Set in concrete
The conceptual black hole at the heart of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning is prompt-ing local education authorities to produce their own guidelines.
Lewisham's Learning for Life and Tower Hamlets' Planning for Progress make the "desirable outcomes" a little more concrete. This kind of support material is clearly good news for early years education and care. As practitioners we want to become more reflective and need to develop a "professional vocabulary".
Learning for Life acknowledges the importance of working in partnership with voluntary and public sector providers. It is written for staff in a variety of settings (although it is not intended for home-based provision), with a separate booklet for parents. It opens with a clear statement about good practice in early childhood education, specifically the central role of play.
The intention is to empower practitioners and encourage them to use the material as part of their continuing training. The authors say that it's up to early years professionals to define the areas of young children's learning and want the pack to be used to provide as broad and balanced a curriculum as possible.
It is carefully designed so that key concepts are revisited in each section. The illustrations and photographs make powerful statements about what should be offered to children - the authors remind us that children are learning all the time and that outdoor play is as important as what happens inside the classroom and should be organised with the same intellectual rigour. Within a carefully planned nursery environment, higher order thinking goes on when children are up to their armpits in wet clay or building dens, as well as in the mathematics and writing.
The chapters on "The Role of the Adult and Children as Individuals" make it clear that helping young children to develop positive attitudes to learning is fundamental and that what we want in early childhood education is to develop "autonomous, creative and motivated learners in control of their own learning". There are excellent questions at the end of each section relating theory to practice which should encourage staff to think deeply about their work.
Some issues are, however, fudged. While the pack correctly recommends that children should have uninterrupted opportunities for play, it doesn't really address the issue of how adults can best support their learning.
The authors talk about large and small group time, but make no clear recommendations about the appropriate size of groups. They mention the "usefulness" of the key worker system and the importance of the settling-in process, but fail to make any recommendations about children's entitlement to strongly developed affective relationships. They talk about parents as the "child's first educator", but offer no examples of how children's learning at home can be shared and extended in the nursery setting. They also say that early years educators must take time to plan, but offer no practical advice on how to achieve this, although there is a very useful bibliography for staff who want to reflect further on these issues.
Planning for Progress is a briefer document with a narrower focus. It makes a strong case for early years education as a distinctive phase in the educational process and reminds us that planning should not be dominated by the national curriculum, nor should it be narrowed down to SCAA's six areas of learning. (At this point the pack is rather confusingly sub-divided into six sections. ) The authors state their principles clearly - for example, that quality play must meet the specific needs of the learners and should be based on the children's previous experience. They remind us that we must make sure children have emotional security in nursery settings if they are to be effective learners, and that making mistakes is an important part of the learning process. However, the tone of the document tends to be somewhat didactic and includes a lot of phrases beginning "children must" and "children should".
It uses key questions to challenge the reader, but these are much less reflective than in the Lewisham document. There is the rather naive assumption that the "received" curriculum maps neatly on to the early years curriculum, and a failure to acknowledge the messy nature of real life in the nursery. The pack does however stress the importance of high expectations if children are to reach their full potential.
Certainly both packs will raise the level of debate about how we make the best possible provision for children in early childhood settings. What is less clear is the extent to which individuals or staff groups will "own" documents that have been produced by working parties or LEA advisers.
Margy Whalley is director of the research, development and training base at the Pen Green Centre for Under-5s and their Families, Corby, Northamptonshire