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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 November 2005, 00:04 GMT
Will babies face testing times?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
Babies have their own curriculum, like older children
So will toddlers be taught "to speak by state diktat"? Will babies of 18 months face exams in reading and writing? Will nursery schools and childminders be competing in league tables?

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Yet that was the impression you might have got from some media reports this week.

We were told that two-year-olds will "have death by worksheet" under the government's plans to extend the national curriculum from age five down to birth.

Journalists, commentators and newspaper letter writers worked themselves up into a lather of indignation: it was "Big Brother", "Nanny Blair", "Orwellian", and "lunacy" all rolled into one.

A more amusing comment came in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, which asked whether the national curriculum for babies included "potty-training".

But what is the truth? Is the government really extending the national curriculum to toddlers?

Toddler worksheets?

The announcement which triggered this media frenzy was a briefing on the new Childcare Bill. This puts into law what parents can expect of high quality childcare and nurseries.

During a media briefing at the Department for Education, it emerged that nurseries, playgroups and childminders will have to follow something called the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Remember that from the age of three, children are already covered by the foundation stage of the national curriculum, which came into force three years ago.

So the only new bit of the announcement was the proposal affecting children from nought to three. In fact, the government guidance on this has also been around for a couple of years. It is called "Birth to Three Matters".

It was the decision to give this guidance legal force, on similar lines to the national curriculum, which was new and which triggered the furore.
Babies' targets include snuggling and communicating

What does the soon-to-be-compulsory advice say? Well, I read right through it and could not find a single reference to nought to three-year-olds having to sit down with worksheets, learn their alphabet, recite multiplication tables, or be tested.

Instead it refers to encouraging a child to acquire "social confidence" by, for example, "being able to snuggle in". That doesn't sound much like a Gradgrind-style education.

What about the section on becoming "a skilful communicator"? No, there was nothing there about parsing sentences or learning grammar. Instead children are to be encouraged in conversation and to "enjoy sharing stories, songs, rhymes, and games".


And so it goes on. Not much "Big Brother" here. Children are to be encouraged to "play imaginatively" and to "use all their senses". The nearest thing to requiring them to learn to write is the statement encouraging "creating and experimenting with one's own symbols and marks".

So when the Children's Minister, Beverley Hughes, said "we are not talking about sitting very young children in chairs and making them learn numbers and letters where that is inappropriate", she seems to have been accurately reflecting what was in the guidance.

So why all the over-excitement about a "national curriculum for toddlers"?

It seems it comes down to an accurate, but perhaps unfortunately phrased, line in the news release that said the new Early Years Foundation Stage would have "the same legal force as the national curriculum in schools".

Surely we have to wait for some indication that ministers are actually planning to do something before condemning it

It was this which prompted the Daily Mail to call it "state diktat" and had Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, warning that "we are now in danger of taking away children's childhood when they leave the maternity ward".

But this does not amount to extending the national curriculum to babies. It is simply a requirement on childcare providers not to leave children sitting in front of the television but to ensure they are talked to, stimulated, and encouraged to express themselves and to play.

I suspect most parents, and carers, would welcome that and would hardly regard it as a Big Brother exercise.

If the government really planned to start testing children at age three, then people would rightly be concerned; we already have formal tests for children at a younger age than in most other countries.

But I cannot find any suggestion in the bill or its accompanying material to suggest this is anyone's intention. Nor did ministers suggest this was what they intended for nought to three-year-olds.

We may not always trust government intentions but surely we have to wait for some indication that ministers are actually planning to do something before condemning it.

There is, of course, a legitimate debate to be had over how much time children should spend with their parents rather than with childminders or at nurseries. However this is a separate issue.

But perhaps this was the subtext of some of the coverage. As the Daily Mail's front page story put it, this announcement came "amid fierce argument over whether children really benefit from day care".

Did those words betray the real reason for splashing this story on the front-page?

As I say, this is a legitimate debate, but does it justify portraying the "Birth to Three" guidelines as some sort of national curriculum "diktat" when close reading suggests it is nothing of the sort?

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