Long read: The early years fightback

Ofsted, baseline and new early learning goals have left the early years sector feeling under siege, writes Sue Cowley

Sue Cowley

early years goals bold beginnings sue cowley

In the past few years, the reforms of Michael Gove as education secretary have worked their way through the system. Terminal exams rather than coursework at GCSE; grading with numbers rather than letters; changes to the national curriculum; increased demands in end of key stage tests; and the introduction of the phonics screening check.

Although there are significant concerns about workload and the mental health of children and teachers, schools have had to grit their teeth and implement the changes. But now Gove’s reforms may have bumped into what might be an immovable object: the non-compulsory part of the sector, in the form of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which runs from birth to five years.

The early years census shows that there are around 3.1 million Ofsted-registered early years settings in England. Of these, 1.2 million places are at group-based providers ("PVI" settings – private, voluntary-run and independent); 267,600 places with childminders; 352,600 in school nurseries; and 734,000 in Reception classes. Although all Reception places are in schools, the majority of early years provision is not.

This "mixed market" of provision means it is harder for the Department for Education to make demands. Although some childcare is partially funded by central government, many parents also pay fees for early years provision. As a result, settings prioritise parental wishes over government diktats, and the sector refuses to implement something if it conflicts with what they see as best practice.

In 2013 when Liz Truss, then an education minister, tried to change ratios, the sector launched the #rewindonratios campaign and the idea was quietly dropped. Thirty hours of funded childcare is a flagship policy for the Conservative government, but settings are not compelled to offer it if they don’t want to.

Early start

The United Kingdom has some of the earliest school starting ages in Europe: Northern Ireland has the youngest, at 4, and of all European countries, only England, Malta, the Netherlands, Scotland and Wales require children to start in full-time education at 5. In reality, most children begin in Reception in September, when some children have only just turned 4.

Recent announcements from both the DfE and Ofsted appear to be pushing schools towards a formalised Reception curriculum, to "prepare" children for increased expectations in key stage 1. However, many practitioners, teachers and parents are concerned about the formalisation of a phase that is play-based, and which is non-compulsory, not least because it contradicts the statutory requirements of the EYFS, which requires that: “Each area of learning and development must be implemented through planned, purposeful play and through a mix of adult-led and child-initiated activity.”

At the same time as the DfE appear to be trying to split off Reception from the rest of the EYFS, they are also bringing in a baseline at the start of the Reception year. After the attempt to create a baseline in 2016 ended in chaos, when it became clear that the baselines chosen were not comparable, a new test published by NFER is about to be piloted. The test will take 20 minutes to administer one to one, using a tablet, at a time when teachers are trying to settle their children into class.

There has been much discussion about the potentially negative consequences of bringing in a baseline as the starting point for accountability for schools. Many questions remain unanswered, particularly around how it will impact on children with SEND, and those with EAL. Early years organisations such TACTYC have published reports on the proposed baseline to demonstrate why the idea is unreliable and flawed. We have been here before – Labour brought in a baseline in 1997 but it was dropped in 2002 when it proved unworkable.

Voting with their feet

The term after a child’s fifth birthday was enshrined as the compulsory school starting age in the 1870 Education Act – a decision based on child protection (from unhealthy conditions in the streets or at home) and because employers wanted an early school leaving age, so that children could enter the workforce early, rather than on developmental or educational grounds. In 2015, the schools minister Nick Gibb announced the government’s intention to allow summer-born children to start in Reception at the age of 5. He wrote an open letter to schools and local authorities, encouraging them to allow parents to defer their child’s start.

Although the government has yet to amend legislation, many parents are now requesting – and receiving – deferred entry, with an 84 per cent increase in deferrals between 2015 and 2017. If you know that your summer-born child is less likely to achieve a "good level of development" in the EYFS Profile, if you feel that your child would benefit from additional time in nursery, or even if you just need year-round childcare, it starts to make sense to defer.

With the introduction of the 30-hours offer, parents of summer-born children have an added incentive to keep their child at a preschool or nursery for an additional year. There has also been a 40 per cent increase in home schooling over the past three years as well – it appears that parents are starting to join the dots about the impact of the reforms, and are voting with their feet.

Battle raging

Last November, another salvo in the battle for Reception was fired, when Ofsted launched its Bold Beginnings report. Some commentators seemed taken aback by the way that the report was received. Tom Bennett, an ex secondary RE teacher and DfE "behaviour tsar", declared the report to be “as controversial as custard”, and yet, six months on, a battle is still raging over its contents, its evidence base and its recommendations.

Gill Jones, an Ofsted inspector and one of the authors of the report, attended a series of meetings in order to explain and defend the format, contents and conclusions of the report. Practitioners were particularly concerned about the way that it recommended a formalisation of early years practice, with a heavy focus on systematic synthetic phonics, tripod pen grip and sitting at desks, and barely any mention of physical or personal, social and emotional development. Although the report was about Reception, its findings will inevitably affect practice in the sector as a whole, just as we have seen the pressure of Sats narrow the curriculum throughout key stage 2.

Last week the DfE finally published the long-anticipated new Early Learning Goals (ELGs), which are used for the end of key stage assessment. The goals are to be piloted next year by a small sample of 25 schools. A Freedom of Information request revealed that, among the “experts” on the DfE’s advisory panel were an ex secondary maths teacher, a representative from Civitas (a right-wing thinktank that publishes a "Core Knowledge" curriculum), and the CEO of a company publishing phonics schemes and providing commercial phonics training.

Early years specialists are already questioning the changes, particularly the removal of a goal for "Shape, space and measures" and the focus on recall of number facts. The pilot handbook claims that “the ELGs are based on typical child development at the age of 5”, but provides no evidence to support this claim. There is concern that the new goals may engender a more adult-led approach to the EYFS, for instance with a mention of following “multi-step instructions”. There is also a paucity of detail about how the goals will apply to children who have English as an additional language.

As the DfE has previously found to its cost, the early years sector is powerfully united in speaking out when policy seems to conflict with international evidence about what is developmentally appropriate for young children. We would not be honouring the wishes of the parents who entrust their children with us if we did not. And we do not plan to fall silent about it anytime soon.

Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and trainer. She has helped to run her local preschool for 10 years. Find out more at www.suecowley.co.uk


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