For many children, poor experience in Reception year means that they lag behind their peers for the rest of their schooling, Ofsted has said.
Reception teachers often end up inventing tasks for pupils, simply so that they can tick off early-learning goals, according to a report published today by the inspectorate.
It is calling for better alignment between early years education and the key stage 1 curriculum.
In Bold Beginnings, a report on the Reception curriculum, Ofsted reports findings from a sample of "good" and "outstanding" schools.
It found that Reception year is far from successful for many children. For some, the report states, “it is a false start, and may predispose them to years of catching up, rather than forging ahead.”
It adds: “For too many children…their Reception year is a missed opportunity that can leave them exposed to all the painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers.”
In 2016, only half of Reception children on free school meals had the knowledge and understanding necessary to secure a positive start to Year 1, compared with three-quarters of other children.
This gap, Ofsted said, then persists throughout children’s education: effective early years education can, the report states, mean the difference between seven Cs and seven Bs at GCSE.
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of the organisation Early Education, said: “We absolutely agree with Ofsted about the crucial importance of the Reception year, especially for the most disadvantaged children, for whom gaps that open early are hard to close as time goes on.”
Inspectors also found that staff in almost every school found the early years foundation-stage profile burdensome.
The report states: “Many teachers were devising tasks simply to tick off and record elements of the early learning goals, rather than developing a proper plan that focused on progression in learning.
“Teaching time was being spent on collecting and recording children’s achievements, often through photographs, captions and written notes.”
In addition, most Year 1 teachers said that the profile provided only shallow and unnecessary information about children’s achievements. “Typically, they wanted more specific information about a child’s reading, writing and mathematical ability,” the report states.
In particular, inspectors found that school leaders were much clearer about their expectations for children’s literacy than their maths skills.
The Preschool Learning Alliance has expressed concern about the report’s emphasis on the importance of literacy and maths to pupils’ transition to key stage 1.
A spokeswoman said: “We have long argued that the principles of the early years foundation stage should be extended further up into primary education, rather than the principles of key stage 1 being extended down into the early years.
“It’s disappointing that this report focuses so heavily on aligning the Reception year with key stage 1, and the narrow skills of literacy and mathematics.”
She added that research has shown that a focus on these skills, over and above physical, personal, social and emotional development, is likely to be detrimental to children’s broader experiences of learning.
The report also highlighted the fact that most school leaders believed that newly qualified teachers had had little experience of teaching Reception during their training, and were not sufficiently prepared to teach maths, reading and writing at this level.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “Schools need well-trained, highly qualified professionals to lead the learning in Reception.
“It is hard to see how the government’s current plans to remove the requirement for Reception teachers to hold Qualified Teacher Status will lead to better provision and ultimately higher standards.”
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