Early years education in the UK has become the focus of intense concern for all political parties as it becomes clear after two decades of neuroscientific research that a child’s early experiences have implications for society as a whole as well as for the individual child. Education itself has become increasingly politicised as governments of all parties have attempted to lay the blame for society’s ills at its door, thus justifying radical shifts in educational policy and practice often against the evidence of research and the experience of teachers. Underpinning these changes is the belief that education has become too permissive, standards are falling as a result, and the solution lies in a return to the formal learning and assessment methods of the mid-20th century.

In 2008 the Labour government introduced an early years (from birth to five) curriculum, the Early Years Foundation Stage, which led to an immediate outcry from educators on account of its 69 learning goals and its undue emphasis on formal learning. This official “nappy curriculum” and accompanying “testing for tots by tick box” threatened to banish spontaneity, fun, creativity and above all play from the nation’s nurseries, childminder groups and preschools.

In an Orwellian vision of early years education the aim was “school readiness” and all children were expected to reach a certain standard of literacy and numeracy by the time they entered primary school. The fact that very young children develop at their own pace and in their own distinctive ways and that boys in particular are slow to learn to read and write was ignored in the rush to achieve the “learning targets”.

Since 2010 the Coalition has moderated some of the worst excesses of the Foundation Stage in a revised curriculum framework expected to be in place by this autumn. The 69 goals have been cut to 17, and of the three main areas of learning one will be concerned with personal, social and emotional development. But the philosophy remains intact. The emphasis is still on cognitive development and the three Rs. Children will be expected to “read and understand simple sentences in books and use phonic knowledge to decode regular and irregular words”. (What is an irregular word?) Testing at two years old remains in place.

The opposition to the Foundation Stage of 2008 was led by a group of influential and prestigious early years educators, scientists, writers and parents who have come together to form a powerful pressure group campaigning for an alternative form of early years education. Too Much, Too Soon? is their campaigning text published as a collection of essays edited by Richard House of Roehampton University.

Leading figures in the world of child development, including Penelope Leach, Steve Biddulph and Sue Palmer explore the vital importance of play in children’s lives, the optimum age for learning to read, the physical foundations for learning, the effect of technology on developing brains, and many more aspects of early development that make for the wellbeing and happiness of the individual child.

The overwhelming conclusion of the book is that a narrow focus on cognitive development and formal learning goes against the professional knowledge of early years educators, the experience of parents and the findings of recent research into the neuroscientific features of early learning. In fact, they conclude that the current Early Years Foundation Stage harms young children.

The lead given by OpenEYE (Early Years Education) and the impact of Too Much, Too Soon has led to the founding of Early Childhood Action (ECA). Its motto is ‘Fearlessly speaking professional truth to political power’ and its purpose is to launch a direct challenge to the Coalition government. It is publishing an alternative early years curriculum framework that puts free imaginative play at its centre and argues for a diversity of practice. It also condemns the ‘audit culture’ mentality. My hope is that this new campaign will, in the words of the late Václav Havel, “speak truth to power”, and with the backing of parents, educators writers and philosophers succeed in putting the interests of children above those of politics.

Mary Tasker is a Trustee of Human Scale Education.