Three substantial reviews of early years and primary education in England have taken place during the last five or six years. First to report was the Rose Review of the primary curriculum commissioned in January 2008 by the then Labour government (interim report 2008; final report, 2009; new curriculum to be introduced in September 2011). The independently funded Cambridge Review of primary education was launched well before the Rose inquiry, in October 2006, but reported later (final report 2010 – with a special report on the curriculum being brought out in 2009 as a contribution to the debate triggered by Rose). Next came Dame Clare Tickell’s review of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), initiated by the new Coalition government in July 2010, reported in March of last year.
Soon after coming to power, the Coalition Government shelved the Rose report (a move welcomed by the Cambridge group who chose to believe that Rose had been deliberately set up to spike their guns) and in January 2011 launched its own ‘in-house’ review of the National Curriculum – new Programmes of Study and Attainment Levels are currently due to be introduced in September 2014. The report of the Review’s Expert Panel – setting out their recommendations in relation to the new National Curriculum’s framework – was published at the end of last year, as was a summary report of the responses to the Review’s call for evidence from parents, teachers, schools, academics and other interested parties. So the reform of the National Curriculum is still work in progress. The same holds for the EYFS: the Government welcomed its recommendations made in the Tickell report but a revised EYFS framework (to be implemented in September 2012, … or perhaps later?) has yet to be published.
There is one issue addressed by all these reviews which particularly interests us as publishers of software that supports the learning of three to six-or seven-year olds – how do you achieve continuity in learning for children as they progress from home and pre-school through Reception into Years 1 and 2? As the Cambridge Review points out this is a unusually bumpy ride for children in England – in particular, the switch from learning through play to formal classroom teaching comes earlier, and perhaps more abruptly, here than in most other countries. The Review cites the responses of two children to a 2005 study of the transition from the Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1: a Reception class girl who said that she expected Year 1 to be ‘no toys, just work, work, work’ and Year 1 boy looking back at his time in Reception and remarking that sitting on the classroom carpet had turned out to be ‘wasting your life’.
This concern about children in England having to accommodate themselves to a too sudden change in the content and manner of their education was also raised by the respondents to the call for evidence from the National Curriculum Review. Asked to identify the most important factors for the Review to consider in developing the National Curriculum for Key Stage 1 to ensure a smoother transition from the Early Years Foundation Stage, a majority “believed that the biggest issue was the transition between two completely different curricula and the lack of join-up between the two stages”.
What we find particularly telling is the fact that a large majority of those taking this view believed that that the National Curriculum needs to be adapted to the EYFS rather than the other way round.
63% of the 869 respondents to this question said that it was vital for Key Stage 1 to demonstrate continuity with the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) because this would allow for the development of skills through play-based learning rather than an emphasis on knowledge … These respondents believed that this approach would enable teachers to introduce and practice literacy, numeracy and scientific skills in a context that would interest and stimulate children.”
Looking down the other end of the telescope, 15% thought that more KS1-style teaching and learning should be introduced into the Early Years curriculum ”so that there was familiarity at the point of transition between the two”. They suggested that the ‘learn by play’ model in reception year was not adequately preparing children for Key Stage 1 and was inhibiting learning. The respondents believed that there needed to be more structured teaching in the EYFS, which would ensure that all children understood very basic mathematics and English before they started compulsory schooling.”
All the reviews we have mentioned side with the majority on this question.
The Expert Panel frames the issue in a helpful way when they draw a distinction between education as development and education as knowledge acquisition:
“Some educationalists emphasise subject knowledge and discount the significance of more developmental aspects of education. There are also many who foreground the development of skills, competencies and dispositions whilst asserting that contemporary knowledge changes so fast that ‘learning how to learn’ should be prioritised. We do not believe that these are either/or questions. Indeed, it is impossible to conceptualise ‘learning to learn’ independently of learning ‘something’. Our position is therefore that both elements – knowledge and development – are essential and that policy instruments [such as curriculum frameworks and assessment tools] need to be deployed carefully to ensure that these are provided for within education.
However, the Panel goes on to say that “the two elements are not equally significant at every age. In particular, developmental aspects and basic skills are more crucial for young children, while appropriate understanding of more differentiated subject knowledge, concepts and skills becomes more important for older pupils.
The Tickell review places the emphasis in early education on personal development through three ‘fundamental areas of learning’ (Personal, social and emotional development, Communication and language, Physical development) that “lay the foundations for children’s ability to learn and develop healthily across the board”. The basic skills acquired in these areas are applied in four ‘specific areas of learning’ that prepare the way for Literacy, Mathematics, Expressive arts and design, Understanding the world. (Note the cautious use of the phrase ‘prepare the way for’ when it comes to areas learning that correspond to or contain traditional school subjects). The Expert Panel believes that primary education should “pick up this theme of personal development, extend and deepen it, and bridge the orientation of pupils towards the subject knowledge” which becomes the main focus of secondary education. In tune with this philosophy, both the Rose Review and the Cambridge Review argue for the extension of the EYFS approach into Year 1, and both stress the value of allowing subject knowledge to implant itself at this stage through area of learning topics or thematic work.
For what it is worth, we share this understanding of the way the transition from early years to primary education should be handled and look forward to seeing it embodied in the new curriculum frameworks. To go back to the girl and boy in the Cambridge Review, it seems to us a great pity that they have come to think of ‘play’ and ‘school work’ in an ‘either/or’, ‘before/after’ rather than a ‘both/and’ way. After all, look at the Raspberry Pi computer which has just burst into the news – it is undoubtedly a ‘toy’, but playing with it will help children to learn something that is not, we are told, being sufficiently taught – programming.
The Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum
Link to PDF of the Final Report:
The Cambridge Primary Review of Primary Education
Official website with links to all the Review’s publications:
The Tickell Review of the EYFS
DfE site with links to the Report and other documents:
The National Curriculum Review
Government website with links to the Expert Panel report and the report on the call for evidence:
A useful one-page summary of the Expert Panels report: