With the introduction of a new ‘tougher’ curriculum in primary schools in 2014, teachers are under increasing pressure to get their children doing more, at an earlier age. When a six-year-old must be able to use the progressive form of verbs, include singular possessive apostrophes and understand how subordination and co-ordination work, then there is obviously no time to waste. In several European countries, children have not even started school at the age of six. In England, they must not only be writing fluently, but must also understand complex grammatical concepts. And when schools are under pressure to get results in Key Stage 1, it is almost inevitable that this pressure will be passed down to Reception, and from there into nursery and beyond.
A new Teaching Schools Council report calls for more use of formal approaches in Reception, and for methods from Key Stage 1 to be taken downwards into the EYFS. There did not appear to be an early years expert among the group of panellists who consulted on the report. Leaving aside the question of whether or not we should base what we do entirely on the results it will get us in national tests, the call seemed to contradict evidence which shows that, if you start formal schooling later, children quickly catch up anyway.
It is up to us in the early years sector to stand firm against the ever-increasing downwards pressure on the EYFS. The idea that there is less time for play, and more need to push young children towards early academic achievement, is something we all need to resist. The TSC report talks about ‘aimless activities’ in Reception. While it is certainly possible for activities to lack purpose, the purpose of play is not always specifically academic. Play at its purposeful best can be about developing teamwork, sharing, imagination, or simply feeling joy.
Children are only small for the very briefest moment of time. Let us not put them under more pressure in a push for some spurious notion of ‘academic excellence’. Let the children play. They will be grown-ups for long enough.