Would we all be better off in New Zealand?

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Teaching across the Early Years 3-7 Edited by Hilary Cooper and Chris Sixsmith RoutledgeFalmer pound;15.99

Right from the Start By Vicky Hutchin Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;14.99

Exploring Early Years Education and Care Edited by Linda Miller, Rose Drury and Robin Campbell David Fulton pound;15

Early years professionals who are also licensed worriers have been spoiled for choice lately. What shall we put at the top of our worry list now that the foundation stage is here to stay - for the time being? And that's another worry in itself. Will it last? Can it be made to last? Is it really the best we can do for children?

Crowding in behind these worries comes a horde of others: haven't we been here before? Is the whole scenario a return to the bad old days - reading, writing and what we now call numeracy in the morning, "choosing" in the afternoon? And what about assessment? What about bilingual learners? What about inclusion? Wouldn't we all be better off in New Zealand? Or Wales (where there are rumours of an extended foundation stage, lasting until children are seven years old)?

Teaching across the Early Years 3-7 is a set of three case studies in which tutors from St Martin's College, Lancaster, worked with foundation stage and key stage 1 practitioners in three settings, exploring how to ensure continuity and coherence in children's learning. This is a splendid aspiration, and it comes with a realistic awareness of the constraints endemic in the system, and, in the first case study, some piercing questions about the art of the possible, including "why does design and technology matter?" and "how can progression be demonstrated across the three-to-seven age phase?".

The book documents, in some detail, the integrated thematic work carried out in the three settings: in one, a project on stories, books and rhymes was used to develop the skills of exploration and investigation in science, design and technology. In the second, the theme was Africa and the focus was on the arts and ICT; in the third, an infant school worked with a local social services day care unit, to investigate "the environment", focusing on humanities and PE.

There is no doubt that everyone worked their socks off, made detailed plans, assembled stimulating resources, or that a good time was had. But the difficult questions remain unanswered, untouched by the copious bullet points and helpful "follow-up ideas". The conclusions are factual rather than inspiring; the authors find "different types of progression" in the two stages, but little more. There is no critical bite to the talented teachers' use of the official frameworks, no whisper of a suggestion that the detailed prescriptions we take for granted in education 3-7 may be having damaging effects on teachers' spontaneity, creativity, imagination or invention. This book is unlikely to make our worries go away.

Vicky Hutchin's work on assessment in the early years is well known, and the popularity of Right from the Start, first published in 1999, now in its fourth impression, testifies to its usefulness right across the foundation stage. Hutchin is properly critical of many commercial checklists offered as assessment materials, demonstrating how much they miss, and how much more of children's learning there is to see when attentive and sensitive observation is at the heart of the assessmentplanning cycle. She is clear about the characteristics of effective assessment and effective planning; throughout the book, the quality of children's learning is the defining criterion for practice that is "right from the start". If your worry is assessment, look no further.

Lastly, a rewarding offering from the early years team at the University of Hertfordshire, an extension and development of their earlier publication Looking at Early Years Education and Care (2000). Here is a collection of nourishing food for thought, encouraging us to get deeper into issues of curriculum and inclusion, and to do so in good company.

The range of topics is appetisingly wide: for example, there is a welcome focus on physical wellbeing in Angela Underdown's chapter on "Health inequalities in early childhood", and one of the chapters on literacy compares current approaches in England and New Zealand, a fascinating read for Te Whariki enthusiasts and all educators who worry about Jolly Phonics and its friends and relations: "Official handbooks supplied to all New Zealand classrooms emphasise reading as a contextualised meaning-based process and do not emphasise letters and sounds" (p15).

This book is more than helpful: it raises questions and stimulates new connections, extends our professionalism, and reframes current worries as challenges to be explored: a fine addition to every worrier's bookshelf.

Mary Jane Drummond is a lecturer in the faculty of education, University of Cambridge

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