Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What do Ed Balls and Sir Jim Rose know about early childhood that most European education experts don't?

Christopher Clouder, on behalf of the Executive of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, has issued the following statement in response to the interim report of Sir Jim Rose's Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum:

"The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship would not normally comment on Sir Jim Rose's interim review of the primary curriculum, as most of our schools are independent and therefore not affected by his proposals. However, we are very interested in anything that affects the quality of childhood and we are also, since the introduction of the Steiner Academy Hereford, part of the state education system.

"We are therefore pleased to note that Sir Jim has come up with some interesting proposals to overhaul what is taught in primary schools. For example, Steiner schools already introduce the teaching of French and German at an early stage - consequently we support his call for pupils to be offered one or two languages from the age of 7.

We also think that there is greater scope for creative and thorough teaching through a more theme-based approach to the curriculum, especially if this allows children to become more deeply involved in what they are taught. The 2-hour Main Lesson on a topic lasting several weeks has become one of the most successful and distinguishing features of Steiner teaching, for it allows teachers to cover the curriculum intensively and economically, and for pupils to develop their skills and capacity to focus on a task. Furthermore we are delighted with the recognition of the importance of play, although the fact that play is also joyful and not only utilitarian has been omitted. The proposal to strengthen the SEAL framework across the curriculum is both timely and vital.

"We have some reservations, however, about some of Sir Jim's other recommendations. While we understand the thinking behind his proposal that summer-born children should start school in the September term after their fourth birthday, if their parents wish it, we note the research evidence that indicates there is considerable variation in the age at which children are developmentally and neurologically ready to read and write. Boys are often later than girls in developing fine motor and language skills and the ability to sit still. Children born prematurely, or children who are born during the summer months can be 9-12 months younger than their peers in terms of neurological development.

Steiner schools work with a model of child development which considers the period from birth to six years old as being of critical importance in establishing the learning attitudes that children will take with them throughout their lives. Only when a child is physically, mentally, socially and linguistically ready should he or she be considered properly ready for formal education. In many cases, children are not ready before their seventh year.

"To give just one example to bear this out, a recent research study in Northern Ireland (where children start school at 4 years old) quoted by Sally Goddard Blythe of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychiatry (INPP) of 339 children of 5-6 years old showed that 48% of them had immature physical skills. In a study of 400 8-9 year olds, 35% of them still showed signs of physical immaturity. Northern Ireland has the lowest compulsory school starting age in Europe (4 years old). In most of Europe, with the exception of Malta, the Netherlands, Scotland and England, the starting age is at 6 years old or 7 years old. This includes Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden, in fact those countries with the most successful economies.

"We believe that it is quite possible for teachers to identify when children are physically ready for formal learning – balance, posture and motor skills provide indications of maturity in the central nervous system of the developing child and can be assessed at key stages in development. Steiner school teachers are trained in these techniques and use them to assess when children are ready to leave Kindergarten and move into Class 1.

"Children who are delayed in their physical development need more time involved in general physical activities before being ready to integrate fine motor and visual integration tasks. The consequences of not giving children the time to play and become ready for formal learning can be disastrous for their future ability to make the most of their education. Scotland and Wales have examined the evidence and both countries are moving towards the Nordic model of a later start to formal education. In Wales, the starting age is now 7 years old."

The question to Ed Balls and Sir Jim Rose must be: what do you know about early childhood that most of Europe, including Scotland and Wales, don't?

"The other huge issue, which is not addressed by Sir Jim, because it was excluded from his brief, is the whole question of the national curriculum SATs tests for 11-year olds. Are teachers going to have the time to give to Sir Jim's ambitions for improving, for example, children's speaking and listening skills, when they expect to devote hours to coaching children for the tests? The use of the tests for the publication of national performance tables means that schools are judged on the results and it is unrealistic to think that schools will not continue to give a very high priority to preparing their pupils for them."