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Too much pressure, not enough care

Why should a five-year-old have to catch up when they have only been alive for five years?"

This heartfelt cry from an infant teacher sums up the feeling of many who work with young children. It was one of the replies to a survey of 500 teachers who attended literacy conferences last autumn conducted by primary boffins Sue Palmer and Pie Corbett.

Teachers said the national literacy strategy had increased subject knowledge and professionalism, added to their repertoire of methods and raised the status of English teaching. But when asked what was still wrong with primary literacy, a large number commented on the early years: One said:"The powers that be must understand that we're pushing young children too soon into the manipulation of pencils, instead of the manipulation of language. Too much pressure from further up the school on reception and Year 1 classes - expecting too much formal work too soon."

Another said: "Resolve the conflict between the foundation stage curriculum, which is child-centred and where the emphasis is on experiential learning, and the national curriculum in key stage 1 which is driven by assessment, target setting and the need to 'cover' objectives."

A third said:"We also have to educate parents. Be brave and talk about oral learning, stories, drama - the reasons why we don't need to hold a pencil at four."

That last point is key, and highlighted by TES Cymru's poll last month showing that many Welsh parents were worried about plans for a play-based curriculum for three to seven-year-olds. The Welsh Assembly has a PR job ahead in explaining why an experiential curriculum for infants, done well, is actually more rigorous than a formal one, and that it does not preclude learning to read.

Bringing parents along is a skill that Shelagh Swallow, a Norwich reception teacher (featured below) has developed, and its value cannot be understated.

Teachers' comments also reflect concerns in last month's Office for Standards in Education report, which called upon the Government to improve the transition from foundation to KS1 and resolve the problems of continuity.

One of the reasons for the confusion, according to a book published last week, is that we in the UK compartmentalise our thinking about education versus care for young children. Meanwhile, the Swedes and other Scandinavians have a philosophy which includes both.

This divide has partly to do with our schizophrenic view of childhood. We see children on the one hand as powerful decision and meaning-makers, and on the other as vulnerable victims, say Bronwen Cohen, Peter Moss, Pat Petrie and Jennifer Wallace in A New Deal for Children? (The Policy Press, pound;19.99).

In Sweden, a very low level of child poverty is linked with a high level of female employment, high taxes, and a system of universal provision of childcare by the state, rather than the state serving only those most in need, as is the case here. It means that the language of "children in need" and "children at risk" does not dominate their policy discussions and thinking.

In UK countries, discourse is "marked by more variation and conflicting understandings of the child - between the poor child and the rich child, between the child as citizen and the child in need of control and surveillance," they write.

"They lack a widely understood way of thinking that dissolves the borders between education and care; or perhaps we should say a way of thinking that does not create these borders in the first place."

Sweden, on the other hand, has a clear view about what it means to be a child in the 21st century - a concept hardly considered in policy circles here - and has developed a teaching philosophy that encompasses education and care.


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