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On your marks, get set, go!

Julie Henry on the new guidlines for starting offearly years From September, three to five-year-olds will no longer need be to thought of as "pre-anything". They will have their own foundation stage, underpinned by the Government's new early learning goals.

Lesley Staggs, head of the early years team at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says the change not only recognises the distinctiveness of what is taught in nursery and reception classes, but how it is taught. It also means there is no longer any confusion about when key stage 1 and the national curriculum start, which is at the beginning of Year 1 and not on a child's fifth birthday.

Reception teachers will find it easier to see the year as a whole. Under the old system teachers often felt they had to start applying the national curriculum programme to children who had turned five. The foundation stage will mean teachers no longer have to juggle two sets of work with younger and older children.

As a result, elements of the areas of learning which are not specifically covered in the national curriculum will remain in focus for the whole year. At the same time, early learning goals for language, literacy and mathematics are in line with the national literacy and numeracy strategies. Children should be accustomed to the literacy hour and daily maths lessons by the end of reception, but teachers are not expected to conduct them every day from the start of the year.

The changes apply to children in England. In Wales, where the original desirable outcomes were more play-based, there is no change.

According to research published by the QCA, the broad brush strokes of the Early Learning Goals document, which was published last year, have been overwhelmingly welcomed by practitioners. However, respondents also wanted guidance on monitoring and assessing children's progress, as well as teaching mixed-aged classes and providing information for parents. They also asked for further information on the six areas of learning (personal, social and emotional; language and literacy; mathematical; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical and creative).

Help is on the way in the form of a ring-bound booklet going to schools in early May. It's aimed at giving practical help t teachers who are grappling with the demands of the foundation stage. For many practitioners, the advice will reflect the good practice they already use.

The QCA has come up with Stepping Stones, a technique designed to help teachers come to grips with the foundation stage. It includes practical, clearly set out points of progress, giving teachers a pathway through each of the six learning areas. "We have never given this level of detailed guidance before, but it is not setting out a curriculum programme. Stepping Stones can be used to show a teacher where the child should be at each stage," says Lesley Staggs.

Advice includes using elements of play, such as a child jumping, as an opportunity to introduce early counting. It also warns teachers against giving children the answers too quickly to posed questions. This, in turn, allows them to have the opportunity to go their own way. "The way it is used will depend on the needs of that particular school and that particular reception class," she says.

Experienced teachers may find it useful for reviewing the curriculum and discussing targets with parents, while a newly qualified teacher may use it as a reference book or a reminder of the things they need to think about when assessing a child's progress.

One area seen as crucial to the success of the whole enterprise is the child's personal, social and emotional development. The QCA has taken on board recommendations made in the inquiry report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. One of the stepping stones recommends that teachers remember what it was like to be a three-year-old. In the case of a young child who takes something that does not belong to him or her, teachers are advised not to criticise, but to support the child in returning the item or negotiating a solution.

The National Primary Headteachers Association is set to welcome the QCA's guidelines. "When you are working with very little ones you have to be practical," says vice-chairwoman Jackie Green.

"However, we hope we will have the flexibility to make our own interpretations. One of the strengths of early years and infant practitioners is they will give it a go only if they have the right to take what is appropriate and leave out what is not."

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