Children off to a bright start

STEVE DOWNES Four-year-olds in Norfolk are among the brightest, fittest and most emotionally developed children of their age in the country, it was revealed last night.

STEVE DOWNES

Four-year-olds in Norfolk are among the brightest, fittest and most emotionally developed children of their age in the country, it was revealed last night.

Their mastery of the “three Rs” is well ahead of the national average, while they are also leading the way in their understanding of the world and their creativity.

The exceptional findings are revealed by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in its annual look at the results of assessments of children in their first year at primary schools.

If the youngest children maintain their progress through primary school, they offer real hope for the future in Norfolk, where recent results in English, maths and science tests for 11-year-olds have been well below the national average.

The findings are also a ringing endorsement of the quality of Norfolk's pre-school nurseries and playgroups, which appear to be giving the county's children a flying start before they reach school.

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Marcelle Curtis, head of early year childcare and extended schools services at Norfolk County Council, said: “A good start in the early years creates better prospects for children, their families and society as a whole, and reduces the risk of needing intervention later in life.

“Personal, social and emotional development is key in the early years and is an excellent grounding for all of the other areas of learning in the early years and beyond. Children enjoying learning experiences early on are likely to be keen to learn later on.”

She said a key factor was that most three-and four-year-olds in Norfolk were now able to access “good” pre-school provision in a school nursery or in the voluntary, private or independent sector.

And she said: “The development of children's centres across the county has contributed to increased good quality learning experiences for young children and their families. These centres provide learning experiences integrated with health related services and family support.”

There are currently 11 children's centres across Norfolk, with a target of 36 by March 31, 2008.

The “foundation stage” assessments, which are carried out by teachers who observe children in the classroom, measure ability in 13 key areas. They include:

Reading

Writing

Calculating

Social development

Language for communication

Physical development

Knowledge and understanding of the world.

Children are ranked from levels one to nine, with six the target level.

Norfolk's four-year-olds are well ahead of the national average in all 13 areas for 2006.

In physical development, 93pc achieved at least the benchmark level six - putting the county sixth out of the 150 authorities in England.

They were ranked ninth in the country for disposition and attitude, with 92pc achieving level six or

higher.

Across the 13 areas, Norfolk's lowest position nationally was 30th out of 150 - for emotional development, where 82pc got to at least level six.

By contrast, the county is currently lying 107th in England according to its test results for 11-year-olds.

But in the key stage one tests for seven-year-olds, the county is slightly ahead of the national average in reading, writing, maths, speaking and listening and science.

In Cambridgeshire, results in the assessments of four-year-olds are slightly ahead of Norfolk in most of the areas, which is in line with the county's performance at all ages.

But Suffolk is trailing some way behind its two rivals in all 13 areas.

TEACHING OUTDOORS

School memories usually involve long spells in stuffy classrooms.

But one “outstanding” Norfolk school is embracing the great outdoors to give its pupils a headstart.

Thompson Primary, near Watton, is mimicking the Swedish and Finnish education systems by teaching its youngsters in the open air as often as possible.

And the novel approach last night reaped its rewards, as the 87-pupil school was labelled “outstanding” by Ofsted inspectors. They gave the school one of Norfolk's best ever reports - giving it the “outstanding” accolade in 22 out of 27 areas.

Headteacher Joanne Weight, whose leadership was described as “enthusiastic and infectious”, said: “We do our utmost to make sure that every child who passes through our doors is supported and nurtured to make the most of their individual potential.

“A good education, in the broadest sense of the word, helps to give a child a brilliant start in life.”

Mrs Weight, who has been in charge for six years, said the school had been inspired to go for the outdoor approach after visiting schools in Scandinavia.

She said: “We can do every aspect of the national curriculum outdoors. Learning is play based. They learn when they are ready to learn. They've got all-in-one playsuits so they can go outside in all weathers. Some schools can be dominated by Sats results, but we've said we're not going to be like that. It was hard when our results were not as high as they could be. Now I feel vindicated.”

Teaching and learning at foundation level - four-year-olds - were rated “exemplary”. Mrs Weight said: “If you get it right at the start and get the learning ethos and social skills, it goes right through. The children are settled, happy and ready to learn.”