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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK


Nursery pupils to get structured learning

There is wide support for the idea of early learning goals

Children as young as four benefit from a deliberate effort to teach them things, according to England's school inspection service, Ofsted.

Chris Woodhead: Nurseries should provide more educational challenges than home
And ministers are to press ahead with proposals for a foundation stage of the National Curriculum, in spite of expert criticism.

But they are stressing that the things children will be expected to learn are goals to be achieved by the time they are six - rather than at the age of three.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) says there has been an overwhelmingly positive response from pre-school teachers and parents to its consultation on its review of these 'desirable learning outcomes'.

This is in spite of criticism from many of the government's own nursery experts that the goals were too formal, and would lower standards and damage children's development.

Criticism from experts

Sixteen of the government's 18 Early Excellence Centres, set up to highlight the best ways to teach three to five-year-olds, rejected the draft proposals.

Ofsted's comments are in a report on private, voluntary and independent pre-school institutions that had earlier been found to have weaknesses.

It says more than two thirds have tackled the key issues and now have no serious weaknesses.

The report complains of a "sterile debate" between those who believe nursery education should be shaped around play-based, 'child-directed' learning, and those who believe young children benefit from more structured learning to make a good start on such things as reading and writing.

"One clear finding ... is that four-year-olds enjoy and benefit from engagement with their teachers and other adults in structured learning, where there is a deliberate effort to teach them knowledge and skills in the areas of learning covered by the desirable learning outcomes," says the report.

Supportive homes

Many of these areas, it says, "are often taught to many children from educationally supportive homes by their parents".

"It makes little sense for nursery settings to provide less educational challenge to children than might reasonably be expected from a good home," the report says.

[ image: Margaret Hodge:
Margaret Hodge: "It is now time to move on"
It adds that the concern expressed by some, that children's personal and social development would suffer through an increased emphasis on a planned curriculum, "is ill-founded".

The Employment and Equal Opportunities Minister, Margaret Hodge, said Ofsted's report "shows that having clearly defined outcomes and inspections has led to higher standards."

In what sounded like a swipe at the nursery experts, she said: "It is good to see that those at the grass roots recognise the balance that we have struck.

"The proposals have previously been misunderstood. It is now time to move on. Ofsted is absolutely right to point to the role of clear outcomes in ensuring high standards in nursery education, regardless of the provider or setting.

[ image: Counting with teddy]
Counting with teddy
"The proposed early learning goals set out what most children should achieve by the end of their primary school reception year. Parents know it is common sense that children begin to learn how to count and to know the alphabet at this stage.

"The goals are not what is expected of most children at three. Children's development is very swift during these years and a planned approach is appropriate."

Ms Hodge said she did not accept that the goals were too formal.

"As a parent, I wanted no less than this for my children. If we expect that for our own children, how can we not for those for whom education is the best route towards greater opportunity?" she said.

But Wendy Scott, of the Early Childhood Education Forum, said the danger was that the goals would "press down unsuitably on children not yet mature enough to cope".

'Ill-informed views'

"People who are qualified and trained will be able to interpret them. But many working with under fives are not," she said.

Ms Scott said Ms Hodge appeared to be paying attention to "ill-informed and potentially very damaging views" about early years education.

"What ministers don't have is access to advice from early years specialists. What they hear is filtered through Ofsted. Chris Woodhead is not an expert on early years education.

"It is a complex area and ministers and chief inspectors like simple answers. People like us must be very annoying to them but we will not go away."

How many logs?

The Department for Education has given some examples of the proposed new early learning goals in action:

  • Some three-year-olds are beginning to use counting in practical activities. They jump onto flat sections of logs in a play area. They call out a number and jump on that many logs.

    Some make mistakes and jump on too many. The nursery teacher asks questions such as: "How many logs did you jump on?".

  • The teacher tells a group of four-year-olds that teddy is keen on number rhymes, but has trouble remembering what comes next. Teddy has pegged some numbers on the washing line to help him remember.

    The teacher uses teddy to count: "One, two, four, five". Two of the children notice the mistake and call out. The teacher then suggests that the children teach teddy a song, Five Little Speckled Frogs.

  • Harry, one of a group of five-year-olds, has brought in a collection of objects from home. His friends choose 10 things each. The teacher checks this.

    Each of the children rolls a die and gives that number of objects to the child on their left. Following a six, Jo counts up how many things there are altogether. "Sixteen", she says.

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