We've all read about the Scandinavian education systems where children don't start school until they are 6 or 7, yet perform better than most other children in the world by the time they are 11. There is more than a hint of envy from educators in this country. But what do the Scandinavians do differently in those early years?
They allow their young children to be just that. These children play, dress up, help around the nursery, get out and about and are encouraged to be independent. Mollycoddling? Pah. Babies and toddlers are left to have their naps outside in pretty much all weathers.
Contrast that with the early age our children start formal schooling, the learning goals they have to meet and the expectation that they should be metaphorically running before they can walk. Which system provides a better start? To play, or not to play? That is the question for early years and it is a question for Ofsted, too. At our school, the answer is definitely "to play".
A few years ago, I visited Prague with nine headteacher colleagues and we saw a wide variety of settings from nursery to secondary. What we found was very interesting. As with the UK, education in the Czech Republic becomes increasingly formal as children get older, but the early years environment is delightful. What I brought back from that trip was a conviction that children should be allowed to play and explore when practitioners feel it is right to do so. It was music to the ears of my early years leader - big bikes and trikes were at the top of the order list.
Of course, learning through play doesn't just mean going off and messing about. There are times every day when the children will be doing phonics, maths, reading and writing, as well as learning through structured (and unstructured) play. It doesn't just happen either. It involves considerable input from early years practitioners; my staff are not afraid of making a spectacle of themselves.
Skills for life
But how does this approach square with Ofsted's view of what children in early years settings should be doing? And how do you "sell" a creative, child-based learning experience to inspectors who will be looking to measure progress against national benchmarks?
There is obviously tension between formal and informal learning, but the key is to provide evidence that pupils can achieve while playing and exploring. Equally important is children's disposition towards learning, which practitioners should be able to comment on, and the enrichment opportunities learning experiences provide.
Under the current framework - where it can seem as though the minds of the inspection team are made up by the data long before they cross the school threshold - you need to convince inspectors of the value of play as a crucial building block to effective learning. Remember, it is not a race.
We see an increasing number of children arriving in early years schooling with poor speech and communication skills, and a lack of experience of playing with other children. With tablets, phones, computer games and the like now commonplace, many children do not have a rich understanding of conversation and play before they start school because they, and the adults around them, are often tapping away on screens.
The benefits of boredom
Children join our two-form-entry school from as many as 18 different preschool settings. With such different experiences, these very young children need time to develop relationships. What better way to do so than by playing? Inventing games and being imaginative are vital.
Recent research by Dr Teresa Belton of the University of East Anglia suggests that our cultural expectation that children should be constantly active could be hampering the development of their imaginations. I like to hear the cry "I'm bored" from children occasionally, because it means they have to think of something to do, which will help them to become creative. For children who have been on the planet for only a few short years, exploration is crucial.
When Ofsted arrived at our school in September, the early years team were primed and able to provide sound evidence of learning and progress. We were told that the children had made a good start and were well prepared for learning. Inspectors praised their personal development and relationships, which we felt vindicated our approach.
Play is vital and schools need to have the courage to live their beliefs. Learning to share, take turns, listen to others, create and play games, and take physical risks are all things that cannot be measured by a grade but are essential life skills. Play is good - just make sure it is backed by evidence.
Richard Bullard is headteacher at Combe Down Primary School in Somerset