Toddlers learning their times tables? Get real

18th November 2005 at 00:00
The idea of an early-years national curriculum is causing quite unjustified panic, says Helen Ward

Tiny tots to get 3Rs," screamed last week's headlines. "Babies trained for school from the moment they are born". "A national curriculum for babies."

Much of the power of words lies in being able to create images, and this one was surreal. Rows of toddlers, still in nappies, sat at desks clutching crayons in their chubby mitts, being forced to copy out their times tables.

Get real. No one is going to be indoctrinating babies with the four times table - if you think it is hard keeping teenagers at their desks, try teaching reception, where children really are up and about for most of the day.

The national curriculum for babies - or the early years foundation stage - is about making sure that all children, not just the lucky ones, get a good start in life. And the mystery to nearly everyone working in early years is that while many people without young children are getting the heebie-jeebies about it they, and the children they care for, have been doing this for years.

Why not actually look up what is recommended in Birth to Three Matters - it can be found on the Sure Start website (

One example is giving babies cuddles. Or singing and talking to children during everyday routines. Another example is letting them choose which spoon to use.

Possibly my favourite is "making a diary of photographs with a young child to record an important occasion, for example, finding a worm".

This is a curriculum in which finding a worm is an Important Occasion. Now what kind of picture does that conjure up?

As a parent, I have visited nurseries and childminders where I'm sure children are kept fed, clean and safe. But I want to know what else they do. There is no consistency for toddlers The secret fear of parents is that, as long as they can be kept quiet, our children will be ignored. As TES primary reporter, I have seen what is possible at some of the country's most inspiring nurseries and children's centres.

Bernadette Duffy, OBE, head of the Thomas Coram early childhood centre in London, was involved in creating both the foundation stage guidance and Birth to Three Matters.

She said: "Education is a word people associate with schooling, but it just means to bring out the best in a child. The curriculum is anything a child experiences. The idea is to have a national curriculum to make sure what children experience is what they need.

"Some people still think that as long as a baby is clean and not crying, it must be OK. They do not understand the richness of babies' lives, how much they want to communicate.

"This is giving the same status to younger children as older ones, not leaving it to chance."

Four years ago, there was a House of Commons debate on the education select committee's report on early years. Barry Sheerman, the committee chairman, praised the decision to devise a curriculum for under-threes as a wonderful idea, although he noted that in the past people might have thought it a dreadful development.

He said: "Working on the early-years report has taught the committee that there is only one education system, which integrates upward and downward.

"Imagination and creativity must be awakened in children when they are very young, because the cost and difficulty of doing that becomes greater as children get older."

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