All too often, primary school senior leaders seem to see the early years and foundation stage as simply a place of mess, chaos and bodily fluids.
Perhaps they will admit that the early years “is not their area of expertise” or confidently state that they “leave that to their amazing EYFS lead, who really knows their stuff".
Unfortunately, this can sometimes have a long-lasting and damaging effect not only on the EYFS team, but also on the most important year of the school to get right.
How school leaders can get to grips with EYFS
So what can senior leaders do to find out more about what goes on in their youngest year groups and understand how teachers of this stage work? Well, just a little can go a surprisingly long way.
1. Observe and tune into play
One of the best times to see the early years learning in action is during child-initiated play. Don’t be afraid to spend 10 minutes in the home corner or a few minutes talking to children at the writing table. This is a great way to see how the children are playing together; listen to their conversations, observe the rest of the room and find out how children's social interactions are helping them to learn with one another.
For a simple, quick guide that can be used to monitor teacher engagement, check out the Leuven scales for wellbeing and involvement.
2. Recognise that interactions are vital
Play and free choice is an integral part of learning in the EYFS and the timetable should allow for as much child-initiated learning as possible each day. However, that’s not to say adults do not play a vital role in moving learning forward.
Look out for purposeful and effective interactions; adults should be modelling language and thinking, posing questions and always looking for that opportunity to spark an interest. Doing this at the right time and in the right way will be the vehicle for highly effective learning.
3. Embed the foundations first
So often there appears to be an urgency to get children reading and writing from an early age. One piece of advice I regularly give to senior leaders is that, yes of course, this is important, but getting the prime areas of learning secure first will pay dividends later on in the year and should be prioritised before any formalised teaching of phonics or writing.
In the first term, focus on the gross and motor skills required to write, read high-quality books to develop vocabulary and spend time modelling the social skills children need to access learning in the classroom.
4. Include the team in CPD sessions
This is one thing that I feel should be a non-negotiable for anyone leading a training session for a whole school: make sure that you build in explicit links to early years.
It can be as simple as sharing a strategy or some relevant research connected to EYFS. This will help your early years team to feel part of the wider school.
However, this shouldn’t be tokenistic. Don’t force content into your session for the sake of it; if the training is truly not relevant for EYFS teachers, speak to the early years lead in advance and allow the team to plan something that will be purposeful for them to do instead.
5. Make sure subject leaders know the EYFS curriculum
Effective subject leads need to know how their subject is taught from the very start. It may not immediately be clear how a subject is covered at EYFS, but staff should be encouraged to ask early years colleagues for advice if they are unsure.
Referring to the relevant areas of the Development Matters document is a great starting point and the "Positive Relationships" and "Enabling Environments" columns on this document are useful in monitoring the quality of teaching and learning in the EYFS.
Ultimately, if senior leaders demonstrate an interest in our youngest learners and encourage the whole primary team to do the same, this will help to make sure that we get the earliest stage of education right and set our pupils up for success throughout their time at primary school.
Ben White is assistant headteacher at Wigmore Primary School in Luton. He tweets @benwhitej