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Three more 'Rs' for three-year-olds;Digest

George Low examines the shake-up inearly years

The Government has introduced a new set of three Rs in its early learning goals for pre-school education: right, wrong and race. They have been developed and emphasised in response to the Macpherson report that followed the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and the Prime Minister's call for a new moral sense of purpose.

In the targets for three to five-year-olds published this month, the development of a code of moral values is clearly spelled out: "By the end of the foundation stage most children will understand what is right, what is wrong, and why", and be expected to "understand that people have different needs, views, cultures and beliefs, which need to be treated with respect".

The six goal areas are personal, social and emotional development; language and literacy; mathematics; knowledge and understanding of the world; and both physical and creative development.

Lesley Staggs, head of the early years team at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said the new guidelines for the under-fives had been developed against the backdrop of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and the judge's recommendations for racial harmony. They had also been influenced by the work of the recent national forum on values and messages coming from the Government on strengthening the teaching of morality in schools.

At the same time the new code for racial harmony stresses the rights of ethnic minority pupils to expect that their own cultures and beliefs are treated with respect by others.

Ms Staggs said that original early learning outcomes had been misinterpreted because they had been set out in continuous prose. The new goals have been redrafted in bullet points to make them clear, with examples taken from real-life situations with children. However, she pointed out that the goals are not a prescribed curriculum but expectations of achievement at the end of the foundation stage.

Margaret Hodge, the early years minister, said that she had had ethnic minority pupils in mind when she redrafted the guidance document. She admitted that the new version went further than any other in telling parents how to bring up their children, but she made no apology for being prescriptive.

"In Britain we have never taken the early years seriously. If we want to really create equality we need to give all children, from all backgrounds, an equal chance."

She defended herself against critics who accused her of getting rid of unstructured play and concentrating on formal learning and the three Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic. "The guidance is structured around six goals and they give as much importance to creative and physical development as they do to language, literacy and mathematical development." She admitted that the original document with its emphasis on formal learning had been toned down; teachers, parents and other practitioners were now told not to make a formal distinction between work and play and to "extend and support children's spontaneous play".

They are also told to respect the play styles of different cultures and to accept that some play may be boisterous. Instead of learning to "sit still", children are expected to "sit quietly, when appropriate". They are still expected to learn to say "please" and "thank you".

One of the main differences of the new document did not concern teaching and learning, but the stage at which children would be assessed on the goals. Originally, assessment of the "outcomes" had been intended for the term in which children turned five and started statutory school. But now it was intended for the end of the Reception year or when they changed settings - at the end of the foundation stage rather than the beginning of key stage 1.

Ms Staggs said there was now agreement among heads and practitioners that the document had the balance between formal and informal learning about right. She said ministers were thinking about staffing levels and the need for specialist teaching in the early years and wanted to bring in an adult-child ratio of one to 15, with extraclassroom assistants in Reception classes. A staffing document will be issued later this year and a new qualifications framework for all pre-school work in two years' time.

The new goals will take effect in September 2000 and detailed teaching guidance is being drawn up by the QCA.

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