Last November, Ofsted published Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools. I think it’s fair to say that the report attracted a lot of attention.
Social media is a good thing for several reasons, not least in allowing us here at Ofsted to be more accessible. But I’m afraid that, even with 280 characters, Twitter doesn’t allow for nuanced debate. That’s why I was happy to speak at length about the report at a series of events organised by Early Excellence.
It was a delight to talk to so many primary headteachers and Reception teachers who have devoted their professional lives to the well-being and development of children.
The importance of Reception to children’s development
Bold beginnings found that, in those schools that are having the most impact in Reception, headteachers ensure that all children, whatever their background, make great strides in their learning. They focus on reading, writing and using numbers. Teachers also make sure that they instil day-to-day routines quickly. This helps children to feel safe, happy and secure, which in turn supports their personal, social and emotional development.
Whatever you think about these findings, I think we can all agree about one thing: Reception is an important and unique period in a child’s life, in which, as that year progresses, they have one foot in the early years foundation stage (EYFS) and another ready to start compulsory schooling.
It is important because children only do their first year at school once. I used to teach in primary schools in Toxteth, Wallasey and Birkenhead in Merseyside. In my experience, I know that young children who fall behind early on struggle to catch up with their peers. And these children soon develop a sense of exclusion and lack of self-worth.
As far as parents – and no doubt 4- and 5-year-old children themselves – are concerned, Reception means going to school. But Reception doesn’t follow the national curriculum designed for schools from Year 1. It follows the EYFS.
But Reception and the EYFS have to be integral parts of school. Frankly, my heart sinks when my colleagues and I inspect primary schools and talk to the headteacher, only for them to pass us to a junior colleague when we ask about this first year of school.
When we did the fieldwork for Bold beginnings, we found that headteachers in the best schools are closely involved in Reception. They know what is going on there.
Indeed, leadership is the golden thread. In good schools, leaders recognise the importance of building children’s resilience and perseverance, as well as their ability to listen and cooperate.
In 2013, 52 per cent of children had reached a good level of development by the age of 5. That figure leapt to 71 per cent 4 years later. Yet there remains a stubborn difference in the progress of poorer children and their more affluent classmates.
Reading in Reception
So how can we make sure Reception is a success for every child?
By putting reading at its heart. And I mean reading in the widest sense of the word.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of literacy. Without the ability to read, pupils cannot access other subjects properly. Literacy is empowering: it gives children independence to explore what interests them.
Phonics are undoubtedly central here. The evidence base is now overwhelming. It provides the body of knowledge children need so that they can read and pronounce words aloud.
But phonics knowledge only gives young children the means to say and decode words. It does not teach them what the words mean. Neither, without practice, does it enable children to read fluently and make sense of what they’re reading.
Reading to children
It’s by singing and hearing stories that children gain an understanding of what words actually mean. I'm talking about comprehension. And I’ve yet to meet a young child who did not enjoy listening to a story or singing a song with their fellow classmates.
There are some parents who don’t read to their children in the evening. That’s when schools have to step in and teach them not only how to read, but a love of reading.
Teaching 4- and 5-year-old children is important. Playing on their own doesn’t cut it.
So I am not apologetic about what Bold beginnings has to say about direct teaching. It’s an important survey and one of which I am proud. But it does not replace the EYFS. The report itself is relatively short. So I’d urge you to read it in full, rather than defer to what other people may have said about it.
The definition of teaching in the Ofsted common inspection framework still stands. Teaching is a broad term that covers the many different ways in which adults help young children to learn.
As always, teachers should use their professional expertise to decide what is right for the pupils in the Reception class, not what they think is right for Ofsted.
Find Gill Jones on Twitter @GillJonesOfsted