Primary experts say Reception year needs overhaul to improve pupils' learning

Study by Teaching Schools Council highlights concerns over "most important year" in the school

Helen Ward

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Primary experts have called for an official review of the Reception year after discovering that pupils are taught the same subjects in different ways when they reach Year 1.

A report out today from the Teaching Schools Council says that reception is “the most important year” in primary school – but that the inconsistencies in approach between reception and Year 1 were “concerning”.

Dame Reena Keeble, retired primary head and chair of the effective primary teaching practice review, told TES: “I think pupils could be doing a lot better if there was greater clarity in terms of the expected outcomes for pupils.

“For example, we know the children have to be ‘school ready’ at the end of Reception, but what does that exactly mean? One person’s interpretation is different from another person’s.”

The report Effective Primary Teaching Practice highlights the way that numbers are taught in the reception year, when a counting-based approach is used towards learning how to calculate, in contrast with how the same topic is taught in key stage 1 where pupils are taught subtraction through being able to partition numbers. It says that this is “leading teachers to have to teach pupils to avoid previously learnt approaches”.

'People feel guilty'

Dame Reena added that there was also confusion about how much time children should be spending in child-led activities and teacher-led activities in the Reception year.

“In some places, we found people apologising for teaching a Reception class and saying they would be doing play-based learning soon, and where we saw people observing child-initiated learning, they would be saying we’ll be doing something else in a minute. People feel guilty,” Dame Reena said.

The report adds that play is an essential part of learning, but that it is important for teachers to have a structured approach to learning rather than just creating “aimless activities”.

“We have had a new curriculum and the expectations are much higher with the new curriculum,” said Dame Reena. “So the gap [between Reception and Year 1] is more noticeable.”

'Critical impact'

The report calls for the Department for Education should support a review of the Reception year “to address the confusion and lack of consistency regarding its curriculum and practice”. It adds that it realises that there has been stress and workload caused by a continuous success of changes, but have made the recommendation given the “critical impact on pupils” and potential isolation of Reception teachers.

The research, based on visits to 20 primary schools across England, also identifies four elements which contribute to effective practice in primary schools:

  • Strong leadership – focused on teaching and learning.
  • Ongoing development of teachers and teaching – with mastery teaching properly understood and used across the curriculum.
  • Making the most of all their resources – in particular teachers are helped to use their time on things that make the most difference to pupils.
  • Making clear choices about their priorities – for example whether setting or streaming helps all pupils to achieve.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We welcome this contribution to the debate about teaching practice and its clear focus on the use of evidence and hope schools and teachers find it useful.

“We have noted the recommendation of Dame Reena in her report and will consider how best to support schools and heads to address the issues raised around reception year.”

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