Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Roger Luxton OBE, Chief Inspector of Education, Arts and Libraries, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and Dr Julia Whitburn, Research Fellow, National Institute of Economic and Social Research (EY 19)


  1.1  The following comments are offered in the light of an extensive series of comparative visits made to Continental nursery and primary schools by teams, usually of five observers, consisting of inspectors and teachers from the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham together with researchers from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. The visits have been carried out as part of a wider research project on methods of raising the schooling attainments of the broad cross-section of our pupils in core subjects, particularly those pupils who—for whatever reasons—find themselves in the long tail of under-achievement. While our visits have included other countries (Germany, the Netherlands, Japan) and we have observed a variety of approaches to early years education, we have been particularly impressed by the provision for pre-schooling in Switzerland (Zurich and adjacent German-speaking Cantons).

  1.2  Many of the comments that follow are inspired by our inference that the Swiss early-years provision is linked in important ways to the subsequent high attainments of pupils there, the low incidence of schooling failure and a much shorter tail of under-achievement (as evidenced by the IEA tests in mathematics and science and confirmed by our own direct observations). A distinguishing feature of their successful early years provision is that, given the inevitable variability in young children's capability according to their early home experiences, it is widely accepted by Swiss teachers that early nursery provision needs particularly to compensate those children who have had a narrower experience in developmental terms (as a result of time-pressures on parent(s), some children may, for example not have been able to develop conversational vocabulary) in order that all children can begin formal primary schooling on a much more even footing than we usually find in England.[3]

  1.3  Some members of your predecessor committee visited Zürich schools in May 1998 and themselves observed the nature of kindergarten teaching; for them, our evidence below may be no more than an aide memoire which, we trust, is consistent with their own impressions.


  2.1  The approach of the new QCA curriculum for early years educational places, correctly in our view, a greater stress than previously on informal learning, communication and social/behavioural skills (Early Learning Goals; 1999; DfEE/QCA). Our detailed observation of pre-compulsory schooling in a number of countries, however, has convinced us that the main aim of pre-school education should be—not to anticipate the task of primary schooling in reading, writing and arithmetic, as in the QCA approach—but to prepare all children in the general learning skills needed for learning in a classroom setting. To include among the goals for children before they begin formal schooling such specific formal achievements as "write their own names and labels and form sentences, sometimes using punctuation" is likely to be unproductive in the longer term, discourage slower developing children, make them feel excluded and—for some of them—sow the seeds of permanent educational under-achievement. Our Continental observations have convinced us that it is more helpful for children's longer term development that the stated specific aims of early education should rather be on the following lines:—

    (i)  for children to learn how to listen to questions, how to pay attention, how to concentrate and how to answer; this understanding will facilitate later learning during formal schooling;

    (ii)  to improve oral language skills and vocabulary;

    (iii)  to develop skills of close observation and memory, both auditory and visual; this needs to be taught in a carefully graduated and progressive way throughout the "early years" period;

    (iv)  to develop children's social skills and awareness, so that they can learn as a member of a group and behave accordingly;

    (v)  to develop practical skills, especially those of co-ordination (and fine motor control), without which more learning will later be restricted;

    (vi)  to acquire knowledge and understanding of the purpose of routines to be encountered in formal schooling;

    (vii)  to acquire counting and other pre-number skills, such as oral counting of objects, matching, ordering, sorting, continuing patterns, understanding the logic of patterns, remembering missing objects.


  3.1  Children's first experiences of learning in nursery or other pre-school settings affect not only their attitudes towards, and expectations of, later formal learning during the compulsory years of schooling but also their ability at a later stage to contribute positively to society. Observations on the Continent point to the importance of a secure, familiar, orderly environment for young children, and in limiting the number of adults with whom they are expected to interact. We have been most impressed, for example, by the way in which a single kindergarten teacher in Switzerland, working without assistants, is likely to have sole responsibility for, usually, up to about 18 children aged four to five years (whereas our normal provision is one adult for 13 children, but working in much larger groups, eg three adults with 39 children). The single-adult approach enables the teacher to acquire a detailed knowledge and understanding of each pupil's personality, behaviour, and any difficulties that they might be experiencing; it also encourages a close, trusting relationship to develop between pupils and teacher. Much can be achieved during the pre-schooling stage by addressing behavioural and other early learning difficulties, so reducing the number of children with problems of alienation and "special educational needs" at a later stage of schooling.


  4.1  Given the importance of laying a sound foundation for later learning, we believe that all nursery staff should be highly trained and possess a widely recognised qualification. Understanding the learning and behavioural development of young children is highly complex, and the pedagogical skills required to move children forward successfully on an individual basis and, more important, in a group setting, are formidable and frequently underestimated. It became clear on our visits to Swiss kindergarten that the average level of specialised training of their staff was well ahead of our average here; and that our children would show immensely greater progress—and do so at lower costs—if we followed their training pattern more closely.

  4.2  Given the Government's recent introduction of a Foundation Stage of education comprising the nursery and reception years (ages three, four and five) it is necessary to consider developing a separate teaching qualification specifically for these years, which would be required for all staff. The present two-tier system (or three, if we include STAs) in which supervision of nursery units is conducted by staff with QTS status, but most of the activities are organised by nursery assistants/nurses with only more basic NNEB/NVQ qualifications, is unlikely to yield adequately satisfactory results. This is not meant to underestimate the value of the contribution made by nursery assistants/nurses in the current context as it has developed, but it is an undisputed fact that their training is significantly shorter and the entry qualifications considerably easier than those required for achieving QTS status.


  5.1  Quality of teaching should always be assessed by those with appropriate specialist knowledge and experience: at nursery and reception education quality and standards are assessed by OFSTED inspectors who often are not specialists in this area.

  5.2  Assessment of pupils' attainments and progress during the nursery year varies considerably among providers of "early years" education. The newly introduced Baseline Assessment is conducted within six weeks of children beginning full-time schooling; the age and stage at which this is conducted vary both with the time of year at which a child's birthday falls and with the policy of admission to statutory schooling that applies in the particular LEA or school (children thus vary in age at the date of assessment from 4 years 0 months to 5 years plus—an immense difference in their maturation). We are also concerned because of the subjective nature of much of the Baseline Assessment, in that teachers' judgements in coming to an assessment may be clouded by the fact that, from the school's "value added" point of view, it is in the school's interest for children to be recorded as having a low Baseline Assessment on entering schooling (so that a greater improvement can be recorded next year). Were a single qualified teacher to be responsible for the learning of a small group of children, and were assessment to give greater stress to "general readiness for schooling", the task might be simpler and the results more relevant.


  6.1  National Curriculum requirements have increasingly influenced the content of the reception class curriculum and, as the number of four year old children in reception classes has increased, more children have become affected by the academic goals of the National Curriculum at an early age. There is a very great contrast between our present requirements and those of with Switzerland (in the Cantons we have visited) where formal primary schooling—with requirements for reading, writing and arithmetic—does not begin till an average age of 6 years and 10 months; and yet their pupils' achievements in IEA tests at ages 8-14 are much ahead of ours. We suggest that our practices need to be reconsidered and that revised regulations should embody a considerable degree of flexibility in age of commencement of schooling. For example, exceptionally fast maturing children (academically, socially and behaviourally) might be permitted to begin Year 1 early (perhaps missing the Reception year); a few slower learning children might benefit from an additional year in Nursery or Reception if parents and teachers agreed that this would be in their long term interest.


  7.1  We should like to emphasise the value, in our opinion, of widening the range of teaching approaches and organisation that should be permitted in early years education. The monolithic approach to early years currently advocated by QCA does not seem to be justified by what we have observed on the Continent; we therefore recommend that a more open-minded awareness to diversity of approach should be adopted.

Roger Luxton OBE and Dr Julia Whitburn

January 2000

3   Swiss early years practice has been much influenced by the writings of Pestalozzi whose writings at the end of the eighteenth century revolutionised thinking on the education of young children, and later by the work of Froebel during the nineteenth century and Alfred Adler in the early part of the twentieth century. Back

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