Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch shares his thoughts on the recent 'Bold Beginnings' report from Ofsted, as well as the negative sector response to that report, and the discussions it sparked around the 'schoolification' of the early years. This article originally appeared in Early Years Educator magazine.
Last month, Ofsted released its first report on the teaching of the school system's youngest children since Amanda Spielman became chief inspector in January last year. At best, it was a missed opportunity.
Ofsted's report, Bold beginnings: the Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools, produced 12 key findings based on visits to 41 schools in one term. The report provides a commentary on what is working and what is not working in the teaching of reception classes. It concludes with 15 recommendations; eight of which are split evenly between the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted; five for primary schools to implement; and two for initial teacher education providers.
The release of the report made national news. The headlines, of reception classes 'failing' a third of children, who leave for Year 1 not knowing how to sit properly or hold a pencil, sparked an animated debate in the educational press and social media -and no wonder. The report's implication was clear - education in reception is failing a significant minority of schoolchildren and leaving them unprepared entering Key Stage 1.
The contents of the report, and indeed the sector's response, were perhaps to be expected, given the evidence submitted by Amanda Spielman to the Education Select Committee in November. During the session, the chief inspector was asked why she thought the gap in children's educational outcomes persisted even as 9-in-10 providers were rated as good and outstanding: "Our view is that the looking-after-children side of things [in the early years] is very good. The education side is not so good." This proved controversial, but notably, she later clarified that this comment was directed at reception classes, not providers in the early years. The report built on this theme, suggesting that Ofsted regards the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which - it is important to remember- covers learning across both the early years and reception, is in need of an overhaul.
For the past nine years, the EYFS has encouraged learning through play and promoted a child-centred approach to early years provision. While any such framework should always be subject to regular review, for the majority of early years settings, the EYFS provides a valuable basis on which to ensure they are delivering care and education to high quality. And yet, despite its high opinions of the delivery of the framework for those working in nurseries, pre-schools and childminding settings, the report's recommendations seem to call for a radical and contradictory departure from this approach when it comes to reception classes.
"Instead of learning-through-play being championed and informing the first years of a child's school education, we face the opposite - a push towards a more formal curriculum, sooner rather than later."
Among the suggestions were that the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, should be the 'core purpose' of reception, and that children should be 'taught correct pencil grip and how to sit correctly at a table'. The report questions whether teachers are doing enough to ensure children have a good grasp of maths, calling on teachers to 'attach greater importance to the teaching of numbers'.
Perhaps the most revealing recommendation is the suggestion that primary schools ensure they 'devote sufficient time each day to the direct teaching of reading, writing and mathematics, including frequent opportunities for children to practise and consolidate their skills'. This, in particular, draws on an idea that surfaces repeatedly throughout the document - and most feels like Ofsted championing a move to a formal, 'schoolified' teacher-led classroom - learning through practise and repetition, and a focus on increasing alignment with the Key Stage 1 curriculum.
My fear is that such a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy will deprive children of the broad, varied education they need. Children are unique, complex and changing every day - education in the early years should reflect and harness that. Early years providers and reception teachers should be confident in delivering child-focused education, which acknowledges how broader skills, such as physical, personal, social and emotional development, are vital in building a solid foundation on which children can develop a lifelong love of learning.
This first early years report from a new chief inspector was an opportunity to challenge the orthodoxy of a government increasingly dogmatic about literacy, numeracy and testing. Unfortunately, that chance has been missed. Instead of learning-through play being championed and informing the first few years of a child's school education, we face the opposite - a push to move towards a more formal primary curriculum sooner rather than later, and all the stress and expectation that comes with it being passed on to our youngest children.
Neil Leitch, chief executive, Pre-school Learning Alliance, for the Early Years Educator magazine.