When the new Early Years Foundation Stage becomes statutory next September, it will cover a much longer age range than its predecessor – all the way from birth to five years old. As the number of Children’s Centres based in primary schools rises, the numbers of children spending three or more years in the Foundation Stage will grow. This will leave Key Stage One, just two years in duration, as the briefest and least important part of a child’s education prior to secondary schooling. It will be time to put this stunted Key Stage out of its misery and create a proper, birth-to-seven phase in education.
As a nursery school headteacher, I have been watching the gradual destruction of traditional infant school education with sadness. A decade ago, there was the battle for Reception: did it belong to the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, or to the Foundation Stage? In most schools, Reception was won by literacy and numeracy hours. Parents came back into nursery schools to say how difficult their children were finding it in “big school” and how much they wished they could come back and play in nursery.
More recently, Reception has started to return to the early years fold in many schools. Play is making a comeback, and children are allowed once more to spend time learning outdoors as well as in. All the same, most Reception classes are much, much more formal now than they were when I first started teaching twenty years ago. And the children are younger, too.
So if the new EYFS succeeds in reclaiming more of Reception for the early years – where will this leave the two years of Key Stage One? Some primary school headteachers would probably feel that if Reception is lost to what they see as “proper learning”, then even more will have to be crammed into Key Stage One to make sure that results hold up. In the case of my own daughter: she was hardly through the door of her Year One classroom before she was identified as being “at risk of underachieving in literacy”. She was bundled into a small group for intensive learning of letters and sounds every morning. The benefits were miniscule: hours and hours of drilling in letters and their sounds resulted in practically nothing learnt over the year. At home we felt that she would learn to read a little later. She did.
In its current form, Key Stage One presents other awkward problems. A summer-born child is expected, aged just five years old, to benefit from a relatively formal Key Stage One curriculum, whilst a winter-born child of the same age has a less formal, play-based curriculum in the Foundation Stage. What sense does this make? Of course, there are always going to be cut-offs in any school system: but we need to remember that for children at this age, a year makes up one-fifth of their life. It counts for a very great deal. Whilst good teachers have always adapted what they do to meet the needs of the actual children in their classes, there are inevitably limits. School policies quite rightly give Foundation Stage classes more favourable staffing and more resources to support children’s play. Staff in Year One classes can only attempt to minimise the impact of these structural differences through their practice. It would be better if the system helped them out, rather than holding them back.
But these problems at Key Stage One present us with the opportunity to argue for change. For many years now, there has been encouragement to look to Europe, in order to rethink our approach to the education of young children. Formal schooling starts later in practically every European country, most notably Sweden, Finland and Denmark. The outcome is not just that their children are rated much happier than ours by UNICEF. Their children are also better readers, better at maths, better learners all round in practically every measurable way.
Creating a single phase of early education for children up to the age of seven would be good for continuity. It could also enhance children’s learning. Children would make a better start Key Stage Two if they had experienced a broad curriculum which emphasised the crucial dispositions for successful learning: concentration, perseverance through difficulty, collaboration, and, not least, enjoyment.
If you are waiting for the “buts”, here they are. Firstly, this proposal could not possibly work without much better dialogue between professionals working in the early years and the rest of the education system. There is a growing tendency for staff in Nursery Schools and Children’s Centres to desire a kind of independent kingdom of the early years, safe from nasty school-learning. Understandable though this is, it needs to come to an end.
Secondly, Nursery Schools and Children’s Centres need to come to terms with the failure of child-centred education from the 1960s through to the 1990s, rather than giving it refuge in the early years. The discussions we need to have in the early years have hardly begun. How many of us can provide a good answer to this simple question: what exactly is the adult’s role in introducing new concepts, skills and ideas to children in early years settings? It’s not a discussion that I would find it easy to have with a parent.
I am not arguing for a revolution in practice. From my experience of observing children in early years settings, the worst places for children to be are undoubtedly those where they are processed through a menu of activities, one after the other. Settings where the children are bumped abruptly from “free play” to “the work table” are no better. Play inevitably suffers and becomes “letting off steam”.
But I am arguing that we need to start talking about what kind of direct and systematic teaching children need, and when. Education is not a supermarket, with rows of experiences and activities for children to browse and select from, as the mood takes them. A full swing back to an jnfant school curriculum based solely on exploration and play would just fail children again.
In Europe there is a wide understanding, amongst both professionals and parents, of what a systematic approach to the first seven years of education and care looks like: introducing children to sounds and rhythm, developing their aural discrimination, encouraging collaborative enterprises, problem-solving and conversation, and developing physical skills through exciting activities like woodwork. As children get older, this systematic approach leads on to carefully planned and often whole-class teaching. We should experiment more, and think about the sort of planning and structures that would show the links between earlier and later teaching in the child’s first seven years. The walls between Key Stage One and the Early Years Foundation Stage need holing, undermining and knocking down.
I was once with a group of Swedish teachers as they went into a Reception class in a London school. From the look on their faces, you might have thought they had been taken back to Victorian times to see children working in a shoe polish factory. There really is little to be said in favour of what was in front of us: one group of four and five year olds being drilled on sounds, and a second gathering of pained-looking infants who seemed to be practically crushing the pencils in their hands as they carved through the paper in their workbooks. Practically all of those children would have learned to read and write much faster, and with much more enjoyment, a year later.
It could happen. But it needs us to take part in free professional debate, and discussion with parents, so that we can develop a coherent understanding of child development and learning and the role of teaching for the whole of the first seven years.