Friday, May 7, 1999 Published at 21:30 GMT 22:30 UK
The early years revolt
It was more than a little embarrassing for the government when their own apostles of nursery education turned against the latest plans to extend the standards crusade down to children as young as three.
Yet that is exactly what happened when 16 of the 18 Early Excellence Centres in England joined forces to condemn the plans for what, in effect, is an extension of the National Curriculum to nursery education.
Moreover their condemnation was voiced in the strongest terms. The proposed Early Learning Goals, they said, would lower standards, hinder the work of the Early Excellence Centres, damage children's development, and increase the incidence of Special Needs by creating "failures at five".
The government appeared to be caught unawares. The Minister, Margaret Hodge, attempted to suggest that the Early Excellence Centres had misunderstood the government's proposals. The goals, she insisted, were for children at the end of the Reception Year, when they would be six. They would not affect children as young as three or four.
That did not wash with the Early Excellence Centres' spokesman, Julian Grenier. He said the fear was that nursery schools would look ahead to the goals to be achieved later and would start to shape their teaching to them from age three.
In fact, despite putting up a strong public face, the government was taken aback by this protest and we can expect that the promised further guidance will be more sympathetic to those who feel the current approach is "too much too soon".
It is worth, though, stepping back and taking a broader look at what is going on with nursery education.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority document makes it clear that what is being proposed is an additional stage - to be called the Foundation Stage - to the National Curriculum. Instead of "desirable outcomes" there will be more specific "learning goals". No wonder nursery educators see their freedoms disappearing.
Many teachers now fear being caught by a pincer movement: with government and parents pressing for an earlier and earlier start on numeracy and literacy.
The government is looking ahead to future improvements in its national targets for 11-year-olds and parents are being drawn into the rising anxiety of school entry competition.
Sadly this debate between so-called traditionalists and progressives tends to be lumped in with similar arguments over the later years.
In fact, there is no reason why one cannot be a supporter of a play-based approach to education for the under-fives while also supporting a more formal approach for older children. In this country we so often get caught up into these false dichotomies.
Look at France. There, nursery education is built around structured play. Conventional lessons do not begin until around the age of six. At this point the "cours preparatoire" goes full speed ahead with formal language, plenty of grammar, and mathematics lessons.
It does matter that children learn to read and write. But it is important for both parents and government not to be over-anxious about the age at which children start to be able to do so. For some it will be at age three. For others it will come at seven.
What matters is that they get there. Forcing them to attempt to do so too early may be the biggest threat of all.