Autumn term is busy in schools. Very busy. In early years, we are continually observing, planning for and assessing our youngest children: getting to know them well, their interests and how they learn.
Then, before you know it, there is the build-up to Christmas with a nativity, experiences and all that glistens. Despite best attempts, there will be the mad rush to finish Christmas cards, salt-dough and the always-made, never-used calendar. Staff will find glitter in their socks and invariably be dosed up on Night Nurse. Doing what we do.
It was no surprise to me, therefore, when I realised I hadn’t blogged for a whole three months. I had considered it a few times over the term, but I was enjoying my craft so much that time whizzed by.
Then along came Ofsted with a shiny new document about early years.
I had been impressed by the recent experience of inspection I’d had. A real interest in early years, keen to observe the roleplay and purposeful learning the children were doing. Robust in their scrutiny of our data, interested in what I had to say and – in my experience – genuine.
I had also attended one of the Ofsted EY myth-busting sessions headed up by Gill Jones HMI. Again, I was pleased to see the moves being made to engage the sector and dispel some of the silly myths that were still being raised in some corners – and that clear messages were being sent to both practitioners and school leaders.
Then there was the encouraging reaching out to teachers on Twitter by Sean Harford who would answer questions, clarify and assure that Ofsted had "no preference" when it came to "how" children reached the best outcomes.
I read the recommendations of Bold Beginnings first – as you tend to do with reports – and my immediate reaction was of concern. This didn’t seem reflective of the experience of Ofsted I had just begun to enjoy. It seemed to have gone back to the unwanted image of being prescriptive regarding its inspection process. Those dreadful phrases of "Ofsted wants…" and "Ofsted is looking for…" sprung to mind.
I tweeted the recommendations and my feelings about this straight away, before reading the whole report. The thing that had disturbed me the most personally, while the rest of the sector was in uproar about Early Childhood Education, was the nature of the report. Ofsted was now undoing all it had tried so hard to do, purveying an image of "not wanting to interfere" with practice or pedagogy.
The document dovetails with the DfE’s consultation about the Reception year outlined in the primary assessment paper, which aims to "improve the early years foundation stage (EYFS) profile – a check on a child’s school readiness at the end of their early years education".
The opening statement of Bold Beginnings announces: "This report examines the provision in their Reception Year and the extent to which it was preparing four- and five-year-olds for their years of schooling and life ahead."
It then goes on to say: "The strongest performing schools…had found ways to improve their assessment processes and support transition. Checks of children’s phonics knowledge, standardised tests (for reading, for example) and scrutinies of children’s work provided the essential information that Year 1 teachers needed. Such information was quick to collect and more useful for them."
This is because, according to Bold Beginnings, "smooth transition from the foundation stage to Year 1 was difficult because the early learning goals were not aligned with the now-increased expectations of the national curriculum".
Clearly, the DfE and Ofsted are in collaboration regarding the EYFS profile. The DfE wants to change it, and now Ofsted has given them the necessary "research" to do so and then inspect upon practices they recommend, despite their statement that, "we report directly to Parliament and we are independent and impartial".
Indeed, the report states in its methodology that it will be used to "advise policymakers, such as those within the Department for Education".
Problems with Bold Beginnings
This was partly the reason I was so concerned about Bold Beginnings. Note we have not even touched on its content yet.
Another reason for my concern with the document is that its "research" findings are based on 41 schools. This seems a ridiculously small sample size on which to base recommendations for policymaking.
So, onto the content and why many early years teachers feel it flies in the face of EYFS framework and what is currently and widely regarded as good practice.
There have been several posts regarding this that I would direct you to read, rather than reinvent the wheel. There is a response from TACTYC that states that "It has been acknowledged since its advent that the EYFS represents a distinct curriculum and pedagogy that supports all that is known about children’s early learning and development" and examines the work of researchers supporting this. Teacher and consultant Helen Williams looks at particularly the maths element here. Early Excellence compares findings to its own study, The Hundred Review, stating that "The range of ‘approaches’ to learning and teaching in YR needs to be varied and appropriate".
My view on the content? Also varied.
After reading the initial outpouring of condemnation from within the sector on social media, I first thought long and hard about what was missing. This seems to be key to the concerns. The most important parts of a five-year-old’s school life should revolve around the Prime Areas of Communication and Language, personal, social and emotional development and physical development. That much I am sure. And a lot of the grief caused by Bold Beginnings is that these are not the priority, core or centre of what it recommends. Without these embedded, there would be no ability to achieve in any of the other four "specific areas", including literacy and maths.
Then, I moved on to what was included in the recommendations and what I disagree with. Regarding recommendations for schools, not a lot actually. These are things that already happen as far as I’m concerned, certainly in the settings I work in. Yes, children sitting at tables has been controversial, but as part of an adult-led writing activity, we do this. While supporting children with good pencil grip. In fact, nursery do a daily dough gym and finger gym in preparation for the necessary muscular requirements before they reach that stage. We understand the importance of pencil grip so much so that we are preparing them for it up to 18 months in advance of the Reception year.
However, in the continuous provision, where we want children – particularly boys, ever mindful of the gender gap in writing – to be interested to write independently, we have removed chairs from the writing area where children were not choosing to access it, and replaced with gym mats. Children, particularly the boys, sit or lie with clipboards and write or draw away. We place a big emphasis on purposeful writing, linked to children’s interests in their role play. We feed them a "need to write".
In our recent Ofsted report, the only comment made by inspectors regarding writing in Reception was their approval that "in the Reception class a small group of boys were making collages relating to computer games and, as a result of encouragement from an adult, were keen to write about their work". Similarly, they commented that "adults took every opportunity to effectively support the development of phonics skills. For example, as part of the ‘people who help us project’, pupils in the role of doctors were writing the names of their patients".
They fed back that the strong continuous provision allowed the application of the skills they had learned under direct instruction. And so the two go hand in hand.
What I do disagree with is that in the recommendations to the DfE and Ofsted, there is a focus on simply these specific things and a narrowing of the EYFS profile and nothing else. Nothing to recommend that they ensure a balance. And although balance is mentioned in the document, to then state that play is "used primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills" is deeply worrying.
Play should be at the heart of how a five-year-old learns, supported by strong direct instruction. Not the other way around. Otherwise, there is a huge risk of a five-year-old becoming disengaged through a lack of purpose, interest and thrive.
In its Annual Report 2017, Ofsted stated that: "In August 2012, 74 per cent of providers were judged 'good' or 'outstanding'. By August 2017, this had increased to 94 per cent".
That, by the way, coincides perfectly with the revised EYFS framework being implemented. Since moving to a school in special measures and applying all the knowledge of early childhood education I had accrued from my previous "outstanding" setting in a school, my own school has seen a year-on-year increase in the percentage of children gaining a good level of development, now close to the national level despite being in an area of disadvantage – and is now also an "outstanding" setting.
Did 94 per cent of early-years settings get it right? Or did Ofsted get it wrong?
One thing I know for sure is I will continue to provide what children in my schools need and what works best for them. That might or might not be the same as the 41 schools in the research – but it will be what helps those children to be the best that they can be.