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Literacy and numeracy push sidelining play in early years

A push to ensure students have core literacy and numeracy skills by the age of eight will significantly reduce time for play, and is the opposite of what is being done in leading school systems such as Finland, according to Sydney principal Andrew Hill.
Mr Hill, head of Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School, said tests such as NAPLAN, which students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 will sit on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week, could be affecting teachers’ ability to build skills such as creativity and collaboration in the early years.
Teaching literacy and numeracy skills in students’ early years will sideline critical play-based learning, the head of Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School says.
The Gonski 2.0 report, handed down last month, recommended that schools “prioritise the implementation of learning progressions for literacy and numeracy … to ensure the core foundations for learning are developed by all children by the age of eight”.
However, Mr Hill said that formal reading and writing instruction should be delayed to better match the “natural rhythm of children” and lay down proper foundations for learning.
“Children learn faster from the age of seven, research shows they naturally develop phonetic awareness at that age,”  Mr Hill said.
“Finland, which is lauded as a leader in education, is very different to the English-speaking world and has no formal instruction prior to the age of seven.
“While students in Singapore are very teacher-trained, Finnish students are more self-directed and I believe that’s because of those early years. The whole point of early childhood play is that it’s self-directed.”
Mr Hill said his school, which is one of more than 1000 Steiner schools around the world and takes a holistic approach to education, is the closest thing to the Finnish model available in Australia.
“Everyone’s asking how we can build creativity and talking about it like it can be taught as a separate subject but we see it as a natural part of growing up,” Mr Hill said.
“With a play-based early childhood, when they move to formal learning that becomes an attitude to life.”
Professor of education at the University of Sydney Michael Anderson said that students who are left behind by the age of eight tend to struggle throughout school, but that promoting creativity, communication, collaboration and critical reflection is often more important in the early years than formally teaching reading and writing.
“It’s concerning internationally that play is being taken out of the early childhood setting,” Professor Anderson said.
“You’ve got to work with age-appropriate teaching. Teaching four-year-olds to read and write is not as appropriate as teaching them important skills such as communication and collaboration that you need throughout school.”
Professor Anderson said teaching skills such as creativity and promoting literacy and numeracy “are not an either-or and Gonski doesn’t set it out as such”, but that standardised tests such as NAPLAN could be pushing teachers towards less innovative and engaging practices.
“Changing or removing NAPLAN so teachers don’t feel pressure to teach to the test and use methods that are outdated could be one solution,” Professor Anderson said.

Class 2 teacher Katherine Arconati with students at Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School.

“Schools and curriculums need to allow students to build an understanding at their own pace. I wouldn’t be putting a hard and fast rule in.”
Mr Hill said students at his school begin being taught literacy and numeracy in year 1 and it usually takes about two years to establish those skills.
He said that parents usually withdraw students from the NAPLAN tests in the early years but the school generally performs well in later years.
Students in year 7 and 9 at Glenaeon scored at or above the Australian average in all five NAPLAN domains last year, according to My School.
A number of education ministers around the country, including NSW’s Rob Stokes, have called for a review or the scrapping of NAPLAN.
However, its supporters, including federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, say it provides important information on education progress at the national level and is a useful tool for schools and teachers.

By Pallavi Singhal

Article sourced from Sydney Morning Herald