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HomeJournal ContentsIssue Contents
Volume 4 Number 2
©The Author(s) 2002

Changing Curriculum for Early Childhood Education in England

Young-Ihm Kwon
Cambridge University


This article examines early childhood curriculum in England. Traditional early childhood education in England has been child centered, in contrast to approaches that are subject centered and teacher directed, emphasizing individual children's interests, free play, firsthand experience, and integrated learning. However, recently, the government introduced a framework for an early years curriculum, redefined the child-centered educational model, and initiated reforms for raising standards. In order to identify the nature of early childhood curriculum in England, this article examines the historical development and philosophical underpinnings of early childhood education, including recent developments. The article then investigates and describes the early childhood curriculum in England today.


This article examines early childhood curriculum in England. Historically, in England, there was little government intervention in preschool provision, in curriculum, and in curriculum implementation. Recently, in order to raise standards and improve the quality of early childhood institutions, government intervention in early years education has increased significantly. In 1996, the government introduced a framework for an early years curriculum: Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning on Entering Compulsory Education (SCAA, 1996), recently revised as Early Learning Goals (QCA, 2000). This framework is very goal oriented and specifies a large number of learning goals to be achieved by children.

With respect to the appropriateness of the early years curriculum, there is an ongoing debate between the policy makers, who emphasize school effectiveness, and the early childhood specialists, who focus on a developmentally appropriate curriculum. Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, argued that adults working with 3- and 4-year-old 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). On the other hand, 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 purpose of this article is to identify the nature of early childhood curriculum in England. First, the article examines the historical development and philosophical underpinnings of early childhood education, including recent developments. The article then investigates and describes the early childhood curriculum in England today.

Historical Development of Early Childhood Education in England

Early History of Early Childhood Education

Early childhood care and education for young children began to emerge in England in the late 18th century on a voluntary and philanthropic basis. In 1816, the first nursery school in the United Kingdom was established at New Lanark in Scotland by Robert Owen (1771-1858) for the children of cotton mill workers. Children ages 1 to 6 were cared for while their parents and older siblings worked in the cotton mills. Owen advocated free and unstructured play in the education of young children and did not press for formal training. He endeavored to create a future citizen through the process of informal teaching and physical activities. Although Owen's ideas were ahead of his time, his example stimulated a significant interest in early childhood education and the founding of a number of infant schools in Britain.

Passage of the Education Act of 1870 was an important event because the act established compulsory elementary schools for all children from the age of 5. In 1880, elementary education became compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 13. In the absence of special institutions for younger children, elementary schools admitted children younger than 5 years old, to protect them from the poor and unhealthy physical conditions of slum houses and dangerous streets. In 1905, five women inspectors from the Board of Education investigated the admission of infants to elementary schools as well as the curriculum used to instruct them. These inspectors reported the inappropriateness of such provision for these young children and recommended that children under the age of 5 have separate facilities and a different teaching approach from older children (Board of Education, 1905). The inspectors criticized the emphasis on monotonous repetition and rote memorization in the elementary school curriculum. As a consequence of this report, children under 5 were officially excluded from elementary schools.

In 1911, Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) and her sister Rachel established an open-air nursery for poor children in Deptford. McMillan's educational model was inspired by her socialist ideology (Blackstone, 1971). She was concerned for the health and well-being of working-class children, and she stressed the need for health care with proper nourishment, hygiene, exercise, and fresh air. Her nursery allowed free access to play areas and gardens and was not predicated upon a fixed time schedule. McMillan's methods, with her emphasis on fresh air, exercise, and nourishment, still influence some aspects of current English nursery practice (Curtis, 1998)

Recent History of Early Childhood Education

By the 1960s, the decline in family size and the closure of day nurseries after the Second World War had reduced the opportunities for children to play with other children. At the same time, awareness of the educational value of play may have become more widespread. It was impossible for Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to increase the number of nurseries, because the Ministry of Education Circular 8/60 stated that there could be no expansion of nursery school provision (Cleave & Jowett, 1982). During this period, the lack of LEA provision of nursery places and growing parental interest in young children's welfare and education created a new type of preschool provision: playgroups. The origin of the playgroup movement is linked to Belle Tutaev, a London mother, who in 1961 organized a nursery group for her small daughter in a church hall, sharing the tasks of child care with a neighbor. The educational authorities welcomed the playgroup movement as a low-cost substitute for nursery schools.

In 1972, Margaret Thatcher, as Secretary of State for Education, presented a White Paper on education titled "Education: A Framework for Expansion" (Department of Education and Science, 1972). The White Paper proposed that nursery education be provided for all who wanted it, saying that by 1980 there would be nursery school places for 50% of 3-year-olds and 90% of 4-year-olds. However, this promised nursery expansion was not forthcoming because of the economic recession. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, nonstatutory preschool provision was neglected and undeveloped.

Recent Development

The Rumbold Report Starting with Quality (DES, 1990) and the Royal Society of Arts Report Start Right (Ball, 1994) both stressed the importance of quality in early years education. The Rumbold report recommended a curriculum based on eight main areas of learning, following in the footsteps of a recent HMI (Her Majesty's Inspectorate) publication The Curriculum from 5 to 16 (DES, 1985): (1) aesthetic and creative, (2) human and social, (3) language and literacy, (4) mathematics, (5) physical, (6) science, (7) spiritual and moral, and (8) technology (DES, 1990). The Royal Society of Arts Report (Ball, 1994) recommended that high-quality provision be made available to all 3- and 4-year-olds, reviewing evidence that high-quality early education leads to lasting cognitive and social benefits in children. Ball set out the following major prerequisites for "high-quality" provision: an appropriate early learning curriculum; the selection, training, and continuity of staff; high staff:children ratios; buildings and equipment designed for early learning; and a partnership role for parents.

In 1996, the Conservative government introduced the first stage of a Nursery Voucher scheme linked to a set of guidelines for prestatutory settings: Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning on Entering Compulsory Education (SCAA, 1996). Since the introduction of the Voucher scheme and Desirable Outcomes, early childhood education has become an issue on the national policy agenda, and there have been significant changes in the practices and politics of early childhood education. The Voucher scheme allowed parents to use vouchers worth up to £1,100 per child for up to three terms of part-time education for their 4-year-old children, in any form of preschool provision. In order to register for the receipt of vouchers, preschool provisions had to show that they were moving children towards the Desirable Outcomes as defined by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA, 1996). The Desirable Outcomes are "learning goals" that children should achieve before they enter compulsory education. They emphasize early literacy, numeracy, and the development of personal and social skills, and they contribute to children's knowledge, understanding, and skills in other areas.

However, in 1997, the incoming Labour Government abolished the voucher scheme and made its own plans for the development of early years services. The new government tried to raise standards and significantly increased public funding of early years education. The government provided direct funding to preschool institutions for part-time places for 4-year-old children and an increasing number of part-time places for 3-year-old children. However, the receipt of this funding for 3- and 4-year-old children is dependent on each preschool provision meeting government requirements for the regular inspection of preschool settings, in terms of the framework of Desirable Outcomes, now revised as Early Learning Goals (QCA, 2000).

The Philosophical Background of Childhood Education in England

The main principles of traditional early childhood education in Britain are child centered, in contrast to the traditional subject-centered and teacher-directed approaches of secondary education (Bruce, 1987). This section examines the key underlying principles of English traditional early childhood education: individualism, free play, developmentalism, and the child-centered perspective of the adult educator.


Western child-centered education is based on individual children's needs and interests, and on educators' respect for the differences between individual children. Dewey (1959) emphasized individuality, with the curriculum chosen by the child rather than imposed by the teacher. Montessori (1972) had great respect for the child as an individual and for children's spontaneous and independent learning. She believed that the child possesses an intrinsic motivation toward the self-construction of learning. Supporting the view that children are innately curious and display exploratory behavior quite independent of adult intervention, the Plowden Report (CACE, 1967, p. 17) says, "The child appears to have a strong drive, which shows itself at a very early age, toward activity and the exploration of the environment.... As far as can be judged, this behaviour is autonomous since it occurs when there is no obvious motivation such as hunger."

The intrinsic motivation theory of child-centered education relates to the learning by doing theory. In English preschool classrooms, learning by being active and interactive, by exploring the environment, has gained universal status (Curtis, 1998). Dewey advocated that children learn best by exploring and manipulating their environment. Isaacs (1933) also emphasized the importance of learning by doing. She wrote that play is not the only means by which children come to discover the world; the whole of their spontaneous activity creates their psychic equilibrium in the early years. This learning by doing theory has been accepted implicitly by English preschool teachers, together with the need to provide a free and spontaneous environment and the rejection of formal instruction.

The child-centered view of the child's intrinsic motivation for learning has been widely criticized. The child-centered view is that children are innately curious and keen to find things out, with a strong drive to explore the environment. This theory suggests that children learn more effectively if their activities are self-chosen and self-directed. However, many educators have warned of the dangers of an exclusive and unrealistic emphasis upon the child. Galton (1987) criticized child-centered theory as a "romantic" view of childhood requiring a curriculum totally dictated by the child's interests. Kogan (1987) questions whether children have a natural intellectual curiosity and whether they are really motivated to learn and are keen on discovery. He says that many children in the classroom do not display eagerness to learn and are not able to achieve enough by learning through discovery. Blenkin and Kelly (1987) also criticize learning by discovery, claiming that discovery is not possible unless one knows what one is discovering. They recommend that "the only sensible concept of learning by discovery is one which recognizes the essential contribution of the guidance that the teacher can and should provide" (p. 58).

Free Play

In the English preschool, 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 English 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, to imagine and formulate" (p. 193).

Traditional English 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-centered 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. According to 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 English preschools, the rigid, subject-divided curriculum is rejected; instead, free play is regarded as the integrating mechanism that brings together everything learned (Bruce, 1987).

Although free play has many benefits and is a necessary part of preschool classrooms, the early years program that prioritizes free play has several crucial weaknesses. First, 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, which tended to involve simple repetitive activities. Meadows and Cashdan (1988) also investigated children's behavior during free play sessions and reported that the nursery teachers in their study were busy and 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. Meadow and Cashdan 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.


Sequential developmentalism is one of the most influential beliefs in English early years education. The term refers to the way in which the child passes through a naturally ordered sequence of development towards logical and formal thinking (Curtis, 1998). Piaget's clinical and observational studies developed the idea of readiness and explored the process by which children advance through the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years) and preconceptual stages (2-7 years) in order to progress to logical and abstract thinking. According to this version of developmentalism, a child must be "ready" to move on to the next developmental stage and cannot be forced to move to a higher level of cognitive functioning.

Although developmentalism and readiness are widely reported to be dominant in English early childhood education, several critiques have been articulated about the readiness concept in developmentalism. For instance, Donaldson (1978) challenges Piaget's views of egocentric thinking through a number of fascinating and ingenious experiments and argues that the rational powers of young children have long been underestimated. The idea of "readiness" has often led to a lack of structure in the curriculum and to a lack of progression. In developmental theory, consideration of the nature of knowledge seems to be ignored. According to Bruner (1974), knowledge of child development is necessary but is not sufficient, and early years practice also needs a firm and sufficient knowledge base. He argues that to avoid trivializing education, we need to integrate knowledge about teaching (pedagogical knowledge) with both knowledge about children's development and knowledge about knowledge itself.

The Role of the Adult

The traditional view of the English nursery teacher's role is that he or she is not an expert or authority, but an adviser and facilitator (Curtis, 1998; Darling, 1994). The legacy of not intervening in the child's discovery that comes from Froebel, Montessori, and Dewey remains as a strong force within the ideologies of early childhood educators in England. Montessori (1972) argued that adults must foster children's inner drive, not impair it by imposing too many restrictions and obstacles in the child's environment. Similarly, Dewey (1959) believed that the teacher was not an instructor of passive learners nor a referee in a competition.The child-centered teacher is a guide and an arranger of the environment, rather than an instructor. Thus, teachers are supposed to select materials and activities that will interest children and enable them to find out about the surrounding world. Peters (1969) explains that "the image of the teacher" presented in the Plowden Report is of a "child-grower" who stands back so that children will proceed from discovery to discovery when they are "ready." However, he says that teaching should not be confined to one approach or method. Peters says that teaching can take the form of instruction and explanation, of asking leading questions, of demonstrating by example, and of correcting attempts at mastery. Moreover, there is an alternative view that adult support can improve children's concentration and attention span. 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) also believes that an adult presence increases the richness and length of play. Bruner describes the adult's role as "scaffolding" a child's learning, putting a scaffold around the child's learning to support the child until the child can operate independently at that level. The above discussion suggests that appropriate intervention and a structured approach to teaching are components of effective preschool practices.

Current Early Childhood Curriculum in England

In 1988, the Education Reform Act for the first time set out a National Curriculum for England and Wales. It presented a comprehensive restructuring of the educational system in England. The most important justifications for the National Curriculum are raising standards in schools and offering a broad and balanced curriculum (Moon, 1994). Before the 1988 Education Reform Act, the education system was decentralized, with little government intervention in curriculum planning and implementation. However, since the introduction of the National Curriculum, government intervention has increased and teachers' autonomy has consequently decreased (Cox, 1996). From its introduction, the subject-based approach of the National Curriculum has been seen as an attack on traditional child-centered preschool education. Although the National Curriculum applies only to students of compulsory school age, its introduction has inevitably had an effect upon programs for children under statutory school age (Blenkin & Kelly, 1994; Moss & Penn, 1996).

Desirable Outcomes and Early Learning Goals

A further significant change in English early childhood education was the introduction of the framework for early years education represented by the Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning (SCAA, 1996). At that time, raising standards and improving quality in early childhood institutions were public priorities in policy making. The explicit expectation of this SCAA publication was that preschool education programs would enable children to reach the desirable outcomes by compulsory school age (the term after the child's 4th birthday). In 1999, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA, 1999) replaced the Desirable Outcomes with Early Learning Goals. However, as Table 1 shows, the Early Learning Goals (QCA, 1999) do not differ very much from the Desirable Learning Outcomes and retain the same six areas of learning. The significant change, in terms of curriculum, is that the Early Learning Goals represent what most children are expected to achieve "by the end of the foundation stage (from 3 to the end of the reception year)" instead of "on reaching compulsory school age." The government introduced a Foundation Stage of early learning, which is a new stage of education for children age 3 to the end of their reception year when they will be 5, rising 6. The result is that the previous curriculum intended for 3- and 4-year-olds extends to include 5-year-olds.

Table 1
Learning Areas of Desirable Outcomes and Early Learning Goals*

Desirable Outcomes (1996) Early Learning Goals (1999)
Age For 3- to 4-year-olds Foundation Stage: From 3 to the end of reception year (5- to 6-year-olds)

Learning area

1. Personal and social development

2. Language and literacy

3. Mathematics

4. Knowledge and understanding of the world

5. Physical development

6. Creative development

1. Personal, social, and emotional development

2. Communication, language, and literacy

3. Mathematical development

4. Knowledge and understanding of the world

5. Physical development

6. Creative development

*Source: SCAA (1996) and QCA (1999).

In 2000, Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage was published by the Department for Education and Employment and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA, 2000). The curriculum guidance is intended "to help practitioners plan to meet the diverse needs of all children so that most will achieve and some, where appropriate, will go beyond the early learning goals by the end of the foundation stage" (p. 5). It is notable that although the curriculum guidance claims to describe integrated learning, it also emphasizes literacy and numeracy as distinct curriculum areas. The curriculum guidance sets out the content of each area in three parts: (1) "Stepping Stones," (2) "Examples of What Children Do," and (3) "What Does the Practitioner Need to Do?" The text of the "Stepping Stones" sets out the early learning goals for each area of learning. The examples of "What Children Do" illustrate how children of different ages are progressing. The section "What Does the Practitioner Need to Do?" shows how the practitioner can structure and provide appropriate activities. Table 2 shows one brief extract from the literacy area of the curriculum guidance of the foundation stage.

Table 2
Example of Stepping Stones of Literacy Area in the Curriculum Guidance*

Stepping Stones

Progression from age 3


To the end of foundation stage
(5- to 6-year-olds)

  • Show interest in illustrations and print in books and print in the environment.
  • Understand the concept of a word.
  • Begin to recognize some familiar words.
  • Read a range of familiar and common words and simple sentences independently.
*Source: QCA (2000, pp. 62-63).


As part of the recent developments in early childhood education, the government introduced inspection of preschool settings by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). OFSTED is a nonministerial governmental department, independent of the Department of Education and Skills, responsible for inspecting all schools and early years provision receiving government funding in England. The aim of the OFSTED's inspection process is to assure government, parents, and the public that funded nursery education is of acceptable quality (OFSTED, 2001). Every type of preschool setting that wishes to accept government funding is required to undergo an inspection by OFSTED. This inspection assesses the extent to which the preschool settings are working towards the Early Learning Goals. For example, 4-year-old children are assessed on whether they are learning to count up to 10 or 20 and whether they are learning to write their own names and recognize letters by shape and sound.The inspectors use a variety of ways to arrive at their judgments, including observation of activities, examination of resources, review of documentary evidence, and discussion with the staff and children. At the end of the inspection period, the lead inspector presents oral feedback on the inspection, and within four weeks, the preschool receives the inspection report. It is significant that the inspection report is a public document and available on the Internet. If the preschool setting does not meet the inspection requirements, funding may be withdrawn. Thus, early years educators feel great pressure to promote particular and prespecified learning outcomes, many of which focus on literacy and numeracy. With the English government demands for raising standards, preschool educators are required to conform to OFSTED inspection criteria. Smidt (2002) also argued that due to the government policy to raise quality and standards, children are asked to learn things by rote, colour in worksheets, and generally be passive in many learning situations. The introduction of curriculum guidance for the foundation stage, combined with the statutory inspection process, appears to have had a strong influence on preschool education in England. Although there is an ongoing debate about their appropriateness, the Early Learning Goals have been widely established as the basis for activity in preschool settings.


This article has examined the changing curriculum for early childhood education in England. The article has shown that traditional early childhood education in England has been child centered in contrast to approaches that are subject centered and teacher directed. Traditional early childhood education has emphasized individual children's interests, free play, firsthand experience, and integrated learning. However, in 1996, the government introduced a framework for an early years curriculum, redefined the child-centered educational model, and initiated reforms for raising standards. The national preschool curriculum framework (Early Learning Goals) emphasizes not only integrated learning but also literacy and numeracy. The framework also specifies particular achievements to be expected of 4- and 5-year-olds. Despite the pros and cons of the appropriateness of the framework, more formal instruction in literacy and numeracy teaching is being directly and indirectly imposed upon young children. Government initiatives and inspection have started to change the traditional nature of English preschool settings.


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Author Information

Young-Ihm Kwon completed the Ph.D. program in early childhood education at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education. Previously, she was a professor and director of Early Childhood Education at Kyoung-In Women's College in Korea. Her research interests are in the areas of comparative preschool education, early years teacher education, preschool educational policy, and early childhood curriculum.

Young-Ihm Kwon
Faculty of Education
University of Cambridge
7C Grosvenor Hill
London, SW19 4RU
Telephone: 020-8946-8821
Email: youngihm@hotmail.com