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Britons see Big Brother in plan for tots
Regimen starts at birth, aims to create 'competent learners'

Cox News Service/SHELLEY EMLING | November 21 2005

London — Can your baby or toddler distinguish patterns? Surely he or she can make comparisons, right? Or perhaps your youngster is mostly good at just making a mess.

If the latter is the case, then you might have something to worry about if you live in Britain.

Under a new government proposal, British children will start training for school almost as soon as they leave the womb.

Indeed, the initiative would require every nursery and every caregiver, beginning in 2008, to teach newborn babies and toddlers an "Early Years Foundation Stage" curriculum.

National inspectors would be required to verify that children are developing in four distinct curriculum headings.

The proposal marks the first time the government has prescribed what children should learn from birth to age 3.

Margaret Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, called the proposal "absolute madness" and accused the government of trying to turn babies into children and children into adults.

"The government is trying to take childhood away from babies and toddlers straight out of the maternity ward," she said.

But the government says its aim is to help youngsters develop faster, both socially and intellectually.

Most children in Britain already start full-time school — in so-called "reception" classes — at age 4.

In general, the proposal would require babies and toddlers to become "competent learners," which means they would be able to accomplish a variety of tasks such as comparing, categorizing and recognizing certain symbols and marks.

They also would need to be able to classify items and to do imitations, while also being able to play imaginatively by using all their senses. The government has not addressed what penalties, if any, would apply to nurseries or caregivers if a child did not meet these standards — or if the child would be held back.

The proposal also would make it compulsory for all 3-year-olds to be taught rudimentary mathematics, language and literacy.

Beverley Hughes, the minister for children and families, insists the legislation is not about teaching tots math and English but about learning through play.

"This provides a coherent framework that defines progression for young children," she said.

Even so, the controversial initiative — outlined in the government's Childcare Bill published earlier this month — has garnered little but condemnation from parents and some education experts.

"This is the biggest piece of British bureaucracy and state control that I have come across, apart from the ID card, which the government says will control terrorism," said Carol Margetts, a physical education teacher and mother of two young children.

"The government thinks that in order for everyone to achieve, they must all follow the same prescriptive curriculum," she said. "But each child is different, and they develop at different times and are all individuals."

The British press also blasted the idea as "the final piece in Big Brother's jigsaw" to keep tabs on the public from the maternity ward to the morgue.

Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education at the free-market think tank Civitas, said the proposal would restrict not only young children but also the people who look after them.

"My feeling is that stipulated government outcomes tend to mean that some sort of testing would be inevitable," she said. "And it is ludicrous to think we would be testing 0- to 3-year-olds."

But in a positive note for the government initiative, a major child care group has applauded the plan.

"We are delighted a new quality framework will be established that integrates care and learning for young children," said Gill Haynes, chief executive of the National Childminding Association for England and Wales.

"This will further support parents in helping their young children to be ready for school."


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