today?'" she said.
The documents would undoubtedly influence the way staff planned the curriculum, particularly in voucher-redeeming institutions where they would know they were going to be inspected against recommended areas of experience.
"My concern is how in settings where staff haven't got strong early years training they might misinterpret the English targets. Everyone is worried about a shift towards worksheets and colouring and totally passive forms of occupying children. I'm not saying: `God help English children' because how providers interpret the document is the crux. But it is possible that English children will get a raw deal," she added.