Bold Beginnings, an Ofsted report on the Reception curriculum, was published at the end of November. It caused a bit of a stir among Early Years teachers. I thought they might be over-reacting, an understandable tendency developed in response to endless assumptions that the children they teach ‘just play’. Last week, an open letter with over 1700 signatories questioning the report’s conclusions was published in the Guardian. An article in response wondered what all the fuss was about. So I read the report. Here’s what I thought. References in brackets are to the paragraph numbers.
The report was commissioned as part of a review of the curriculum. 41 primary schools judged good or outstanding in their last Ofsted inspection (86) were visited and asked to complete an online questionnaire.
The first thing that struck me was the implicit assumptions on which the report is based. Implicit assumptions are sneaky things. For one thing, they’re assumptions; no one wheels out evidence to support them – and sometimes there isn’t any supporting evidence. For another thing, they’re implicit – no one spells them out, so they’re easy to miss. Sometimes the people making the assumptions aren’t aware that they’re making them. Here are three.
The first implicit assumption appears in the first paragraph. It refers to the “painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers” (p.4). I find the idea of children ‘falling behind’ baffling. Falling behind what, exactly? The school population is, like any other large population, very varied. And then there’s the age range. Expecting the youngest children in a Reception class to be at the same level of attainment as the oldest, flies in the face of everything we know about human development and population statistics. Then there’s “in 2016, around one third of children did not have the essential knowledge and understanding they needed to reach a good level of development [as defined by government] by the age of five” (6). Anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics would expect 50% of children to be developing more slowly than average in a large population. The assumption that children can ‘fall behind’ and should ‘catch up’ is made by an education system designed around administrative convenience, not the educational needs of children.
Increased expectations in Year 1
“Reception and Year 1 teachers agreed that the vital, smooth transition from the foundation stage to Year 1 was difficult because the early learning goals were not aligned with the now-increased expectations of the national curriculum.” (p4 §8) The national curriculum isn’t a Law of Nature or Act of God. It’s a system designed by human beings. There is no reason why early learning has to adapt to expectations for children in Year 1. Year 1 expectations could instead adapt to early learning. The report complains “there is no clear curriculum in Reception” (p5 §3). There’s no reason why a clear Reception curriculum shouldn’t be developed, but the current lack of one might be because many children in Reception classes are below the statutory education age.
A third implicit assumption runs through the entire report. Despite the review being of the curriculum, the focus is relentlessly on reading, writing and mathematics – all fundamental, but only three of the skills children need to acquire to access a broad curriculum and understand how the world works.
Bold Beginnings appears to have been written by someone with little knowledge of what is taught and learned at the Early Years Foundation Stage. That might have been a deliberate choice to avoid the bias towards play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning perceived by some headteachers (81), but it resulted in an impoverished analysis. The focus is on reading, writing and mathematics rather than the curriculum; play is mentioned numerous times but not discussed in detail; and the purpose of education appears to be GCSE grades.
The three Rs
Schools are supposed to be places where children learn, and for Reception age children there is much to learn. About physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, geography, history, music, art and drama. I’m not recommending formal subject areas for 4-5 year-olds, but found it mystifying that the report makes only a passing reference to ‘science and the humanities’ (13) and ‘music and science’ (21). The report’s author doesn’t seem aware that at this age children are forming basic concepts about solids, liquids, gases, plants and animals, maps, timelines, rhythm, melody, art materials, scripts and roles, that form the foundation of later learning (Rakison & Oakes, 2003). Instead, the author sees reading, writing and number as “the building blocks for all other learning” (7), completely overlooking all the learning children do that doesn’t involve reading, writing or numbers.
Although speaking and talking are mentioned in passing, language skills are seen in terms of their contribution to reading and writing (p4 §3) not as an end in themselves. Reading and writing are crucial skills, but the report overlooks the amount of spoken communication that goes on between human beings at all levels.
The report’s author is a big fan of systematic synthetic phonics, but I felt painted themselves into a corner when discussing children’s books. It makes sense for reading schemes to introduce grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) one-by-one, as the report recommends, to secure children’s knowledge and build up their confidence. Books with unfamiliar GPCs are cautioned against because they encourage children to use other strategies, such as guessing (53, 54). But it wasn’t clear how parents or teachers could avoid this if they read a wide range of stories to, or with, children.
And then there’s the mathematics. What’s actually discussed isn’t mathematics as such, or even arithmetic. It’s number. Number is obviously a foundational mathematical skill, but I couldn’t find any reference to shape, spatial relationships, or operations – all foundational mathematical concepts that most 4 year-olds are beginning to get to grips with.
The report mentions play numerous times but its role is seen as “primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills” (p4 §5). There are many references to teachers knowing how children learn through play, but what they know seems to be a mystery to the report’s author. There’s a rather breathless account of children dramatizing the Three Billy Goats Gruff (35), suggesting that inspectors weren’t very familiar with an activity that’s probably been a feature of every nursery and infant class since at least the 1930s.
The report appears to see achievement solely in terms of succeeding at the tasks set by schools, rather than in terms of children getting a good knowledge and understanding of how the world works. For example “The research is clear: a child’s early education lasts a lifetime. Done well, it can mean the difference between gaining seven Bs at GCSE compared with seven Cs.7”(5). Leaving aside the fact that the reference refers to 8 GCSEs not 7, and that a correlation doesn’t indicate a causal relationship, framing the importance of education solely in terms of GCSE results is troubling. The author of the report doubtless got at least 7 B grades at GCSE, but that doesn’t appear to have equipped him or her with adequate research skills.
Ofsted do not appear to be aware of the impact of their own inspections. For example, the statutory moderation of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile comes in for some stick, one complaint being “a moderator expected to see three pieces of evidence for every separate sentence within the early learning goals” (77). I vividly recall my son’s Year 1 teachers complaining about the insistence of Ofsted in their previous inspection on exactly this.
Then, in Annex B, we have the online questionnaire sent to schools. Q1 doesn’t have an ‘other’ box for anyone completing the form who isn’t a head, early years or reception teacher. And in Q2 there’s an elementary error that most primary school pupils would know to avoid. The narrow focus of the report is clear in Q12. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an Ofsted questionnaire cause raised eyebrows. One teenager thought a questionnaire sent to families “looks like it was written by a Year 7”. It did too. I’d expect better research skills from a regulatory body.
Bold Beginnings isn’t an objective, dispassionate analysis of the Reception curriculum. Instead it propagates a particular narrative that goes like this: 1) Because the long-term outcomes are better for children who attend pre-school provision and attend it for longer, and 2) because teachers at good and outstanding primary schools believe that formal education begins in the Reception year, that 3) the Reception curriculum should be shaped by the increased expectations for children in Year 1, and 4) that reading, writing and number need greater emphasis, it stands to reason that formal education should start in Reception, be shaped by the Y1 curriculum, and should focus on reading, writing and number. But the narrative doesn’t hold water. Here’s why.
1) Research (Sylva et al 2014) indicates that long-term educational outcomes are better for children who have attended pre-school provision, and attended it for longer. That’s the current informal provision. The research doesn’t support the assumption that the earlier formal education starts the better. As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that starting formal education later (in some countries age 6 or 7) has a detrimental impact on long-term outcomes.
2) “Nearly 95% of the school staff who responded to Ofsted’s survey questionnaire believed that Nursery and/or Reception signalled the start of school. Leaders clearly believe that the moment a child starts attending their school, in whatever capacity, their educational journey has begun. While Year 1 may be the official start, it is clear that the Reception Year is more commonly recognised as the beginning of a child’s formal education” (3). That’s interesting, but an education system shouldn’t be designed around beliefs, whoever holds them. Initial teacher education (ITE) tutors come in for criticism from some headteachers for their emphasis on play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning (81), but the ITE tutors’ beliefs, however strongly evidence-based, don’t play any part in the Bold Beginnings narrative. The word ‘believed’ is used 14 times in this report. That’s probably 14 times too many.
3) There’s no reason why the EYFS curriculum shouldn’t shape the Year 1 curriculum, rather than vice versa.
4) There’s no reason not to improve reading, writing and mathematics in Reception classes, but they are not “the building blocks for all other learning” (7) and the report ignores the vast number of other building blocks routinely developed by Early Years teachers.
This is not a well-researched, objective assessment of the Reception curriculum. The research is inadequate, the evaluation of evidence leaves much to be desired, and the recommendations are based largely on the beliefs of teachers in a sample of 41 schools. Ofsted should be leading the way. Instead, they are falling behind.