Last reviewed 6 January 2012

December, usually a quiet time in the news, brought much-awaited government plans for a reformed Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) which aims to significantly reduce the burdens of bureaucracy. The Government also has ambitious plans to drive up the standards of reading in young children, believing this is essential to improving progress later on. Child poverty and strangely, at the same time, child obesity, also feature in the news. Is something wrong somewhere? Susan Roddy has the details.

Early years to be reformed?

Just before the Christmas break, and in response to the consultation on the EYFS, the Government confirmed plans, for a reformed Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) from September 2012, which hopes to reduce bureaucracy for professionals, provide earlier intervention for children facing difficulties and better prepare young children for learning in school.

People working in early years, teachers, parents, and other professionals appear to be supportive of these proposals which slim down the early years foundation stage, focus on children’s healthy development and make sure they are ready to learn when they enter year 1.

Items that top the list of changes revealed in the consultation feedback include a progress check at age two, ensuring children are not falling behind before they even reach school and the use of play to teache children how to read and write and use numbers.

Additional guidance and information will be made available to increase confidence in the delivery of the new EYFS, together with a summary of the EYFS for parents so they know what their child will be learning and what they should expect from their child’s early years setting.

A third of children reach expected reading levels — not good enough

Despite the hard work of teachers, the Government believes that not enough of our children are able to read to a high enough standard, and plans considered “unashamedly ambitious” are afoot in its bid to drive up the standard of children’s reading.

Although 80% of children routinely meet expected reading levels at age 7 and 11, the Government believes it is time to focus on driving up the performances of the 1 in 5 children who fail to reach the expected level and on getting more children to exceed expectations.

Synthetic phonics, taught systematically, is seen to be the proven method to improve reading standards for all children, including the weakest readers, and ensure they reach their potential.

A couple of significant statistics support this claim, such as: more than 80,000 7-year-olds can read no better than a 5-year-old; 10% of 11-year-old boys can read no better than a 7-year-old, and, according to the PISA study, England is rated 25th in the world for reading, down from 7th, 9 years ago.

Following a positive independent evaluation in September 2011, the phonics check will be rolled out nationally in the summer. It is hoped this will help provide teachers with vital information to identify pupils needing extra help with reading. Schools’ individual results will not be published.

Children and calculators

The use of calculators in primary schools is to be considered as part of the National Curriculum Review.

Apparently, too many children have come to rely on calculators and their mental and written arithmetic is suffering as a result. The Government believes that calculators should only be introduced once pupils have a thorough grounding in basic maths, including knowing times tables by heart.

Looking at evidence from around the world, the best-performing education systems use calculators only in the equivalent of upper primary schools.

It is believed that children become too dependent on calculators if they use them at too young an age, and that they should not be reaching for a gadget every time they need to do a simple sum.

The Government suggests children need to master addition, subtraction, times tables and division, using quick, reliable written methods, believing this provides the groundwork for the more difficult maths they will come across later in their education.

The use of calculators in primary schools must be appropriate.

Affordable childcare could end child poverty

It has been reported that more government investment in early years services, such as spending more on early years services for families, rather than on benefits, will help fight child poverty

It is suggested that high-quality childcare and early years services could be the “foundation stone of a new approach to child poverty”, and this is supported by research showing that child poverty is lowest and social mobility highest in countries where parents have high-quality, affordable childcare.

Compared to other countries, the UK “significantly under-invests in childcare”, spending on average 0.5% of GDP on childcare costs, as opposed to 2% in Sweden and Denmark.

It surely makes sense to tackle poor education, child poverty and less- fortunate families by offering the same opportunities to all children, whatever their background?

There are currently 2.6 million children in low-income poverty in our country, nearly 1 in 5 of all children. A shocking 1.4 million of those children are living in absolute poverty.

Fewer allergies for calm babies

According to new research, babies who experience low levels of stress are less likely to develop allergies as toddlers.

The study of 300 children focused on families with an “anthroposophic” attitude to life, that is, those that opt for a natural way of life, without vaccinations and restricted use medicines, and a “non-anthroposophic lifestyle”.

Samples of the stress hormone cortisol were taken from the saliva of the parents and children to measure the level of stress in babies at six months.

Babies with low concentrations of cortisol in their saliva developed fewer allergies than children with high levels of the stress hormone during their first two years of life.

Most commonly, it was the babies from “anthroposophic” families that had lower levels of cortisol and were therefore less likely to develop allergies.

Reportedly, the incidence of allergies in children has increased over the past few decades, especially in the West, caused by a combination of environmental and lifestyle factors during pregnancy and early childhood, all thought to be responsible for the sharp rise in allergic diseases, up until now.

Obesity risk doubles

Overweight or obese children are in the news again. This time statistics reveal a drop in the number of overweight reception class children but an increase of more than double and rising, by the time they reach year 6 at primary school.

According to the statistics, boys are more likely to be obese than girls and children from Asian backgrounds were also more likely to be obese than any other ethnic group.

As always, there is a strong relationship between deprivation and obesity, with the risk of becoming obese almost doubling for reception class children attending schools in deprived areas. Living in urban areas rather than rural areas also increases the risk.

However, it is encouraging to see a small drop in obesity among children going into reception which demonstrates the importance and success of early intervention. Movement is in the right direction and nurseries must take some of the credit.

Tot It Up — new resource guides children's diets

The Infant and Toddler Forum's has introduced a new Tot it Up food calculator which will help nurseries with meal planning to ensure they are meeting children's nutritional needs.

The Tot It Up calculator developed by the Infant and Toddler Forum, works by comparing the amount and type of food toddlers consume in a day against an “ideal diet” for a child of their age. It is a free online resource which hopes to enable practitioners and parents to assess and monitor toddlers’ nutritional intake and indentify where improvements can be made with their diet.

The resource works by entering everything a toddler eats and drinks during one day or over the course of seven days, as well as how much physical activity they have done. The calculator analyses the information and provides a breakdown of the child’s daily intake under the different food groups, taking into consideration what drinks a child has consumed and how much exercise they have done. The calculator then provides useful information and tips towards a balanced diet.

Given the previous news item, this calculator can only help maintain and improve the current drop in obesity in young children, in the hope of it gradually continuing throughout childhood into adult?