Ofsted has been attempting to build bridges with early-years leaders concerned that the schools inspectorate wants to introduce formal learning at an earlier stage.
But early-years organisations – while reassured – say that Ofsted now has a significant amount of work to do, in order to bust the myths that it has created itself.
They argue that Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman need to be better informed about early-years policy in future.
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of early-years organisation Early Education, said: “I think Amanda Spielman doesn’t know very much about early years yet.
“She’s trying to relay the messages in the report without the understanding to necessarily get it spot-on. Unfortunately, Ofsted is now having to myth-bust a few things that have come out of its own report.
“But I don’t think we have immediate cause for concern with Ofsted, as long as we keep a dialogue going.”
Anne Heavey, education policy advisor for the NEU teaching union, agreed. She said: “We need to all club together to educate Amanda Spielman. We’re concerned that what she says could become policy for Ofsted and we’d like her to be in a more informed position about early years.”
'Imposing pedagogy from higher up'
Representatives from Early Education and early-years body Tactyc were invited to meet senior Ofsted officials after the watchdog came under extensive criticism from the sector for its Bold Beginnings report into the Reception curriculum.
The report called for better alignment between the Reception and key stage 1 curriculums, leading to fears among early-years specialists that inspectors wanted to introduce a more formal curriculum for Reception pupils.
During the meeting, Ofsted early-years officials reassured the two organisations that the Bold Beginnings report did not replace points made in previous reports, emphasising the importance of play and informal learning for Reception pupils.
“There are certain messages coming out from the government at the moment, about wanting to review the foundation stage,” Ms Merrick.
“There’s constantly a sense that there’s a group of people who don’t quite get early years, who don’t understand the principles of early-years pedagogy and are trying to impose pedagogy from higher up primary.”
In fact, she said, she was reassured in the meeting that Ofsted is concerned that Reception pupils are spending too long sitting down at desks. But, she added, this was not apparent from the report.
Ms Heavey added that many early-years teachers were concerned about the form that any changes to the early-years foundation-stage profile would take.
“There’s a fear that there isn’t necessarily a distinction between Ofsted and the Department for Education,” she said. “There’s a fear that the education establishment is doing things to early-years teachers, and not necessarily with them.
“Maybe in a different context, the Bold Beginnings report wouldn’t have been so controversial. But this all feels like it’s an invasion of the early-years space again.”
However, Rob Carpenter, CEO of the Inspire Partnership primary multi-academy trust, who has previously worked with Ofsted officials on a review of primary education, is unconvinced.
“I think Ofsted do know what they’re doing – and know what they’re saying,” he said. “Ofsted wouldn’t have written that report if they didn’t feel that it contained important messages.
“What I do think is that Ofsted will want to see and a review of expectations and standards in early years. I do think Ofsted wants to define expectations in early years in a kind of way.”
An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Our Bold Beginnings report found that, in schools that were the most successful in supporting disadvantaged children to make the best-possible progress, Reception-year children develop their personal, social and emotional skills through play.
“But inspectors also found that the children in these classes learn to read quickly and most easily through developing their knowledge of systemic synthetic phonics, listening to stories read engagingly by adults, and by learning poems and nursery rhymes by heart.”
He added that if any concerns remained among early-years practitioners, Ofsted would be happy to discuss them during the regular meetings held between the watchdog and school leaders.