Long read: The battle for Reception

Ofsted's Bold Beginnings report has sparked an outcry in the early years community. But why do Reception teachers feel so misunderstood?

Helen Ward

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The tables in the Reception class at Globe Primary School in East London are just above knee height. They are covered in dotty wipe-clean tablecloths and on the tiny green chairs around the tables, are 14 four- and five-year-old children sitting down writing the letter “w” into their phonics books.

This is an “outstanding” Reception class – and this looks like a pretty straightforward phonics session. But initial impressions do not reveal quite how much thought goes into planning children’s experiences not just for each day, or hour, but almost minute-by-minute.

“This is as formal as it gets,” Juliana Nkoana, their teacher, says. “It is very structured, but the way I deliver it there is not too much sitting. They are on the carpet, then at the table, they move around. They get used to the routine so they know what’s coming next.”

So although the session may look like a conventional primary class, it has been very carefully thought out and planned in order to maximise very young children’s learning. This level of detail is typical of Reception teaching.  

While the children are reading aloud to their partner about “six red crocs in long pink socks”, Walter the class rabbit, hops across the classroom – past the role-play builders’ office and the tank containing giant African land snails – and disappears into the cloakroom. Not something you’ll see in Year 6.

'People think you just play'

“I think every teacher in primary should have to come and spend a week in early years,” Martina Heuberger, a Reception teacher at Globe, says. “Because the way you plan and assess gets the best out of you – it is about constantly individualising learning every day. It has made me a better teacher. But I think it is misunderstood. People think you just play.”

Being misunderstood has been a long-standing burden for reception teachers to bear, but the response to Ofsted’s latest report on reception has seen this frustration spill over into anger.

The watchdog’s Bold Beginnings report began by saying that: “For too many children, their Reception year is a missed opportunity”. It went on to make recommendations for primary schools including making sure the teaching of reading, including phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception year, that greater importance is attached to the teaching of numbers and that sufficient time should be devoted each day to the direct teaching of reading, writing and mathematics.

The report, published in November, also recommended that the Department for Education reviewed the breadth of the early years foundation stage framework and the content of the early years foundation stage profile – the assessment carried out at the end of the reception year – to make sure there is greater alignment between the goals (ELG) at the end of the Reception year and the national curriculum for Year 1.

The report, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has insisted, was “as controversial as custard”.

But that is not how many working in Reception classes saw it.

“When I read the report,” Helen Williams, a teacher and early years maths consultant, wrote in Tes. “My first thought was ‘bullshit’; my second was ‘best retire now’.”

Her anger was over the recommendations, which seem to reflect a push for a more formal Reception year. And the idea that Reception classes need to be more formal carries an implication that teachers are not already teaching children.

“This document fails to acknowledge that neither the ELGs nor the Year 1 mathematics requirements are rooted in our knowledge of young children’s learning," Williams says. "It appears that instead of asking whether the current curriculum is appropriate for these children, it recommends that we adjust the children to fit the curriculum.”

And on Twitter, rumours started circulating among headteachers who now felt Ofsted was now looking for more formal practice.

Building bridges

Ofsted has now started a damping-down exercise, with meetings to build bridges with the sector. Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of the professional association Early Education, was reassured that Ofsted felt that, far from spending more time sitting down, children in Reception should be doing more physical exercise.

And this week, Gill Jones, Ofsted’s deputy director for early education, spoke at a briefing run by Early Excellence, the early years training organisation, to explain the report.

Of course, many headteachers will also feel that a play-based curriculum is essential – there are schools that value the approach so much that they use Reception-type staples such as sandpits and role-play areas in Year 1.

But it is the line separating Year 1 and the beginning of the main national curriculum from the Reception year that is crucially important to those working with young children. The roots of the separation probably go back to the fact that an early years curriculum only became statutory many years after the main national curriculum and, in the interim, was left to develop on its own. 

Today, early years practioners still see that dividing line as offering protection from headteachers who may feel under pressure to formalise Reception – or may simply think formal methods are better.

And part of the reason for the strong reaction to Bold Beginnings is that this is not the first attempt to breach that line.

Review after review

Di Chilvers, an early years consultant, says in a guest blog for Early Education that it is “exhausting and frustrating” to have to “consistently defend early education, the best early intervention strategy we have for ensuring all children have the strongest start in life” – and, she points out, it also limits the opportunities the sector has to develop.

The reaction to Ofsted’s report comes after a similar outcry to the 2016 Effective Primary Teaching Practice report from the Teaching Schools Council.

This also called for a review of the Reception year, which it described as “the most important year”, saying there was some lack of consistency between Reception and Year 1 following the review of the national curriculum, which has increased the demands in Year 1.

In response, Early Excellence, an early years training company, launched its own Hundred Review, a survey of more than 4,000 teachers asking what changes they thought were needed to reception. The findings were published in May last year, and revealed that early years teachers felt that children would benefit more from changing Year 1 towards a more Reception-style approach, rather than vice versa.

There has also been a parallel battle over government plans to introduce a baseline assessment – a test of four-year-olds as they start Reception year – which will be used to measure pupils’ progress through primary school. The plans were condemned by many early years organisations and the ATL and NUT teaching unions for creating unnecessary workload and potentially damaging pupils.

An initial attempt to bring in the baseline failed in 2016 when the three approved assessments were found to be incomparable. But the government has now put out a £10 million tender to develop a new national baseline test, which is planned for 2019 – leaving early years teachers feeling even more under siege.

Then came Bold Beginnings.

'They don't need to play all the time'

Merrick says that part of the backlash to the report was owing to this context.

“There is concern that there are too many people looking at these issues without a strong understanding of early years pedagogy and child development and therefore don’t understand why these things they have proposed, which may seem logical to them, are actually not in a child’s best interests,” she says.

But not everyone thinks that Bold Beginnings is so terrible.

On the Tes community, some commenters pointed out they agreed with the report’s findings.

“It won’t be popular with many early years specialists," said Sundaytrekker, a retired primary head. "But I like the permission for direct teaching and the recognition that this is needed for good progress…Let them play but they don’t need to play all the time.”

Another comment said: “I agree with this report…Providing an opportunity to write is not good enough, when all too often they are ignored.”

Back at Ofsted, Jones tells Tes, that the inspectorate knew the report would create “a bit of a stir” but were unprepared for the amount of fuss about the report’s description over children sitting at tables to write.

“The report doesn’t say we want more formal learning in Reception,” Jones says. “What it does say is the focus in Reception year must be in getting children to learn to read as quickly as possible, that doesn’t mean formal.

“We say: when children are learning to write, they need to sit at a table and hold a pencil properly. We are not saying they need to do that all day long, we are just saying that when they are learning to write, they need to be taught how to do it properly.

“That’s not to say we don’t want children to be playing. One of our key findings is that play is very important in the Reception curriculum and learning through play is important.”

The report was written to show how settings that got “good” and “outstanding” results did so, but it looks as if the debate over Reception will continue for many months to come.

A need for balance

Meanwhile in Globe primary, visitors arriving after 10am will see some children sitting at the table – but now they are now writing: “This is a house,” says Alice – picking up a nice, new pen and carefully filling in half the page in vivid orange: “And this is a bonfire burning it down.”

In a corner that has been turned into a builders’ office, Zayn is wearing a hard hat, hi-vis jacket and goggles.

“You need goggles for drilling a hole,” he explains. “It stops bits of wood flying into your eyes. I know that because my dad is a DIY expert.”

A number of children are attacking football-sized lumps of ice with hammers, real hammers. Frozen inside the ice are plastic fish and polar bears.

A speech and language specialist comes in to start work with children who need extra support and Walter the rabbit is in hiding.

This is still an “outstanding” Reception class – and this is an informal free-flow session.

“I believe in balance,” Jedrusiak says. “What I bear in mind is that we are bringing up the future of our nation and it’s so important to keep the right balance between structured sessions and free play.

“We haven’t changed the balance and it works really well for us, we are successful in getting children ready for Year 1, it is harder because the expectations are higher, but we don’t lengthen phonics or do more maths, because if we did introduce more formal learning that wouldn’t give children as much opportunity to develop important skills through play – lifelong skills, such as a love for learning, confidence and independence.”

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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