'We’re turning our Year 1 pupils off school'

The transition from early years foundation stage needs much closer attention, argues Lisa Jarmin

Child with tie

Remember those wild-eyed, untamed children you saw skipping out of their Reception classroom for the last time in July? Shrieking, laughing children, they were – careering around the EYFS playground on tricycles like mud-covered maniacs.

And now look at those same children in Year 1.

They didn’t suddenly grow up over the school holidays. Six weeks is not a long time. They didn’t suddenly become serious and ready to apply themselves, either. But in many cases, they’ve come back to an entirely different version of school.

“Where are the toys?” they ask. “When can we go and play?”

A Year 1 child can find themselves in a classroom that could just as easily house a Year 4 class.

I understand why this is: there are so many learning objectives for them to achieve, so many standards to reach. And if not now, when? At some point, a transition to a more formal learning approach is needed.

Play-based approaches

It is, of course, possible to train a class of five- and six-year-olds to sit at desks and focus on their work, but is that really what is best for them?

I think we need to take a long, hard look at Year 1. As a teacher, this transition always seems just as tricky to the primary-secondary transition, but the children are arguably less equipped to deal with it.

The use of "play" is the biggest difference in the approach. Many Year 1 teachers will claim play is part of their approach, but their definition of play is often very different to that adopted in EYFS.

The main point of variance is the role of the adult. In EYFS, the teacher has a number of roles in play – from curating spaces to scaffolding child-initiated learning, to direct adult participation in play and so on. In Year 1, much of the training to do this well is missing; often "play" is either a loose treat at the end of a tough unit of work or heavily prescripted. Children know the difference. If you do not believe me, just ask them.

It’s an abrupt change. And it can be a damaging change.

Finding the balance

Now, this is not an argument for an EYFS-based Year 1. My son started to thrive at school as soon as he started Year 1 because he loved the structure. But he continued to love school because his teacher found a balance between that structure and elements of his EYFS experience.

And those pupils who were not ready for formal learning weren’t tired and resentful because the environment was too different from Reception, and the children who were ready were given plenty of adult-directed tasks to keep them engaged.

Closer collaboration between Year 1 and EYFS, so that the end of the latter year brings in more formal elements and the second half of the former year includes more EYFS approaches, would do so much to ease this transition in our youngest students' lives.

We need children to love school. In education, we can be guilty of thinking about development in very linear terms – a checklist of milestones per year group. Deep down, we all know that this is wildly inaccurate and that buying into it turns children off school – just as we need them most to engage with it.

Lisa Jarmin is a teacher and freelance writer

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