A steep learning curve
There have been two very interesting stories this week about young children in education. And although not related, have raised some questions about how five-year-olds in England should be schooled.
The first, seemingly depressing article, described how disruptive infant pupils were being “labelled” as “naughty” and installed into a vocational centre.
The other was a call from Cambridge Primary Review, which called for a move from formal education for those under six to play-centred curriculum.
So – in the first article, we learn that children as young as five (perhaps unfairly labelled in the piece as “drop-outs”) are being taken to specialist centres so that they can address their challenging behaviour.
The danger, as far I can see, is that taking a child away from its peers and separating them already labels them as different. Children know this, of course, and their being labelled as “naughty” might well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the second, Dame Gillian Pugh warns that four- and five-year-olds are switching off from the learning process because the curriculum because it is too formal, particularly for those less able youngsters.
So, do you see the connection here?
Of course, the answer is not cut and dried. Education is never simple and there are wildly differing opinions as to the value of play in the curriculum.
There are educators who are passionate about allowing children the freedom to play – getting them to learn by stealth – while many are diametrically opposed to this approach, claiming it lacks a constructive element that youngsters need and is “uneducational”.
Parents are equally bemused by the options: while there is an understanding that play is central to a young child’s life – and that they can learn to count by using bricks and form letters by drawing in sand – they are equally demanding academic success.
It is important that our five-year-olds know the alphabet, can count to 20 and can have a good stab at writing their own name. Or is it?
We have become a target-driven society – there are prescribed academic standards for the smallest of children. The National Curriculum has imposed early learning goals that should be attained by the time they finish Foundation Stage (aged six).
There are six areas of development: PSE (personal, social and emotional) development; communication, language and literacy; problem solving, reasoning and numeracy; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development and creative development.
Many of these goals are achieved through play-based learning. You can read all about the curriculum here.
In many European countries – including Wales – formal education isn’t introduced until a child is six or seven, yet their academic attainment is higher.
And therein lies the rub – for me at least: a balance of child-initiated play and adult-initiated play must be a good thing if it raises standards and youngsters are able to achieve basic academic skills that form the foundation stone of their learning.
Surely one doesn’t cancel out the other? I don’t want to see youngsters being taken out of schools, away from their friends, labelled as “different” at five. I want to see them supported – which means resources must be appropriate and available – and I want to see them achieve.
If that means offering them more play-based learning, so they can become more engaged and settled, so be it.
(I am not an educationalist; I am a mother of two primary school children and parent governor. Just so you know).