The phrase 'readiness for school', which is cropping up with increasing regularity in policy documents and ministerial pronouncements, is raising alarm bells in the early years sector.
Part of the problem is that there is no clear definition of the term and with both the Early Years Foundation Stage and the school curriculum undergoing reviews, the old certainties of what is to be expected of young children when they start school have been cast into doubt.
To one person, the phrase can mean the expectation that a child has the necessary social, language and emotional skills to manage the transition from reception to a play-based curriculum in year one; in the eyes of another, it can mean that a child has the specific literacy and numeracy skills to knuckle down to formal instruction in the 3Rs.
School readiness has been used by Labour MPs Graham Allen and Frank Field in recent reports on ending the cycle of child deprivation in the UK. They argue for a greater concentration of effort in the early years to give the most deprived children a better chance when they start school.
Meanwhile, the Government has announced that children will be assessed with new 'readiness for school' measures at the age of five, linked to the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, although the DfE business plan proposal to publish EYFS profile results by school has just been abandoned. A reading test will be piloted this summer to check children's progress at the age of six, with a view to it being rolled out throughout England.
Early years experts are most alarmed when 'school readiness' is linked to literacy. Both Ofsted and education secretary Michael Gove have made it clear that there will be a rigorous approach to systematic synthetic phonics as the way to get children reading before six.
'There is top-down pressure for this focus on readiness for school,' says Megan Pacey, chief executive of Early Education. 'It is not coming from the early years sector, where there is an awkward feeling about the whole phrase. It is particularly coming from the Secretary of State and one or two supporters. With phonics, there is a small vocal and very influential group.
'I think what the Government means about being ready for school is reading, writing and arithmetic, the 3Rs. We have gone full circle.
'There is frustration in the early years, as we would argue that the learning through play approach, building on skills in a fun-filled, more informal learning environment, not being strapped into desks, should go on from reception into year one and year two.
'Having children hitting five, being put into school uniform, wearing ties, sitting at desks, reciting by rote and doing phonics until they are blue in the face - that is our fear.'
Lesley Staggs, the first national director of the Foundation Stage, says there are indications that the EYFS review team see school readiness in terms of needing to have underpinning social, emotional and language development when children start school.
She says, 'The reality is, the message from the review of the national curriculum is that a much more traditional, subject-based curriculum will come kicking in at the beginning of the year, and that gives some clear signal about what school readiness is actually about.'
But when asked, wouldn't the views of Dame Clare Tickell and the EYFS review team hold sway with ministers? Ms Staggs says, 'As someone who has been there and done it, I can assure you there is no inevitability that someone will listen just because they have set up a review.
'What happens with the EYFS review "depends on where the power sits". Even in opposition, education minister Nick Gibbs was a vocal advocate of synthetic phonics.'
Kathryn Solly, head teacher of the renowned Chelsea Open Air Nursery School, points to the disparity between the UK and the rest of Europe in starting formal education.
'Children have never been pushed so early before. Look at rest of Europe and the rest of the world. We are already out of kilter, and now we are talking about reading tests at six.
'If you look at plants, the only way you can make them grow faster is by scientifically playing around with them. We are in danger of almost starting to scientifically manage children's learning and psychological development.
'In my darkest mood, the word abuse comes to mind. The right to childhood is evaporating. There will be some children who will not succeed in the reading test. They will be deemed failures. Failing at six? The paranoia among parents will be rife and children will be stressed and traumatised.
'We see children coming here who know their alphabet and can count but cannot wipe their noses, cannot wipe their bottoms and cannot play socially together.
'We have lost a generation of children who are being brought up by well-meaning parents who are only doing their best, but they have been guided down a pathway and we don't know where it is going to end. It is dangerous.'
INTERFERE OR INTERVENE
Even among the pro-synthetic phonics lobby there is disquiet at the dictatorial stance being taken by the Department for Education. Tom Burkard, director of the Promethean Trust, a Norfolk-based charity for dyslexic children, says, 'I would argue very strongly with the coalition Government's proposal to use Ofsted to tell schools how to teach children to read. Ofsted interference on teaching synthetic phonics is diabolical.'
But he approves of a reading test at six. 'The whole emphasis on the EYFS developmental milestones focuses teachers' minds on a child's limitations and what he or she cannot do, which is the wrong attitude. I believe the reading test at six years of age is crucial.
'Something that is well accepted in education is that early intervention is best. You need testing at six and not this attitude that they will catch up later. Children need to get an early intervention before they become totally disillusioned at school.'
But Megan Pacey disagrees. 'The reading test is symptomatic of this Government, which is talking about results rather than outcomes. There is a subtle but important difference between the two. It does not see that this is a learning journey and that children at that age develop at different rates. It is important to identify if there are any developmental delays, rather than to identify somebody who is developing but at a different rate.
'We test children younger than anywhere else in the world. This is very early to be having different grades and being put into some kind of league table as a school or individual child.'
Ms Solly adds, 'Not everybody learns to read and write in a silo. It has to be holistic. Children are individuals and there are many ways for them to learn to read and write.'
Dr Sebastian Suggate, a developmental psychologist and expert in language and reading development, also takes issue over the age at which children are taught to read in the UK. 'Governments, whether they realise it or not, rely on optimum age arguments whenever they set a curricula or set reading achievement standards. The optimum age assumed is therefore somewhere around four, an age that is internationally very low.
'I would argue that the optimum age to teach reading is determined by two factors. First, children need to have good language development, otherwise they won't be able to understand anything meaningful from what they read anyway. Second, they should be able to read when they need to be able to read, in order to further their learning.
'When one balances these factors, it is my opinion - and we do need more research here - that reading instruction in school could be delayed until children were around seven, perhaps a little earlier or later. Then the resources directed to developing early reading could instead be directed to supporting children, especially disadvantaged children, in other areas, such as providing meaningful language-rich environments.'
BIRTH TO FIVE
Early years experts agree that what young children need are language-rich environments and they hope Jean Gross, the Communication Champion, will influence Government policy.
Putting aside phonics, literacy and reading tests, Ms Staggs says a key issue she has with the phrase 'school readiness' is that 'while it is absolutely right that children arrive at school, whether it is nursery, reception or year one in the best possible place for them to be, it ignores the view that birth to five is important in its own right. It implies these first five years are all about getting you ready to start school. If we take that view, then the pressure will come down to start getting ready quicker.
'The approach should be to work at what we need to do for young children so that they will thrive and be able to get the best out of life. Then we make sure that at the point at which they start school, the school system is ready to take them. The notion that all children arrive at school at the same level is absolute nonsense.'