Analysis: Select Committee Curriculum report - Don't destroy good early years practice

Evidence is growing that the early learning goals for literacy do not support a play-based ethos and are too stressful for under-fives. But will the Government listen? asks Wendy Scott.

The Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families has recently completed an inquiry into the curriculum. It includes four recommendations relating to the early years (News, 9 April).

The committee welcomes the Government's request that Jim Rose should consider two of the early learning goals (ELGs) for communication, language and literacy as part of his current review of the primary curriculum, and draws attention to the near-universal support for the reconsideration of the ELGs directly concerned with reading, writing and punctuation.

The report recommends that all five literacy goals should be removed pending the review of the EYFS next year. It also proposes this review should evaluate whether the statutory framework is too prescriptive.

Further, it rejects the Rose interim recommendation that all children should normally enter their reception class in the September of the year they become five because, 'due to their low practitioner-to-child ratios, these settings cannot cater for the needs of very young children'.

Given that most local authorities now implement just such a policy of annual admission, it is significant that many of the teaching unions are expressing sympathy with this last point.

School entry

Experience is showing that for many children, the demands of being in a large group, with less favourable ratios of adults to children than pre-schools and nurseries must provide, are proving very difficult. Perceptions of Ofsted requirements, the influence of league tables, and other external pressures add to the difficulties faced by many staff, resulting all too often in conditions that do not meet young children's entitlement to learning consistent with the play-based philosophy of the EYFS.

According to a recent survey published by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, three in four teachers are adamant that it is wrong to admit children to mainstream classrooms at the age of four.

Annual entry of large groups of children makes it much more difficult for teachers to plan for the necessary differentiation that is a vital feature of effective reception class practice. One experienced teacher who piloted early reading development with 19 children during the autumn term confessed that she was dreading the following year when a change in the admissions policy meant that she would be working with 30 children from September, including the summer-born cohort who had previously remained in their pre-school settings until Easter. In the event, she left to become an adviser before this happened.

The DCSF submitted a memorandum to the select committee's inquiry into the EYFS in May 2008, which stated, 'There is no requirement for children to achieve the early learning goals, and it is a matter for professional judgement how they should be supported towards them.'

According to the DCSF submission, the only expectation is that practitioners should record their observations and send them to the local authority at the end of the year in which children turn five, and 'the information will be used to help them understand how children in their area are developing, and to plan and target the support they offer to providers, schools and families'.

Reducing the gap

The outcomes duty that has been laid on local authorities now requires them to use selective data, gathered from the EYFS profile, to focus training and support for early years settings, with the aim of narrowing the gap in achievement between disadvantaged children and the rest.

Anecdotal evidence reveals instances where nursery practitioners, as well as reception class teachers, under pressure to be able to demonstrate progress, are limiting children's experience to recommended exercises in phonics and numeracy.

Suggestions in 'Next Steps for Early Learning', recently confirmed in a parliamentary answer by Beverley Hughes, that funding may be linked to the contributions providers make to measurable outcomes, add considerably to the pressure on early years staff to focus inappropriately on prioritised ELGs.

This is likely to result in superficial acceleration at a time when children need breadth, depth and variety of experience to consolidate their learning, particularly with literacy skills, which involve high degrees of abstraction.

The arguments about successful approaches to literacy in other countries, where children are given more time to develop their oral skills and awareness of spoken language, are well known.

Data over several years has shown most children in England are not succeeding in reaching the goals for reading and writing, and the select committee has taken an entirely logical, evidence-based line on this issue. Its proposals will be welcomed by early years practitioners, headteachers, academics, advisers and parents.

Traditional nursery practice emphasises the importance of language for learning, and sees the early stages of literacy acquisition as an individual matter, to be fostered in the context of all other areas of learning.

Developing competence

There was resistance in 1998 when a set of desirable learning outcomes (DLOs) were put in place, alongside the introduction of funding for early education. In retrospect, these were less contentious than the current ELGs, which apply to children ranging in age from about 57 to 69 months.

The DLOs were goals for children's learning at the time they enter compulsory education, which is the term after their fifth birthday. The age range involved was therefore around four months rather than a year, and the particular difficulties currently faced by summer-born children were not an issue.

The DLOs covered important aspects of language development and the foundations for literacy, rather than emphasising reading and writing. Children were to be helped to acquire competence in English as soon as possible, making use, where appropriate, of their developing understanding and skills in other languages.

It was clearly understood that other areas of learning also make a vital contribution to the successful development of literacy. Indeed, the focus was explicitly on children's 'developing competence' in talking and listening, and in 'becoming readers and writers' rather than on finite achievements, which encouraged both educators and parents to see them as part of a process.

In hindsight, the rather limited suggestions relating to early literacy were more realistic and less prescriptive than the current goals, and were applicable during Year 1, thus helping the transition from the reception year.

The DLOs were replaced by early learning goals in 2000, as part of the foundation stage. From an early years perspective, particular difficulties arose due to the influence of the literacy strategy, which included specific advice for the reception year. The Rose report on early reading compounded this by recommending that all children should be taught phonics by the age of five.

Although the teaching of literacy in the EYFS was subject to teachers' principled professional judgement, there has been continuing conflict between the narrow aims for literacy, driven by the Government's concern to raise standards, and the broader concept of the holistic early years curriculum.

The select committee understands how breadth of experience across all areas of learning supports children's literacy development in the longer term. It has consistently endorsed the need to start from the foundations and build upwards in the early years. Indeed, the chairman of the committee said as far back as August 2006 that children were being robbed of their childhood.

It remains to be seen whether his cross-party committee's reasoned and informed recommendations are heeded.

The DCSF is bound to make a response to every select committee report. It is disheartening to hear that the department has already issued a statement rejecting any suggestion of deferring the literacy early learning goals. This pre-empts Jim Rose's final report, thus raising questions about how independent he is able to be.

It is high time that professionals were given back the responsibility for designing - as well as implementing - the curriculum, and that targets were seen in the context of wider considerations. There is already evidence that the pursuit of premature literacy goals will undermine the outcomes they are intended to promote.

The principles underpinning the EYFS state clearly that children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates. Their potential to be resilient, capable, confident learners from birth may be undermined by unreasonable expectations laid upon them by ministers who, unlike the select committee, seem to be bent on forcing through practice that is not based on research evidence, and ignores the real experience of the youngest children in our schools.

- Wendy Scott is the president of early years organisation TACTYC

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