In many British curriculum schools in the UAE, children begin their time at school in Foundation Stage 1 (FS1) at three-years-old. Attending school at this age is optional (compulsory schooling begins at six-years-old) but starting at three has become something of a social norm, with parents often feeling concerned that their child will miss out, fall behind or risk losing out on a place at the school of their choice, should they enrol in a later year group.
For expat parents, including those from the UK, this may seem very young for a child to be entering a school environment. Are they even learning anything? Isn’t it “just” play? Or even worse, will they feel pressured and overwhelmed?
To provide some clarity for parents considering enrolling their child in FS1, we spoke to early years leaders in two highly regarded British schools in Dubai: Brighton College Dubai and Arcadia School.
Are they just playing all day?
Schools following the national curriculum for England use the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework for children under five years. Play underpins the EYFS and is recognised as the ideal way for young children to learn and understand the world around them.
What then is the difference between a child playing at home with neighbours and siblings and the play that takes place in an FS1 classroom? Essentially, a skilled early years practitioner will plan purposeful play experiences based on the interests, skills and needs of the children, that will support their learning and development.
Katy Cook, Head of Pre-Prep at Brighton College Dubai, explained:
“All activities are thoroughly thought through and have been set up with pupils’ interests and next steps in mind. The provision is planned and meaningful with the intention of sparking curiosity, awe and wonder. Pupils are encouraged to be independent, creative and critical thinkers by being exposed to a wide range of open-ended resources, that aim to deepen their learning.”
Ashlee Stewart, FS1 Leader at Arcadia School, added:
“Children are innately curious, and our teachers create environments that enhance this. Out educators have exceptional knowledge of our children’s needs and development, which they utilise throughout their play opportunities by extending and scaffolding their learning. We want children to develop the ability to question and discuss rationally and to apply themselves to tasks as they strive to reach their full potential in all aspects of school life.”
Do children learn phonics in FS1?
Many parents will have heard the phrase ‘phonics’ in relation to early literacy. This refers to a systematic method of teaching children how to read and write, approaching language as a code. Children learn to distinguish the individual sounds and letters that make up words, allowing them to decode text into spoken language and likewise form written words from the sounds that make up a word.
This approach often starts in FS1, through the simple linking of sounds to letters, as well as a range of language-based activities that support this understanding and awareness.
Ashlee Stewart explains how this works at Arcadia School:
“Our children are immersed in a systematic synthetic phonics programme that begins in FS1 and continues throughout their foundation and primary years. Children begin with exposure to activities that support their listening and communication skills. Once a child is secure with these aspects of the programme, their teacher will begin introducing them to letters and sounds. For the children’s preparation of their continued learning journey in FS2, in Term 3 of FS1, all children will be exposed to letters and sounds in the next phase of the programme.”
Katy Cooke told us:
“Through a range of practical activities children are exposed to the seven aspects of sound; environmental, instrumental, body sounds, rhythm and rhyme, alliteration, voice sounds and oral blending and segmenting. In term two, we move onto more formal teaching of phonics through the Read Write Inc scheme. RWI aims to not only teach children the mechanics of reading and writing but also to develop pupils’ communication and language skills by exposing them to a language rich environment through immersive and engaging story times.”
How about mathematics?
Many children pick up key elements of early numeracy and mathematics organically, if they exposed to counting and measuring in day-to-day life. This exposure is purposefully provided in FS1, to familiarise children with numbers and phrases such as ‘more’ and ‘less’ through play.
Katy Cooke explained:
“We teach children that maths is all around and not just designated to a maths area. We do this in our role play and small world areas, where we try to make links to real-life experiences such as price labels, money and weighing scales. We deliver hands on practical maths lessons throughout the week and this then feeds into our continuous provision planning and provision. Each morning the children are asked to work out the date based on what the date was yesterday as well as to count who is here and if we have more boys or more girls. The children are exposed to mathematical language through questioning.”
Ashlee Stewart told us:
“We create environments that provide endless opportunities for open ended discussions and play, to develop numeracy skills. For example, our adults might observe a child using number names, “1,2,3,’ during ‘explorer time’. The adult then joins the child’s play and introduces natural, malleable objects such as acorns to the play, in order to extend the learning, exploring the principles of counting whilst modelling mathematical language through real life experiences.”
But they’re so young, what about emotional support?
Although children are entering a school environment for FS1, it is still important to keep in mind that at three-years-old, they will likely need considerable support, comfort and individual attention. Understanding the individual emotional and care needs of each child is a key part the role of an FS1 teacher. We asked how schools approach this need.
Katy Cooke told us:
“We place a large emphasis on children’s well-being, taking a holistic approach to child development. We have a robust transition plan in place which includes a mixture of stay and play sessions with parents before the start of term, reduced hours within the first week of term, and ‘Bright Start’, our exciting new ready-for-school program which we plan to launch for 2023. Within the first few weeks of term the focus is on ensuring children settle in and build relationships with their peers and class teacher.”
Ashlee Stewart explained:
“When a child is starting school, this may be the first time the child is away from their home environment. This can be daunting, which is why it is important our support begins prior to children joining us. It is crucial that we place great importance on building effective relationships between home and school so we can support our families throughout their time at Arcadia.”
Is FS1 needed to prepare children for FS2?
Many children are not enrolled in a school until they are five or even six-years-old. It is the role of the school to ensure a child’s needs are met and that their educational experience is tailored to them. At the same time, it is often felt that children who have attended FS1 often very easily transition into FS2 in the same school. There is no set right or wrong answer here, as this very much depends on the child and the school (not to mention the nursery and/or home environment).
Perhaps a better question then, is on the expectations schools have of children entering FS2. Lauren Holden, FS2 Leader at Arcadia School, told us:
“We would expect children entering FS2 to be able to communicate and manage their day-to-day wants and needs. Having the ability to express their needs will support them greatly throughout the first term, including their daily activities. We would also expect children to be comfortable in a social environment and to have basic maths and literacy awareness.
Children who join FS1 will have the opportunity to develop within the prime areas of the EYFS. We understand that this is not always possible, that is why schools have an assessment process: we observe and assess children at our stay and play sessions, to gain an understanding of their needs, including how we can support them upon enrolment, and we may take the opportunity to share guidance with our families of areas to focus on before the child starts school.”
Katy Cooke added:
“Before pupils join FS2 at Brighton College, they come into school for a ‘play date’. During the play date, our Early Years teachers will gauge whether a child has had a similar educational experience to our pupils in FS1, and identify any potential areas for development. When new pupils join FS2, we ensure they are exposed to activities in the classroom that support their learning as well as booster sessions and 1-1 phonics tutoring to help plug any gaps they may have in their learning. We find that pupils make very quick progress and by October half term many no longer need targeted intervention.”