'What possible evidence does Amanda Spielman have to suggest nurseries don't teach nursery rhymes?'

Sing a Song of Ofsted: One early years expert takes the inspectorate to task for its recent interventions in early education

Sue Cowley

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If you think for a moment about the things you associate with a child’s earliest years, nursery rhymes are probably near the top of the list. Along with digging in sand pits, jumping in muddy puddles and splashing in water, they are a quintessential part of early childhood. From the whispered refrains of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star that you sing to your baby to lull her to sleep at night, to the endless repetitions of The Wheels on the Bus with which you entertain an irate toddler on a long car drive, nursery rhymes are part of a tradition handed down from one generation to the next.

They are also a fantastic method for learning, both in the home and in early years settings or schools – they help children to learn vocabulary, develop counting skills, build movement and coordination, increase their knowledge about the world and create a sense of community, particularly when sung in a group.

In November last year, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman gave a speech at the Nursery World Business Summit. During her speech, Spielman stated that Ofsted “must use our power responsibly” and that she “certainly was not intending to trash an entire sector”. Clearly, Spielman is aware that people pay attention to Ofsted’s claims and that she needs to pick her words with considerable care, to avoid creating more myths. Knowing this made it all the more confusing to see Spielman claim that, while the adults listening to her speech knew plenty of nursery rhymes, “I don’t know that we can say that is still the case for children in lots of nurseries today”.

What evidence could she possibly have for saying this?

Nursery rhymes every day

I’ve helped to run an early years setting for almost a decade now, and pretty much every time I drop into preschool, I hear the dulcet tones of adults and children singing one nursery rhyme or another. Perhaps my experience was unusual, though? To get a feel for whether her statement was right, I decided to do a Twitter poll – although not a scientific form of measurement, I find these great for getting a general "feel". The results of my poll confirmed that my experience is not unusual at all: 60 per cent of settings said they use nursery rhymes every day, and 33 per cent use them several times a week. Quite what kind of settings make up the 7 per cent that don’t use any, I have no idea. You can see the results of the poll here.

At our preschool, practitioners celebrate the power and joy of nursery rhymes on a daily basis. Our staff members understand fully the power of these rhymes to support language learning, physical development and all kinds of other key areas of early education – points made at length by Roger McGough in his feature in the 5 January issue of Tes (see below for details). During carpet time – a period of adult-led time each morning – the children sing the same song for several weeks, with adaptations to keep things fresh. At the moment the song is “Five Little …” (... monkeys, ducks, men in a flying saucer – the variations are endless!)

At mid-morning snack time, nursery rhymes are in evidence yet again. The children are shown a box of props related to different nursery rhymes – and asked to choose one of the props so that they can all sing the song together. Among a variety of options, there’s a spider for Incy Wincy, a soldier for Grand Old Duke and a mouse for Hickory Dickory. The preschool day ends with a timeless classic – Wind the Bobbin Up. Rhymes are also adapted for different circumstances, with "crackers" substituted for "sausages" at Christmas time, and "robin" substituted for "bobbin" when the children are out doing their weekly day of forest club. We also send home a list of the rhymes that we use, so parents can sing the same ones with their children. For any setting that uses letters and sounds, these rhymes are an integral part of phase one of the programme.

Happy and they know it

Spielman’s speech ended with a plea: “So please don’t be afraid to teach them things.” The idea of educators being "afraid" to teach children echoes Ofsted’s recently published Bold Beginnings report, that suggested settings are not doing enough direct instruction of young children and that they must be prepared for the "demands of" the Year 1 curriculum, despite EYFS being a non-statutory phase of education. The suggestion that there is no adult-led learning in early years settings runs counter not only to my experiences but also to the requirements of the EYFS Framework.

Why, then, are we seeing this narrative again and again? Perhaps it is about the pressure of changes to the curriculum that have filtered down through the schools sector and have now reached our youngest learners. But the problem is that you can’t base early child development on what the DfE says ‘must happen’ later, and many children in early years settings are not government funded – their parents pay fees. As educators we are all answerable first and foremost to our children and their families, so "if they’re happy and they know it, clap your hands".

Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and trainer who has helped to run her local preschool for nine years. Her latest book is The Artful Educator, published by Crownhouse. Visit www.suecowley.co.uk

In the 5 January issue of Tes, children’s poet Roger McGough has written his own response to Amanda Spielman’s comments. He argues that nursery rhymes are “literacy powerhouses” that provide the foundations for reading and writing and he offers some thoughts on why nursery rhymes may be less popular among parents. 

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Sue Cowley

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