Tremors of a very English earthquake

4th July 2008 at 01:00
Small earthquake, no one injured
Small earthquake, no one injured. It would be easy to dismiss as a minor development the news that two controversial goals for five-year-olds are to be reviewed, on the recommendation of the Government's early years advisers. Ever since the goals were introduced in 2000, campaigners have argued that five is too young to expect children to be able to form simple sentences and write complex words using phonics.

The decision by children's minister Beverley Hughes to ask Sir Jim Rose to reconsider the targets, as part of his primary curriculum review, stops well short of a U-turn and the goals will remain in place for another year at least.

Yet there are signs that this slight tremor could start one of those English quakes that, while by no means dramatic, may lead to significant changes in the landscape of primary education. The Government's advisers have also said children should not start formal learning until six. If ministers were to accept their advice, as they should, then important benefits would result.

The main advantage would be that teachers could introduce children to formal learning when they are ready, not before. Under the present system, many five-year-olds struggle with reading and writing methods because they are not mature enough.

England should learn from other European countries, notably Wales, where the curriculum is largely play-based until children are six or seven. Instead of focusing on the 3Rs, the emphasis should be on developing social and emotional awareness and language skills with stories and song.

There is plenty of evidence that in countries where formal learning starts later, especially in Scandinavia, children quickly catch up and go on to achieve well by the time they are 10 or 11. The real message for England, where progress in meeting literacy and numeracy targets has stalled, is that placing too much emphasis on formal education simply does not work. We need to give more weight to developing social and emotional intelligence.

For too long, the early years have been influenced by the paraphernalia of tests and targets. The promise of a more flexible foundation stage, focused on the developing needs of children, is a chance to rebuild the curriculum from the bottom up. If that were to happen, the earth would truly have moved.

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