Roots of a revolution

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Everyone wants the best for the early years. Diane Hofkins spoke to the woman with the task of squaring the circle

The world of early-years experts is a strange one. There is probably more passion in that sphere than in all the rest of the education universe combined. Ministers and mandarins have found themselves both baffled and shocked by the fury and uncompromising forthrightness of the early-years lobby.

But it should really not be surprising. These women (and a few men) are fighting on behalf of the youngest and most vulnerable children in the education system, and so they are the most protective, and the fiercest, like tigresses defending their cubs.

So when a government develops a policy or makes an appointment that the whole early-years lobby - teacher trainers, pressure groups, leading practitioners - agrees to cheer about, it is a remarkable achievement.

Two such developments have been the creation of the foundation stage for three to five-year- olds, and now the appointment of Lesley Staggs, who took up the post of foundation stage director for the National Primary Strategy last week.

The establishment of the foundation stage unified provision for three to five-year-olds, whatever setting they were in, for the first time. It set out a play-based curriculum, underpinned by an understanding of how children learn and how teachers and other staff can foster their development.

Margaret Hodge, the new children's minister, has called the foundation stage "a quiet revolution". Ms Staggs says her job as director is to "turn up the volume". That means getting the message out not only to primary heads and infant teachers about what it means for them, but also to local authorities and sections of the Department for Education and Skills that have had little to do with early education until now.

But the most important revolutionaries are the people who actually work with the children. The quality of early education is only as good as they are, Ms Staggs points out.

"One of the big issues is making sure we get all the training that is out there as good as the best," says the former nursery head.

The strategy does not intend to do this through centrally-produced materials, as was done with literacy and numeracy, but by working with local authorities to meet local needs.

"One size fits all simply won't work," she says. So Ms Staggs and her team will be encouraging the sharing of good practice, and also challenging those places which are not up to scratch.

They will also be co-operating with other parts of the early-years service, such as Sure Start, where Ms Staggs was based before moving to the primary strategy.

As head of early years at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority from 1998 to 2001, Ms Staggs was in charge of developing the early learning guidance which underpins the foundation stage, but departed for the Early Years and Childcare Unit (now part of Sure Start) before the more controversial foundation stage profile was constructed.

This requires reception teachers to mark off a 117-item checklist of children's capabilities across six "areas of experience", including literacy, creative development and physical development, by the end of the year.

Most famously lambasted by TES columnist Ted Wragg, the profile has had a mixed response from teachers; many find it fits in unproblematically with good practice. Ms Staggs believes difficulties in the profile's first year stemmed from the late arrival of documents meant to be filled in throughout the school year, and says there were issues for schools which were not implementing the foundation stage properly.

She also has yet to be convinced that complaints about the dissonance between the play-based foundation stage and the demands of the Year 1 curriculum stem from any structural problem. She says the two curricula were designed to match up. The message that learning in the infant years should be active and informal is slow to break through to schools - many still believe they are not supposed to work this way.

But some schools do use this approach, for example, fostering role-play right through the age groups, but shifting it up a gear at each stage, she says.

The discontinuity can occur if children reaching the infants suddenly have their opportunities for making choices taken away, or are expected to sit still for too long. But this does not need to happen, she insists.

Meanwhile, the strategy has conducted a telephone survey of teachers to try to work out what the issues are and plans to interview parents and children as well.

"Many LEAs are looking at the training Y1 teachers need," she says. Some are bringing foundation and KS1 teachers together for training. The foundation stage profile will also help enormously, she believes, by helping Y1 teachers to understand what experiences four-year-olds have had.

"People must understand that an active, play-based curriculum doesn't get in the way of achievement - it supports achievement."

Teachers, says Ms Staggs, must have the confidence to do what they know is right for their pupils.

"Children only have one chance to be three, four and five - and we have got to get things right for them," she says.

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