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


APPENDIX 17

Memorandum from Playgroup Network (EY 44)


SUMMARY

  There follows a summary of Playgroup Network's current concerns with regard to the areas being examined by the Education Sub-Committee. Please refer to the full paper for more detailed information.

  1.  The appropriate content of early years education, taking into account the recently published QCA Early Learning Goals.

The way in which it is taught

  1.1  There has been disparity in Government announcements over what age most children should attain the Early Learning Goals. A child of five years nought months should not be expected to attain the same goals as a child aged five years 11 months. There is the danger of setting up a child to fail and, instead of fostering a love of learning, inappropriate expectations can lead to a child being "switched off" to education.

  1.2  The provision of adequate guidelines and training of early years staff play a critical role if the Early Learning Goals are to be applied in an appropriate manner for the age and stage of the children in different settings.

  1.3  Structured but informal learning through play is the best early education provision.

  1.4  It is unnatural for a young child to sit still for any length of time and therefore "mat" time (newstime, group storytime or singing time) is not necessarily appropriate and should be kept to a minimum to avoid children being blamed for bad behaviour.

  1.5  Adult child ratios need to adhere to the 1989 Children child's need for individual attention and safety.

2.  The kind of staff that are needed to teach it and the qualification

  2.1  A strategy is needed to improve levels of qualifications and there is a need for information on qualifications from the QCA.

  2.2  Young children need high adult child ratios and well qualified staff—the one should not affect the other.

3.  The way quality of teaching and learning in the early years is assessed

  3.1  The provision of adequate guidelines and training of early years inspectors play a critical role if the Early Learning Goals are to be applied in an appropriate manner for the age and stage of the children in different settings.

  3.2  Re-think is required on the timing and, indeed, the need for Base-line Assessment.

4.  At what age formal schooling should start

  4.1  The majority of children now start formal education in Reception Class younger than compulsory school age.

  4.2  There is no advantage to children in starting school young.

  4.3  Provision needs to be appropriate for the child's age—provision in Reception class needs to be adapted for the younger children now in these classes or a minimum age of entry needs to be applied.

1.  THE APPROPRIATE CONTENT OF EARLY YEARS EDUCATION, TAKING INTO ACCOUNT THE RECENTLY PUBLISHED QCA EARLY LEARNING GOALS. THE WAY IN WHICH IT IS TAUGHT

1.1  Disparity in Government announcements over what age most children should attain the Early Learning Goals and the dangers of setting children up to fail

  The QCA Early Learning Goals1 are a list of skills which young children can expect to have attained by the time they leave Reception Class and start Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum in Year 1. Whilst the QCA has been very explicit that the Foundation Stage is for three to five year olds, there is no exact minimum age at which a child enters Reception or moves on to Year 1. We therefore have a range of children from 5 years 0 months to 5 years 11 months joining year 1 and children with nearly a year's difference in age being expected to reach the same early learning goals. Setting targets for children at a wide range of age and stage will inevitably lead to some children seeing themselves and being seen by others as failures. Sixteen of the 18 Early Excellence Centres expressed concern over the first draft of the Early Learning Goals believing that they are likely to create "failures at five". The researcher, Margaret Donaldson, clearly expresses the dangers of this approach: "If the child is defined as a failure, he will almost certainly fail, at any rate in the things which the definers value, and perhaps later he will hit out very hard against those who so defined him"2.

1.2  The critical role of training and adequate guidelines for early years staff in understanding and applying the Early Learning Goals

  Playgroup Network is very pleased to be represented on the working group set up by the QCA, which is at present working on detailed guidelines of how early years settings can develop a curriculum to enable children at different ages to work towards the Early Learning Goals under the six separate headings: personal, social and emotional development, language and literacy, mathematical development, knowledge and understanding of the world, physical development and, finally, creative development. Early years staff will need adequate guidelines and training if the Early Learning Goals are to be applied in an appropriate manner for the age and stage of the children in different settings.

1.3  Structured but informal learning through play is the best early education provision

  The results of the consultation on the "Review of Desirable Learning Outcomes" show up the concerns early years practitioners have over too formal a curriculum for young children and the importance of the focus being on play.3 Margaret Hodge MP, rightly states that "children do not distinguish between learning and play, and neither should we" (Nursery World 24/6/99). We need, therefore, to have a clear definition of the word "play". Professor Kathy Sylva says the underlying characteristic of play is that it is "voluntary"—"the sulky child forced to `play' a maths game by his teacher is not really at play"4 A structured but informal approach that allows children to choose from a range of optional activities, to develop and explore activities and materials in their own way and at their own pace and to make (and learn from) their own mistakes, suits this age group best.

1.4  "Mat" time as a source of frustration and discipline problems

  Margy Whalley from the Pen Green Early Excellence Centre in Corby (keynote speech at the Playgroup Network Conference, Hastings, May, 1999) described the frustration young children feel when "mat" time is extensively used. This is when children are expected to sit still in a group on a mat for storytime, newstime, singing etc. When the children's minds are wandering and the playleader is constantly having to tell one child or another to sit still, it is unlikely that any learning is taking place. It is unnatural for young children to sit still (unless absorbed by some play of their own) and they should not be expected to do so for more than a few minutes, especially when crammed together on a mat.

1.5  Adult:child ratios need to adhere to the 1989 Children Act to meet a young child's need for individual attention and safety

  There is wide variation in adult:child ratios in different educational settings. Whilst the Government is working towards a ratio of 2:30 in reception classes and 2:26 in nursery classes, the majority of playgroups, due to the requirements of the 1989 Children Act and the age range for which they cater, operate on a 1:6 basis. The Government is looking to address this situation and is piloting a scheme whereby 50 voluntary or private settings will operate on a 2:26 basis to bring them in line with LEA nurseries. This goes against the response to the Government's consultation paper on the Regulation of Early Education and Day Care5 which showed 73 per cent of respondents in favour of a 1:8 ratio across all settings and majority of the remainder wanting either 1:6 or 1:10. The importance of individual adult attention for a child acquiring language and gaining the full benefit of the type of curriculum described above which is dependent on "finding out for yourself", cannot be over-stated. Marion Blank in "Teaching Learning in the Pre-School" states "it is essential to permit errors to occur but the effectiveness of any teaching critically depends on how the wrong responses are then handled by the teacher"6. This requires adapting techniques to the individual child depending on the child's level of self-confidence. The child needs to learn from the experience but not to see herself as a failure. It would be impossible to know individual children sufficiently well or be able to give them the individual attention required to achieve this without a high adult:child ratio.

2.  THE KIND OF STAFF THAT ARE NEEDED TO TEACH IT AND THE QUALIFICATIONS THEY SHOULD HAVE

2.1  A strategy is needed to improve levels of qualifications and there is an urgent need for information on qualifications from the QCA

  The independent playgroup review "Tomorrow's Children" recommends "a strategy to improve the levels of qualifications in the early years sector"7. The final announcement on the qualifications that will be accepted for the framework of accredited qualifications is urgently awaited from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority as is the training framework being developed by the Early Years National Training Organisation. Qualifications and training are needed that will reflect the different skills and requirements of early years workers in different kinds of provision. Progress in improving levels of qualifications is being impeded at present by the lack of knowledge as to which qualifications and courses early years staff should undertake.

2.2  Young children need high adult:child ratios and well qualified staff—the one should not affect the other

  The Government is suggesting that if staff have a teaching qualification, then the ratio of staff to children can be lowered. This is despite 83 per cent of respondents to the Consultation Paper on the Regulation of Early Education and Day Care believing that qualifications should not be taken into account in considering adult:child ratios. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority also stated that qualifications should not be taken into account when considering adult:child ratio, adding that "ratios are intended to ensure that there are enough adults to provide adequate care for children. Qualifications relate to the particular role they are able to undertake. The two are both important and should not be confused"8. The pilot scheme mentioned in 2.6 above has been set up to examine this question. However, a serious longitudinal study would be required if the long term effects of lack of individual attention which is necessary for early education to fully benefit the child. The voluntary sector has been fighting for recognition as an equal partner in the provision of early years education and for all settings to work to the same regulations, but cannot support a "level playing field" that is detrimental to the children. Playgroup Network believes for both safety and educational reasons the ratios set by the 1989 Children Act should be adhered to in every setting and that adult;child ratios are a separate issue to staff qualifications. Children need high adult:child ratios and well qualified staff.

3.  THE WAY QUALITY OF TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE EARLY YEARS IS ASSESSED

3.1  The critical role of training and adequate guidelines for early years inspectors in understanding and applying the Early Learning Goals

  In August 1999, Margaret Hodge announced that a new arm of OFSTED would bring together the two separate regulation and inspection regime which currently operate (DfEE ref: 371/99). The new regulation and inspection regime will need to ensure that inspectors have the necessary understanding of children's development and learning to recognise whether a setting is applying the Early Learning Goals guidelines in an appropriate manner for the age and stage of the children in the setting being inspected.

3.2  Re-think required on Base-line Assessment

  If there is to be a separate foundation stage for children from three years old till they enter Year 1, then baseline assessment on entry to Reception Class would seem inappropriate. If records have been kept of children's development and they have been continually informally assessed by early years staff, who will either personally meet individual needs or request extra resources, baseline assessment should prove unnecessary. Apart from creating stress for both teachers and children, baseline assessment is in danger of diverting time, money and energy from providing a well balanced education for our children.

4.  AT WHAT AGE FORMAL SCHOOLING SHOULD START

4.1  Compulsory school age and the present position

  Although school does not become compulsory until the term after a child's fifth birthday, in January 1999, 56 per cent of four year olds attended infant or reception classes in maintained primary schools and an astounding 1,143 three year olds attended infant classes9. These figures are likely to have increased with the growing trend of younger entry following the introduction of free education for all four year olds and increasing numbers of three year olds.

4.2  There is no advantage to children in starting school young

  In contrast to generally held opinion, research shows no advantage to children from starting school at an early age, where as there are consistently positive results from children attending nursery schools or playgroups10. These research results were confirmed by the National Foundation for Educational Research study that looked at the Key Stage 1 results of children in relation to the child's date of birth and length of schooling which showed that children starting school close to their fourth birthday do not do as well as children of the same age starting school later.11 The NFER undertook a further study which found that formal teaching at a young age could hinder children's progress later on.12 Caroline Sharp, senior research officer, states "there would appear to be no compelling educational rationale for a statutory school age of five or for the practice of admitting four year olds to reception classes. Children aged five and under seem to learn best when they have opportunities to socialise, make their own choices and take responsibility for their own learning." Caroline Sharp also found that US studies show that any advantages of teaching reading early are short-lived as late learners catch up by the time they are eight years old.

4.3  Appropriate provision for the child's age

  Staff training, length of school day and curriculum of the Reception Class were all designed originally for five year olds. As far back as 1990, the Rumbold Committee stressed that unless reception classes with four year olds had more generous ratios of staff with early years training, and offer an appropriate range of activities and curriculum then "there is a risk that young children in reception classes will receive limited benefit from their early educational experiences"13. Many four year olds are not sufficiently mature to benefit from a full school day (and many three year olds cannot cope with five half-days per week in school nurseries). In 1989 the House of Commons Select Committee recommended "Policies in LEAs of annual (September) entry for four year olds into school should be explicitly subject to the availability of appropriate provision and should normally be for part-time places."14

REFERENCES

  1.  "Early Learning Goals", ref: QCA/99/436 p 8

  2.  Donaldson, M, "Children's Minds", p 114, Fontana Press, 1989.

  3.  SMSR Ltd., Review of Desirable Learning Outcomes—Consultation Report, June 1999.

  4.  Sylva, K, Bruner, J S, Genova, P. "Personality, Development and Learning", ch. 1.5, Open University Press, 1984.

  5.  "Summary of the Responses to the Consultation Paper on the Regulation of Early Education and Day Care", DfEE p 4, Dec. 1998.

  6.  Blank, M "Teaching Learning in the Pre-school", Columbus, 1973.

  7.  "Tomorrow's Children: the review of pre-schools and playgroups", DfEE ref: TCRPP, Sept. 1999.

  8.  "Summary of the Responses to the Consultation Paper on the Regulation of Early Education and Day Care, DfEE p 5, Dec. 1998.

  9.  Statistical First Release: Pupils Under Five Years of Age in Maintained Schools in England—January 1999.

  10.  Osborn, A F and Millbank, J (1989) "the Effects of Early Education", Clarendon Press.

  11.  Sharp, C. (1995) "School Entry and the Impact of the Season of Birth on Attainment", NFER.

  12.  "How do season of birth and length of schooling affect children's attainment at Key Stage 1—a question revisited" (1998) NFER.

  13.  Department of Education and Science (1990) "Starting with Quality". Report of the Rumbold Committee, HMSO.

  14.  House of Commons (1989) "Education Provision for the Under Fives. First Report of the Education, Science and Arts Committee 1988-89", HMSO.

Playgroup Network

January 2000


 
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