The Purpose Of The EY Foundation Stage Curriculum

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Last updated: 16/02/2017
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Critically consider the purpose of the Foundation Stage Curriculum for young children and to what extend it is appropriate in developing and educating the young child.

In order to critically consider the purpose of the Foundation Stage Curriculum for young children and to assess to what extent is it appropriate in developing and educating young children the assignment will be broken into four key areas namely; rational of Foundation Stage Curriculum, academic commentary, practitioners’ views and the writers’ synthesis of its effectiveness.

“Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.” (B.F. Skinner, Education in 1984, New Scientist, 21 May 1964)

Education and the curriculum has experienced significant changes historically, (See Table 1). In 1988, the Education Reform Act restructured all of the educational system in England by setting out a National Curriculum. Its vital aims were to raise standards in schools and offer a broad curriculum but with its introduction has come criticism, government intervention has increased and teachers’ autonomy has decreased (Aubrey, C. 2000). The subject-based approach has been seen as an attack on traditional child-centered preschool education and although it applies only to students of compulsory school age, its introduction had an effect on programs for children.

Date:                                                                  Facts:

1800s  The first nursery school established in Scotland. Children were set free play so as to become future citizens through informal teaching and physical activities.

1816     1-6 year olds were cared for  while parents worked

1870    Education Act -  compulsory elementary schools for all children from the age of 5 years old.

1880    Compulsory education was able to accept children younger than 5 year olds, to protect them from the poor conditions.

1905    Board of Education regarded  such provision  inappropriate and excluded under 5s from elementary schools.

1960s  LEA provision of playgroups.

1996   Conservative government introduced the first stage of a Nursery Voucher scheme.

1997  Labour Government applied its own provisional schemes for the early years education.                                                                                                                  

According to the Foundation Stage Curriculum (2000), children’s period of education begins in nursery and ends in the reception year. During that time, children are aimed to work towards specified learning goals namely; personal, social and emotional development, communication, language and literacy, mathematical development, Knowledge and understanding of the world, physical development and creative development. These learning goals have been identified so as to aid practitioners’ good practice and ensure development of all children. Through that route of education, children are prepared for learning in key stages 1 onwards.

Government initiatives have brought about a further two fundamental changes to enhance the pupils’ learning experience, attainment levels, and stakeholders’ confidence in the Foundation Stage Curriculum. The ‘Foundation Stage Profile’ created a catalyst to accelerate the progress and learning skills of children at the end of the Foundation stage.

In March 2007, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) was launched, replacing the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage and the Birth to Three Matters Framework. The EYFS is a framework of care, learning and development for children.

According to the DfES (The Standards Site: Early Years Foundation Stage), by excluding the foundation stage out of the National Curriculum, consistency is more evident by providing an integrated education and care. However, given the pace of change, practitioners expressed conflicting interpretations of policy initiatives and further contributed to a growing number of demotivated frontline teachers.

As highlighted in the Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum (EYFS), the reason children play is due to the security their surroundings offer. That way, they are encouraged to learn, explore various ideas and learn to solve problems. Equally, every child is an individual and therefore their needs vary. For that reason, learning should take place at their own pace. Also, parents act as partners and therefore are encouraged to participate in the children’s play and learning.

With a secure planning and evaluative approaches the Curriculum is certain in its beliefs that children as noted above will achieve full potential, experience success and gain a satisfactory level of self-esteem. However, it states that upon any frustration regarding the childrens’ learning and achievement, practitioners should be responsible for that challenge to turn into a learning experience. Therefore, positive discipline and reinforcement of good behaviour and appraisals are required, as well are constant monitoring.

As Palmer and Pettitt argue (1993), “the introduction to young children of the skills and  understrandings under a wide ranging of subject learning helps to ensure that all children receive the broad and balanced curriculum to which they are entitled.” However, recent introductory issues, such as, the literacy and numeracy spectrums in nursery schools have caused a narrowing approach in children’s learning. (Whitebread, D., Teaching and Learning in the Early Years)

According to the Curriculum Guidance, (QCA/DfEE, May 2000, p. 20-21) learning for young children should be “a rewarding and enjoyable experience in which they explore, investigate, discover, practise, and consolidate their developing knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes…many of these aspects of learning are brought together effectively through playing and talking.”

“Babies are competent learners from birth…” ( Building a Supportive Foundation, DfES). “Some have argued that play is children’s work but I would say that it is far more than this. Play is their self-actualisation, a holistic exploration of who and what they are and know of who and what they might become.(Broadhead 2004, p.89)”

In nurseries, 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, 1997; Curtis, 1998). Free play is especially the norm in the traditional 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." The Plowden Report (CACE, 1967) suggests that play is the principal means of learning in early childhood. "In play, children gradually develop concepts of causal relationships, the power to discriminate, to make judgements, to analyze and synthesize, imagine and formulate" (p. 193).

Adults may not realise that free play and first hand experience is crucial to children’s learning. Children’s learning and the highest priority must be given on children’s first hand experience and learning as well as the development of the individual child. The DfEs, states that “we recognise the importance of outdoor play and that regular play opportunities are crucial to a child’s growth and development…” (The Standards Site: Early Years Foundation Stage)

Traditional nurseries have worked with an integrated early childhood curriculum. The integrated curriculum is, as New (1992, p. 289) said, "the blending of content areas into thematic or problem-focused units of study and a child-centred approach to learning and instruction." Dewey (1959) advocated an integrated early childhood curriculum instead of a subject-divided curriculum. He argued that young children do not think in subjects and that their learning is holistic. In the guidelines of the Early Years Curriculum Group (1989), "Learning is holistic and for the young child; it is not compartmentalised under subject headings" (p. 3). In traditional preschools, the subject-divided curriculum is rejected; instead, free play is regarded as the integrating mechanism that brings together everything learned (Bruce, 1987).

In contrast, the early years program that prioritizes free play has several crucial weaknesses. Much research evidence shows that free play does not maximize cognitive development. Sylva, Roy, and McIntyre (1980) 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, involving simple repetitive activities. Further studies by Meadows and Cashdan (1988) reported that nursery teachers were 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. They 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.

Brainerd (in Meadows, 1983) and Davis (1991) support the view that Jean Piaget’s contribution to primary education was his idea of  “alerting educators to the child’s active role in their learning, and the importance of mental activity” (Howe, 1999). Piaget showed how children make their own interpretations of the world and emphasised the idea of “children interacting with their physical environment” whereas others later argued that “the role of the teacher should be that of an observer and a facilitator.” (Whitebread, D., Teaching and Learning in the Early Years,p.3) However, Wood (1998) argued that Piaget’s theory on children’s development was false and he failed to estimate children’s abilities. Donaldson, M. (1978) also held the view that his works were too difficult for children and that he had misunderstood children’s abilities regarding understanding. So, they failed to experience things first hand. Froebel, Montessori, Macmillan and Issacs (Tallack,j, Neaum, S., Good practice in implementing the school curriculum) all held the same views on children’s learning. Broebel and Montessori both similarly believed that by providing children with various and a plethora of experiences they learn to experience life and understand the world themselves. They believed that play was of vast importance and that it should take place in an environment suitable for learning in parallel to the foundation stage.

Regarding the appropriateness of the early years curriculum, there is an ongoing debate between the policy makers and the early childhood specialists. While the first focus on school effectiveness the latter emphasise a developmentally appropriate curriculum. Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, argued that adults working with 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, 1999, p. 10). Alternatively, 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.g., Drury, Miller, & Campbell, 2000; Anning, 1998).

The curriculum can be seen as the tool to shape citizens that will benefit society yet others argue that “the curriculum should serve the intrinsic aim of providing a value in its own right, so that it is seen as self-filfilling and providing experiences that are worthwhile.” (The Struggle for Early Childhood Curricula) 

Foundation Stage teachers have always been expected to act upon the assessment criteria outlined in the FSC. Yet, the assessment regime has brought about the need to identify children with needs and who are making less progress, more clearly and that therefore changes the focus of the foundation stage of what is assessed and the way that it takes place. (Mroz, M., 2006) 

The idea of a child-centred approach was seen as an excuse for the practitioners to leave children to their own devices but that concern might have been the instigation for the change into a more content-driven curriculum. (Siraj-Blatchford,I., Reception Teacher Responses to Foundation Stage). Other practitioners stated that early years education is based on the needs of the individual child. This evident in the challenge of linking the curriculum and its demands to the value of play as a tool for learning. However, practice has shown that the teachers’ notion of playing and learning may not be factual. (Bennet et al., 1997; Keating et al., 2000)

Montessori (1972) argued that adults must foster children’s inner drive and not imposing too many restrictions in the child's environment. Similarly, Dewey (1959) believed that the teacher was not an instructor of passive learners nor a referee.The child-centered teacher is a guide and an arranger of the environment, rather than an instructor. Thus, teachers need to select materials and activities that will interest children and enable them to find out about the world. Peters (1969) explains that "the image of the teacher" presented in the Plowden Report is of a "child-grower" who stands back so children proceed  to discover when they are "ready." However, he says that teaching should not be confined to one approach. Peters says that teaching can take the form of instruction and explanation, asking leading questions,  demonstrating by example, and of correcting attempts at mastery. Moreover, there is an alternative view that adult support can improve children's concentration. For example, Vygotsky (1962) stresses the active role of the adult in maximizing children’s intellectual development. He contends that children succeed in performing tasks and solving problems when helped by an adult. Bruner (1983) describes the adult’s role as "scaffolding" a child’s learning, putting a scaffold to support the child until it can operate independently. This implies that appropriate intervention and a structured approach to teaching are components of effective preschool practices.

The introduction of the Foundation Curriculum, focused upon thinking and practice. According to Edgington (2003), successful implementation was partially hindered due to the following:

  • lack of specialist training
  • inadequate training using the curriculum guidance
  • classes still being drawn towards Key Stage 1 (Quick et. Al., 2002, adams et al., 2004)
  • lack of resources
  • primary school teams, lack of awareness of the implications of the Foundation Stage

Edgington, M., The Foundation stage Teacher in Action, teaching 3,4 and 5 year olds  

“Curricula can become “sites of struggle” between ideas about what early childhood education is for, and what are appropriate content and contexts for learning and development in early childhood.” (The Struggle for early Childhood Curricula)

A misconception regarding teachers of the foundation stage is that they are not concerned about the academic curriculum content. With the introduction of the curriculum, teachers were assessed on the experience and knowledge they equipped children with for later learning. Therefore, untrained teachers misunderstood the requirements whereas those that were trained followed their own interpretations. They had to remind themselves that children needed a curriculum applying to their needs and not being there simply to prepare them for their next stage of education.

The EPPE project was a study funded by the DfES to follow the progress of a particularly large number of pupils in pre-schools across the UK. The collective data concerned the background of children and their families as well as their pre-school centres. The outcome of this was that “pre-school institutions are having a major impact on children’s development.( Sammons et al., 2002,2003;Siraj-Blatchford et al, 2003)” It was evident that children with disadvantaged backgrounds had a better start at school so the government made provisions for pre-schooling.

An extension of the EPPE project was the REPEY studies where it supported the opposite view. The REPPEY states that “the educational performance of pre-school settings does not relate entirely to differences in philosophy or to curriculum priorities (see EPPE Technical Paper 10, Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2003) A key issue that needs to be highlighted is the fact that children’s development does not entirely depend upon adult’s interference. Not all or most of children’s time has to be occupied by adults’ interference. The EPPE research found that excellent provision and achieved outcomes outlined for children needed a certain “level of qualification of the staff working in early year settings” (Transforming the Early years, p. 21)

 “The implementation of a National Curriculum placed question marks over children’s fundamental inalienable right to access to the curriculum of their peers if they experienced difficulties in learning.” (Paige-Smith, A., Soler, J., p. 44, The Early Literacy Support Programme) According to Peter (1995) the Education Reform “marginalized pupils” with special educational needs as it contained a highly limited reference to special schools and SEN pupils.

The curriculum was seen as not always appropriate for all pupils therefore reports of behavioural problems were raised. Hence, debates came about as to the ways a centralised curriculum could satisfy the needs of early years children and to the extend it “should be driven by the need to link to the subject based, prescriptive, centralised National Curriculum.” (Didaskalou and Millward, 2002)

A poll based on  the commitment to the foundation stage generally brought about the view amongst headteachers and reception teachers that the foundation stage assessing commitment was respectively high.  In addition, the strengths of the FS can be summarised as the following; it defined the reception year and created a bridge between the nursery and KS1; encouraged flexibility and informality in teaching style and curriculum organisation; focused on child development emphasising the learning outcomes, child-centred and led activities; on practical play and outdoor activity and benefited teachers through the provision of good guidance. Nevertheless, this created problematic issues as well, namely; the timing of the foundation stage was too quickly, staffing and lack of facilities, equipment/materials were cost ineffective; shortage of classroom support staff; unclear guidance/unstructured work; children were held back for more formal learning creating a disruption by being distinct from kS1; buildings/grounds were inadequate and mixed-age classes had to use two different curricula. (Aubrey, C., Implementing the Foundation Stage, p.648).

Having reflected upon the views of academics and commentary from front line teachers.  It is evident that the Foundation Stage Curriculum is problematic in both its interpretation and adoption. The constant changes faced by practitioners have led jaded support of its principles and in turn undermines its philosophy. This negativity in certain sectors has been further compounded by teaching professionals who clearly fail to holistically agree on its effectiveness on developing and educating young children.  If real progress is to be made then government need to ensure that  educational initiatives are given sufficient lead time to take root with the schooling system. The teaching profession need to review their lines of communication and ensure that there is consensus in its adoption. Such a process needs close monitoring to adhere to the foundation stage philosophy. Practitioners also need access to timely staff development programmes to keep abreast of changes and adequate time to implement functional schemes of work. Failure to do so will no doubt add fuel to critics of the Foundation Stage Curriculum.   

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