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This paper is going to discuss the early years policy within education today. It acknowledges the new government that has come in place believe the Foundation Stage framework is no longer the statutory requirement to be used in schools today (DfE, 2010). However, some of the key debates in the policy and the dilemma practitioners have faced. The rationale for to examine the early years policy relates to the aim of the policy. Throughout the years there have been many changes within the early years policy although there are still some aspects which remain the same. Boyle and Bragg (2006) argue that many aspects of old policies such as a 'target driven curricular model' remain present today although some of them are 'grotesquely inappropriate' today (Moss, 2003). Palaiologou (2010) research suggested the need for raising further policy and curriculum development within early years. However, changes in early years provision began as a way to reduce poverty and to help children to have better prospects in life. The conservative government aimed to provide a better start in life for deprived children, using education as a tool. The government gave education as a way of helping children break the 'cycle of deprivation' (Baldock et al., 2009). However, Cohen et al. (2004) found there was a split responsibility between welfare and education in early years services. Therefore, it can be criticised that there would a big different between the quality of provision. As a result, this split effected funding, the structure of provision and different levels of workforce (Cohen et al. 2004). Then Labours (1997) slogan of 'Education, Education, Education' brought upon the foundation stage framework. There will be discussions on past early years policies as well as the rationale for adopting the foundation stage framework and it affects on education.
Later there will be a critical integration of the policy, which may conflict with other policies. Play-based learning is an issue this paper wishes to analyse. A fundamental establishment of the foundation stage refers to the importance of play-based learning. There contrasting views related to this part of the policy who believe play based learning to be' absurd' (Hofkins, 2008). There will also be a critical discussion related to some key contractions the policy presents. There are questions raised based on some of the key themes and principles. For example, a key aim of the foundation stage is setting the standards for all children can be criticised as an issue related to the standards agenda (Alexander, 2010). The aims to make sure all children are making progress so improve attainment. There is further discussion of other ambiguous aspects of the policy. There will also be discussions related to international perspectives of early years policy compared to the foundation stage. For example, the Reggio Emilia approach take a socio cultural perspective on education (Bennet, 2001), which take a more child-centred approach to learning (Soler and Miller, 2003). Therefore, this paper aims to discover the true value and effects of the foundation stage has on all children. However, the following section will first examine the rationale for the policy.
Changing times: Early years
The government was determined to implement changes. The socio-constructive approach to learning has helped government draws attention to understand how pupils engage within the curriculum setting. Solar and Miller state: 'this gave increase concerns with how children interact within the setting and how children speak and interact with other pupils, artefacts, and the teacher' (2003:59). The foundations for early years should be on understanding the intellectual, emotional, social, and physical needs of children (Woodhead, 2000). Research has shown the positive effects of 'high quality provision' on children's development in all areas mention above (Sammons et al., 2002, Sylva et al., 2004) and also make prepare them for formal schooling. However, local authorities believed they could not apply these in practice. Hargreaves and Hopper (2006) support this claim and believe it gave a 'low status' perception of early years teachers (p.1). However, children bring their experiences into their setting and the early learning goals account for this variety. This implies that measures of pupil learning through testing will not expose the quality of experiences children have in the early years. However, it can be criticised that the government have made assumptions about where the levels begin and end for all children. It is concurred by Miller et al (2003) that argue the government assume it is clear what exact skills and knowledge can be learnt in the setting. Those people who do not work with children's experiences alongside the process of teacher have framed the guidance for early years. These policy makers are more concerned about what education is for rather than what the experience of education might involve (Miller et al., 2003). The makers of the foundation stage have attempted to look at the holistic children through Every Child Matters (ECM) (Palaiologou, 2010). However, they lack the understanding of the importance of children's experiences due to their own lack of experience in the classroom (Maybin and Woodhead, 2003). This suggests practitioners as well as education philosophers should create the formulation of the education policy. Instead, practitioners with high quality experience would be better forming policies because they are able to understand that learning should be based on pupil experiences, background, and needs (Solar, 2003).
According to these policy makers attainment and achieving good academic outcomes seems to be the fundamental importance of education. In the foundation stage, the early learning goals help children to attain a clear set of outcomes (DfES, 2008). It is argued that the goals provide a shelters base for good achievement. Staggs (2000) believes these goals give children an excellent start to future learning and prepare the children with the ideal 'knowledge, skills, and understandings' (Solar and Miller, 2003, p. 5) which will be needed for better employment as they grow into adulthood. However, in contrast, opposing believers view this perception as an exclusive environment because the early learning goals aim to focus on the importance of economic wellbeing rather than children's learning experience (Kelly, 1994). Anning and Edwards (1999) also strongly criticise this approach to be about the wellbeing of the economy and competitiveness. Therefore, it can be argued that it is not an inclusive curriculum because it fails to acknowledge that not all children will be capable of employment. For example, some children with severe special educational need (SEN) will not be capable of employment; therefore, the policy fails to cater for the needs of all children (Staggs, 2000). It maintains the notion to push the children who are able to be successful and reach attainment targets rather than focus on the importance of children as individuals (Potter, 2007). To conclude, this section of the paper has acknowledged the fundamental aim for the policy is to drive economic wellbeing. Despite the notion of the holistic child, the aim for the government is to drive these children to achieve the best possible outcomes. It suggests the policy tends to contradict itself because it fails to acknowledge children with SEN. Therefore, it is questionable to ask is there a significant difference in the foundation stage compared to previous policies. Therefore, the following section of this paper will examine the quality of provision to previous years. In addition, examine the different interpretation of a high quality provision within the policy.
High quality provision
The foundation stage emphasise the importance of high quality provision, which can improve cognitive, language and social development (DfES, 2008). Labour (1997) felt the foundation stage would help disadvantaged children through high quality provision. It would allow giving these children a good start in education and possibly eliminating the 'cycle of deprivation' (Baldock et al., 2009). However, before examining the effects of high quality provision the word 'quality' needs to crucially integrated. High quality provision related to many aspects. The importance of practitioner's level of qualification and pedagogical skills is the fundamental part of high quality provision. Sylva and Pugh (2005) strongly agree that teachers and staff that are well qualified can make the provision more valuable for children. Practitioners are able to understand the importance of a classroom setting that will cater for all children's needs, through print rich environment (DfES, 2008). However, it is questionable how Ofsted would believe high quality provision to be outstanding. Practitioners have to follow the interpretation of high quality provision according to Ofsted which is government based, despite having contrasting view. Only a few developments of intervention have shown improvements in cognitive development. Research has revealed that children social skills (National Audit Office, 2004). It suggest that children and improved in the quality of learning and less expectations of children going through intervention programmes. Again, it is debateable that the importance of high quality provision to remove children from failing in schools and improve their development for better preparation for the adult world of economic wellbeing (Sammons et al., 2002). Although research has pointed out that high quality of provision has increased success in employment (National Audit Office, 2004). Phillips et al. (2001) found that higher quality provision led to children higher level of peer play and higher levels of self-awareness and competence. There is evidence to suggest that there are benefits of high quality pre-school educational provision to a range of different outcomes (Sylva et al., 2003a, 2003b). Melhuish (2004) states that high quality childcare can produce benefits for cognitive, language and social development. Again, this paper has discovered the reasoning behind high quality of provision is again related back to the importance of good attainment and progress for the benefit of economic wellbeing. It is beginning to become clear that the aim of the foundation stage is not focusing on the importance of children but to prepare them for the future of succeeding. The following section will critically integrate some mojor key aspects within the policy.
This paper will explore play based learning and its importance in young children's learning. Play performs an important function in young children's lives and enables them to experiment in a safe environment (Broadhead, 2004). It allows children to explore and develop their knowledge, understanding, and skills. Learning through child-initiated activities is central to any early years setting. Structured and unstructured play sessions develop social and physical skills and careful mediated intervention, children's nature curiosity can be enhanced and their understanding of their world challenged (DfE 2008; Harrison and Howard, 2009; Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2004). Play has held a major role in early childhood development. The benefit of play based learning has stimulate and interest children into learning (Russell, 2010). Symbolic actions and representations are believed to be the ways in which children learn to make sense of their surroundings and their thoughts. Vygotsky states that 'children solve practical tasks with the help of their speech as well as their eyes and hands'. Claxton (2008) goes on to say that, play-based learning instils a desire to learn and leads to greater achievement throughout life. He supports this with evidence from European experiences allowing for play-based learning up to age seven, beyond the age that most UK schools encourage it.
However, there have been many critics of the notion of play-based learning as House (2008) states that 'to teach children through play' succinctly sums up all that's wrong with it'. This suggests that education is about developing children's learning through didactic approaches. Critics believe that the idea of play-based learning allows children to wonder aimlessly as practitioners look after them. House (2010) goes on to say that this idea of play-based learning is 'absurd'. It is believed to represents an inappropriate idea of a school ideology for children (Hofkins 2008). The BERA-SIG review (2003) also raised a number of difficulties with play as a way of learning. It may suggest that the foundation stage will not be taken seriously as a part of education children but rather looking after children until they are ready for formal learning. Sutton-Smith (1997) argues that play is progressive and can help develop children's. However also he also believes that it is not the only way of learning of learning. This paper acknowledges contrasting views of play based learning but believes that subtle tasks and activities can help to provide children with rich learning experience prior to that they have been embedded properly by practitioners (Bennett et al., 1997). The following sub-section will look at some of the key contradiction in the policy.
A unique child?
The foundation stage is intended to play a key role in helping children achieve the five outcomes enshrined within the overarching ECM framework (DfES, 2004). However, it is argued to bump with the national curriculum (Cambridge review 2009). As mention earlier, the foundation stage aims to look at the holistic children. In contrast, the nation curriculum is based on more subjects based learning. Therefore, the contrasting policies make it difficult for practitioners. Policy makers need to take into consideration the difference in policy. Critics can question the reason for contrasting policies. It can be suggested that there should be one policy for all children in primary. This paper believes there should be one policy that practitioners should follow because the foundation stage does not consider those children who may be exceeded and also the national curriculum does not comprehend those children who are achieving believe the national expectations. This can be difficult for practitioner who have not received efficient amount of training in within that policy.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) comments on the lack of sufficient child development within the EYFS document:
The document should aim to extend and enrich practitioners' knowledge and understanding of this, through explicit and detailed guidance within the document itself and also by signposting practitioners to where more information could be found, to provide the evidence-base and the underpinning principles for the EYFS's design. (NUT, 2006, p. 7).
Others have expressed concern at the continuation of an overly prescriptive approach to what is to be offered to young children. The lack of detailed guidance in the foundation stage makes it difficult for practitioners to understand what they need to do Locke et al. (2002) especially in language and communication. As most disadvantaged children enter the foundation stage with low levels of language. Therefore, the foundation stage is not able to help practitioner to overcome these barriers even thought the aim of the policy is to help remove children from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds. It does not tell the practitioner how to achieve this. This paper believes there are some contradictions within the policy as it let the practitioner the aim but fails to help to achieve the aim sufficiently. It can also be argued to be a exclusive curriculum despite attempting to be inclusive to those children. The following subjection will looking at the recommendation make by Alexander (2010) in relation the foundation stage.
Alexander (2010) argues the foundation stage period needs to re-considered. Currently the foundation stage is till the age of 5 years. However, Alexander argues that children should stay within the foundation stage till the age of 6. An example of this type of policy is in Reggio Emilia schools where children start formal schooling at the age of 6 years (Miller et al. 2005). Research has shown that the longer age in play-based setting has had a better impact on children's development Carr and May, 2000). As the children are able to move away from the type of learning to formalised teaching when they enter formal lessons they are able to grasp the concept much easier and better. Extending it to age six so it will give children the best possible foundation for oracy, literacy, numeracy (Cambridge Review, 2010). Therefore, this recommendation is important to consider because there is research supporting the idea. Transition is a challenge in all schools (Sylva and Pugh, 2005). Therefore, if this recommendation is taken to consideration then it could help to ease the pressure of transitions and allow children to ease their way into formal learning. This suggest that it will help the children to achieve better once they are in that formal setting as they will be older and aware of what is expected from them. Tickell (2010) will report the idea of extending the foundation stage for disadvantaged two-year olds. Again, this suggests that it is all about tackling those disadvantaged children in society. This way those children can achieve better outcomes for themselves and prevent them from underachievement because they are not able to get the support needed.
However, issues with policy and the media have also effected the perception of extending the foundation stage. As the media are able to manipulate report to cater for their needs and then affect the thoughts of viewer's perception of education. For example, the Cambridge review (2009) mentions the proposal of extending the foundation stage down to age two and up to age six. However, the media have portrayed this as the government of wanting to keep children away from education until age six. Therefore, is it questionable that the media are trying to show the foundation stage as a way of children being looked after rather than a way of children learning before formal learning. It is debatable that the media have a negative misleading perception of the foundation stage and suggesting portraying to families that the government are removing children from education. However, they fail to understand the contrasting view that the foundation stage will help those disadvantaged children from a young age and help to prepare all children from the transition to formal learning. This paper believes that the extension the foundation stage should be considered as seen in observed practice, children have found it difficult to move from a free low way of learning to an hour of literacy and mathematics. Therefore, an extension will allow the practitioner help children to experience longer formal learning in that extension period. The final section of this paper will discuss some international perceptive on early years education and compare it to the foundation stage in England.
Carr (2000) argues that the early childhood curriculum can be conceived of as a cultural site involving the construction of social reality, which leads to the construction of communicative interactions between teachers and students (Smith, 1999, p. 6). This framework have been based on socio-constructivist theories. The Reggio Emilia approach does not use a policy framewotk. Instead it uses a children centred approach to learning. This context enables the Reggio Emilia approach look at the sociocultural views of children rather than the importance of effective pegeagody and pressures from a rigid curriculum. The children are seen to facilitate their own learning and who are able to learn effectively they way they wish to. However, there is tension towards this approach as there is too much emphasis given to the socio-constructivist framework of learning. As opposing theorists argue that children learn in set ways and adults need to provide children with enabling environments rather than placing children to learn what they feel. However, the notion of the 'spider web' in the Te Whariki curriculum is the key to understanding the linking of a child-centred learning which underpins this curriculum (Carr and May, 2000).
Early years educators should accept the idea that learning is related to children's experience. As mention earlier children use their experiences to develop further and remember what they have learnt previously. This implies that children learning through testing are not able to gain and achieve positive experience that will help them in their learning. Therefore, the importance for high quality provision and exciting and hand on environments allows children to gain more memorable experience that they are able to take away with them to use in the future. However, Bertram and Pascal (2002) believe there are issues in early years provision in Hong Kong. They argue that there is an increase between the increase development western way of learning and the traditional way of learning. It is believed that teachers are 'transmitters' so that children focus on a more didactiv way of learning rather than focusing on the child-centred approach (Pascal, 2002). In contrast, there are some schools which are beginning to take the socio constructive way of learning to consideration in their schools. Kwon (2003) critics the early years provision in Hang Kong to practice in England. He argues that the importance of independence in early learning reflects the English values children to individual rights and freedom to do what they feel is appropriate to them. However, the political way in Hang Kong differs to the politics in England; therefore, there is bound to be tension between the contrasting ways of learning. However, despite the contrasting views within these countries, they all suggest a holistic view of learning.
The EPPE project (2003) suggested that effective practice needed not only pedagogical understanding of early years learning but also an appropriate environment of provision. Bowman et al (2000) argues the contractions of the policy and debating the nation that the aim of the policy towards economic factors, play based learning or adult-child relationships fails to acknowledge the importance of the role of the practitioner. Through the practitioners, involved children are able to gain high quality experiences. In addition, although there are critics against the policy, it is important to remember that it attempts to contribute to the holistic approach of children and not just the subject based learning.
Policy, social and economic perspectives are the key factors that can affect the expectations of early years education. AS this paper has realized many aspects of the policy is to aim to add to future economic matters and economic burdens. Most importantly the aim of the foundation stage is to prepare children for formal school and prevent future attainment failure (Heckman & Masterov, 2004; National Audit Office, 2004). Therefore, this paper has discovered the aim of the foundation stage is to remove children from that 'cycle of deprivation' and help disadvantaged children (Ball and Vincent, 2005, Sylva, 2000). The argument is that the purpose of foundation stage is to prepare children for another stage of education (Moss and Petrie, 2002; Bertram and Pascal, 2002). Therefore, this paper feels it still fails to cater for all children as not all children will move away from the foundation stage. As there is such a strong perception that the foundation stage is to prepare, it fails to acknowledge children with SEN that have nothing to prepare for. Children with SEN, may not be able to achievement the academic success as most children. Therefore, it is arguable the foundation stage is exclusive to children with severe SEN and is catering for a norm society to improve the economy. It seems that the whole purpose of the policy is to benefit the economy and train children and produce ideal people who will fit into a society to be successful. However, with the current recession in society even the most academic and profoundly successful adults are at risk from losing their jobs. It is difficult to understand that the foundation stage will prevent economic destruction taking place.