The right start

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Lesley Staggs (left), the strategy's director for the foundation stage, talks to Sue Palmer about how young children learn

Wonderful news. The foundation stage for three to five-year-olds and the rest of primary education can live together in peace. The statutory requirement that schools should "have regard to the curriculum guidance for the foundation stage" in provision for children under six, and the appointment of Lesley Staggs as the first primary strategy director for the foundation stage, mean that thinking about practice in the early years and key stage 1 has finally become connected. But it might take a while for everyone to notice.

In the past 10 years there has been concern among early years practitioners that the "pencil and paper" culture infecting many primary schools has extended downwards, influencing practice in reception and sometimes even in nursery classes and pre-schools. Practitioners feel children are expected to engage in formal literacy and numeracy work long before they are ready.

And they claim this continues to be the case, despite curriculum guidance that emphasises the development of the individual child, and despite practitioners' own deeply held belief in a more informal, play-based approach to the development of basic skills.

Lesley Staggs recognises these concerns and wants everyone to be aware of the primary strategy's position. "I know there's been genuine tension, but from now on the document that must drive practice in early years is the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage," she says. "At the reception conferences organised last year by the primary strategy and Sure Start, we stated that the final decision on what's right for foundation-age children in any particular setting must rest with the practitioner who knows them, based on that guidance document. All the primary strategy directors are agreed on this.

"We're also agreed that where children have not attained the early learning goals by the end of the reception year, Year 1 teachers should ensure a gradual and smooth transition from the foundation ethos to the more structured, teacher-directed ethos of KS1."

The problem in schools seems to arise from a clash of cultures. On one side are managers and advisers who do not have a background in early years teaching and who may not be fully aware of the implications of the foundation stage guidance. On the other side are early years practitioners, who find it difficult to argue their case because they have never previously been expected to articulate what they do and why it matters.

"Many practitioners are highly intuitive, which is important with young children, but when confronted by advice they don't like from 'outsiders', they aren't very good at arguing their case," says Ms Staggs. "From now on, all early years practitioners must be ready and able to explain and justify their practice."

Before taking up her post at the primary strategy, Ms Staggs led the team that created the foundation stage document, and since then has been closely involved in the development of Sure Start's Birth to Three Matters (see panel, right). She believes it is vital that any curriculum guidance for the early years is rooted in illustrations of good practice and is accompanied by a clear, accessible rationale.

"Intuitive practitioners are quick to recognise good practice," she says.

"Once they also begin to recognise the research and rationale underpinning that practice, it gives them the confidence to explain it. In many early years settings I visit - not just the outstanding ones - practitioners tell me the early learning goals and curriculum guidance help them articulate what they do and why they do it." Given this confidence, a practitioner confronted with advice to teach too formally can reply: "It's not that I don't have the same agenda as you, but what you're suggesting isn't appropriate for these children at this time."

So what would Ms Staggs say if, as in a case I heard recently, someone suggested that all children must be able to write all the alphabet letters by the end of reception (involving endless handwriting practice)? "Children's writing is inextricably linked to their physical development," she replies. "If I walked into a reception class and just saw groups of children sitting down practising handwriting, I wouldn't feel that was appropriate. That isn't what the foundation stage is all about."

And what about the complaint of many reception teachers that they are expected to sit children down for a formal literacy hour? "I've seen super practice where teachers do the elements of the hour in a joined-up way. The children may sometimes be sitting, but it's not for long, it's never passive and they're engaged in a variety of activities."

Ms Staggs points out that the problem of early years teaching being too formal is not recent: "In my time as a local authority inspector, we often saw reception children doing worksheets, copying letter shapes and working through pages of sums long before testing and the national strategies came on the scene. "The point now is that no one should be able to hide behind 'what the parents expect' or 'what Ofsted might say' - whether they're over-formal practitioners or uninformed managers, advisers or consultants.

The guidance is there."

Sue Palmer is an independent literary consultant and writer

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