In last week's speech to the left-of-centre think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, Ruth Kelly declared: "We want to see an increase from 48 per cent of children reaching a good level of development at age five to 53 per cent by 2008." She added: "It may not seem much, but it means an extra 30,000 more children ready to learn at age five every year."
These are the sort of meaningless targets that prompt any self-respecting early-years professional to run for cover. It's senseless number-crunching. It won't help to narrow the gap between the affluent and the deprived and it won't help the Government to deliver on its Every Child Matters agenda.
Some - me included - would argue that it will actually get in the way. In the first place, what on earth are we to understand by "ready to learn at age five"? Does this imply that young children have to be prepared for this most instinctive of processes? Anyone who knows young children well knows that it's actually very difficult to stop them from learning. The difficulty perhaps lies in a definition of what they should be learning.
Ms Kelly cites Finland and Canada as shining examples, saying that they combine excellence with high levels of equity. Now I don't know about you, but if I see a shining example of anything, the first thing I want to do is to look at how it's been achieved and learn from it. So why aren't we doing this? I can only assume it's because in the UK we've become so obsessed with looking for quick fixes that we've never engaged in that crucial piece of reflection. It's also, I think, because we've tried to do everything backwards. Because our children aren't performing well enough at 16, we've tried to address the problem by starting earlier. In her speech, Ms Kelly asserts: 'We are speeding up how children learn the basics through revised literacy and numeracy strategies, with more intensive phonics." She says that there should be opportunities for kids to have fun - try asking a few five-year-olds how much fun they find intensive phonics. I have - and they don't!
In both Finland and Canada, formal learning is delayed until much later.
The children don't so much "get ready for learning" as learn in a way that is appropriate for 0 to 6-year-olds. This involves a huge emphasis on using play as a vehicle for developing spoken language and personal and social skills, all of which are fundamental to successful learning.
Ms Kelly pays lip service to learning through play, but as every early-years practitioner knows, time to play can come under serious threat in a culture in which children are tested to within an inch of their lives.
(Next week is Sats week and we all know what pedagogic paranoia that can produce.) We are, however, reassured that "toddlers will not sit exams". Instead, teachers and childcare professionals will "simply observe children. My god, how this made my blood boil. Does the minister really not understand that observation is far from simple? It is a highly skilled process demanding real intellectual rigour.
What more is there to say? This was a speech full of inconsistencies and lacking in vision. More an exercise in un-thought joinery than joined-up thinking. In my opinion, and I know that I speak for numerous early-years colleagues, these meaningless targets will simply take us into another messy cul-de-sac. Instead of applying sticking plasters to our fragmented system, the Government should go back to the drawing-board and learn from the countries that Ms Kelly seems to admire so much.
Ros Bayley is an early-years consultant