Supporting Improving Primary Schools: The Role of Schools and LEAs in Raising Standards

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Improving Literacy in the Primary School

In order to identify the nature of early childhood curriculum in England, this article examines the historical development and philosophical underpinnings of early childhood education, including recent developments. The article then investigates and describes the early childhood curriculum in England today. Historically, in England, there was little government intervention in preschool provision, in curriculum, and in curriculum implementation. Recently, in order to raise standards and improve the quality of early childhood institutions, government intervention in early years education has increased significantly.

This framework is very goal oriented and specifies a large number of learning goals to be achieved by children.

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With respect to the appropriateness of the early years curriculum, there is an ongoing debate between the policy makers, who emphasize school effectiveness, and the early childhood specialists, who focus on a developmentally appropriate curriculum. Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, argued that adults working with 3- and 4-year-old children need to use a formal approach and direct teaching: "Direct teaching is crucial at this age as it is at every other age" Woodhead, , p.

Recent History of Early Childhood Education

On the other hand, many early childhood specialists have expressed concern that the government policy of raising standards may lead to over-concentration on formal teaching and upon the attainment of specific learning targets see, e. The purpose of this article is to identify the nature of early childhood curriculum in England. First, the article examines the historical development and philosophical underpinnings of early childhood education, including recent developments.

Early childhood care and education for young children began to emerge in England in the late 18th century on a voluntary and philanthropic basis. In , the first nursery school in the United Kingdom was established at New Lanark in Scotland by Robert Owen for the children of cotton mill workers. Children ages 1 to 6 were cared for while their parents and older siblings worked in the cotton mills.

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Owen advocated free and unstructured play in the education of young children and did not press for formal training. He endeavored to create a future citizen through the process of informal teaching and physical activities. Although Owen's ideas were ahead of his time, his example stimulated a significant interest in early childhood education and the founding of a number of infant schools in Britain.

Passage of the Education Act of was an important event because the act established compulsory elementary schools for all children from the age of 5. In , elementary education became compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and In the absence of special institutions for younger children, elementary schools admitted children younger than 5 years old, to protect them from the poor and unhealthy physical conditions of slum houses and dangerous streets.

In , five women inspectors from the Board of Education investigated the admission of infants to elementary schools as well as the curriculum used to instruct them. These inspectors reported the inappropriateness of such provision for these young children and recommended that children under the age of 5 have separate facilities and a different teaching approach from older children Board of Education, The inspectors criticized the emphasis on monotonous repetition and rote memorization in the elementary school curriculum.

As a consequence of this report, children under 5 were officially excluded from elementary schools. In , Margaret McMillan and her sister Rachel established an open-air nursery for poor children in Deptford. McMillan's educational model was inspired by her socialist ideology Blackstone, She was concerned for the health and well-being of working-class children, and she stressed the need for health care with proper nourishment, hygiene, exercise, and fresh air.

Her nursery allowed free access to play areas and gardens and was not predicated upon a fixed time schedule. McMillan's methods, with her emphasis on fresh air, exercise, and nourishment, still influence some aspects of current English nursery practice Curtis, Recent History of Early Childhood Education By the s, the decline in family size and the closure of day nurseries after the Second World War had reduced the opportunities for children to play with other children. At the same time, awareness of the educational value of play may have become more widespread. During this period, the lack of LEA provision of nursery places and growing parental interest in young children's welfare and education created a new type of preschool provision: playgroups.

The origin of the playgroup movement is linked to Belle Tutaev, a London mother, who in organized a nursery group for her small daughter in a church hall, sharing the tasks of child care with a neighbor. The educational authorities welcomed the playgroup movement as a low-cost substitute for nursery schools.

However, this promised nursery expansion was not forthcoming because of the economic recession. Throughout the s and s, nonstatutory preschool provision was neglected and undeveloped. The Rumbold report recommended a curriculum based on eight main areas of learning, following in the footsteps of a recent HMI Her Majesty's Inspectorate publication The Curriculum from 5 to 16 DES, : 1 aesthetic and creative, 2 human and social, 3 language and literacy, 4 mathematics, 5 physical, 6 science, 7 spiritual and moral, and 8 technology DES, The Royal Society of Arts Report Ball, recommended that high-quality provision be made available to all 3- and 4-year-olds, reviewing evidence that high-quality early education leads to lasting cognitive and social benefits in children.

Ball set out the following major prerequisites for "high-quality" provision: an appropriate early learning curriculum; the selection, training, and continuity of staff; high staff:children ratios; buildings and equipment designed for early learning; and a partnership role for parents. Since the introduction of the Voucher scheme and Desirable Outcomes, early childhood education has become an issue on the national policy agenda, and there have been significant changes in the practices and politics of early childhood education.

In order to register for the receipt of vouchers, preschool provisions had to show that they were moving children towards the Desirable Outcomes as defined by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority SCAA, The Desirable Outcomes are "learning goals" that children should achieve before they enter compulsory education. They emphasize early literacy, numeracy, and the development of personal and social skills, and they contribute to children's knowledge, understanding, and skills in other areas. However, in , the incoming Labour Government abolished the voucher scheme and made its own plans for the development of early years services.

The new government tried to raise standards and significantly increased public funding of early years education. The government provided direct funding to preschool institutions for part-time places for 4-year-old children and an increasing number of part-time places for 3-year-old children.

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  8. However, the receipt of this funding for 3- and 4-year-old children is dependent on each preschool provision meeting government requirements for the regular inspection of preschool settings, in terms of the framework of Desirable Outcomes, now revised as Early Learning Goals QCA, The Philosophical Background of Childhood Education in England The main principles of traditional early childhood education in Britain are child centered, in contrast to the traditional subject-centered and teacher-directed approaches of secondary education Bruce, This section examines the key underlying principles of English traditional early childhood education: individualism, free play, developmentalism, and the child-centered perspective of the adult educator.

    Western child-centered education is based on individual children's needs and interests, and on educators' respect for the differences between individual children. Dewey emphasized individuality, with the curriculum chosen by the child rather than imposed by the teacher. Montessori had great respect for the child as an individual and for children's spontaneous and independent learning. She believed that the child possesses an intrinsic motivation toward the self-construction of learning. Supporting the view that children are innately curious and display exploratory behavior quite independent of adult intervention, the Plowden Report CACE, , p.

    As far as can be judged, this behaviour is autonomous since it occurs when there is no obvious motivation such as hunger. The intrinsic motivation theory of child-centered education relates to the learning by doing theory. In English preschool classrooms, learning by being active and interactive, by exploring the environment, has gained universal status Curtis, Dewey advocated that children learn best by exploring and manipulating their environment.

    Isaacs also emphasized the importance of learning by doing. She wrote that play is not the only means by which children come to discover the world; the whole of their spontaneous activity creates their psychic equilibrium in the early years. This learning by doing theory has been accepted implicitly by English preschool teachers, together with the need to provide a free and spontaneous environment and the rejection of formal instruction.

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    The child-centered view of the child's intrinsic motivation for learning has been widely criticized. The child-centered view is that children are innately curious and keen to find things out, with a strong drive to explore the environment. This theory suggests that children learn more effectively if their activities are self-chosen and self-directed.

    However, many educators have warned of the dangers of an exclusive and unrealistic emphasis upon the child. Galton criticized child-centered theory as a "romantic" view of childhood requiring a curriculum totally dictated by the child's interests.

    Recent History of Early Childhood Education

    Kogan questions whether children have a natural intellectual curiosity and whether they are really motivated to learn and are keen on discovery. He says that many children in the classroom do not display eagerness to learn and are not able to achieve enough by learning through discovery.

    Blenkin and Kelly also criticize learning by discovery, claiming that discovery is not possible unless one knows what one is discovering. They recommend that "the only sensible concept of learning by discovery is one which recognizes the essential contribution of the guidance that the teacher can and should provide" p.

    In the English preschool, play is an integral part of the curriculum, founded on the belief that children learn through self-initiated free play in an exploratory environment Hurst, ; Curtis, Free play is especially the norm in the traditional English nursery curriculum, following Rousseau, Froebel, Owen, McMillan, and Isaacs. According to Froebel, play is "the work of the child" and a part of "the educational process. Traditional English nurseries have worked with an integrated early childhood curriculum. The integrated curriculum is, as New , p.

    He argued that young children do not think in subjects and that their learning is holistic. According to the guidelines of the Early Years Curriculum Group , "Learning is holistic and for the young child; it is not compartmentalised under subject headings" p. In traditional English preschools, the rigid, subject-divided curriculum is rejected; instead, free play is regarded as the integrating mechanism that brings together everything learned Bruce, Although free play has many benefits and is a necessary part of preschool classrooms, the early years program that prioritizes free play has several crucial weaknesses.


    First, much research evidence shows that free play does not maximize cognitive development. Sylva, Roy, and McIntyre investigated the ways in which both children and adults spend their time during free play sessions in preschools. They found that there was a lack of challenging activity in children's free play, which tended to involve simple repetitive activities.

    Meadows and Cashdan also investigated children's behavior during free play sessions and reported that the nursery teachers in their study were busy and kind to the children but not very demanding. During free play, children did not persist at tasks, and the conversation between adult and child was very limited. Meadow and Cashdan argued that supervised free play has limited benefits for children and that a high level of adult-child interaction during play is necessary to optimize children's learning.

    Sequential developmentalism is one of the most influential beliefs in English early years education. The term refers to the way in which the child passes through a naturally ordered sequence of development towards logical and formal thinking Curtis, Piaget's clinical and observational studies developed the idea of readiness and explored the process by which children advance through the sensorimotor stage years and preconceptual stages years in order to progress to logical and abstract thinking.

    According to this version of developmentalism, a child must be "ready" to move on to the next developmental stage and cannot be forced to move to a higher level of cognitive functioning. Although developmentalism and readiness are widely reported to be dominant in English early childhood education, several critiques have been articulated about the readiness concept in developmentalism. For instance, Donaldson challenges Piaget's views of egocentric thinking through a number of fascinating and ingenious experiments and argues that the rational powers of young children have long been underestimated.

    The idea of "readiness" has often led to a lack of structure in the curriculum and to a lack of progression. In developmental theory, consideration of the nature of knowledge seems to be ignored. According to Bruner , knowledge of child development is necessary but is not sufficient, and early years practice also needs a firm and sufficient knowledge base. He argues that to avoid trivializing education, we need to integrate knowledge about teaching pedagogical knowledge with both knowledge about children's development and knowledge about knowledge itself.

    The traditional view of the English nursery teacher's role is that he or she is not an expert or authority, but an adviser and facilitator Curtis, ; Darling, The legacy of not intervening in the child's discovery that comes from Froebel, Montessori, and Dewey remains as a strong force within the ideologies of early childhood educators in England. Montessori argued that adults must foster children's inner drive, not impair it by imposing too many restrictions and obstacles in the child's environment.

    Similarly, Dewey believed that the teacher was not an instructor of passive learners nor a referee in a competition.

    The child-centered teacher is a guide and an arranger of the environment, rather than an instructor.