Best Practice

Alarm at Ofsted’s Reception conclusions

Bold or premature? Ofsted’s small-scale report into the Reception curriculum has alarmed many with its dismissal of softer skills and focus on quick starts and rapid progress. Suzanne O’Connell reports

Ofsted’s investigation into the curriculum was always going to be a controversial one. As we await the final report on the curriculum as a whole, we are offered a taster in their Bold Beginnings – a summary of good practice in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Or is it?

In January 2017, chief inspector Amanda Spielman commissioned an Ofsted-wide review of the curriculum. Bold Beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools is the first instalment, published in November.

The tone of the report was perhaps already indicated in Ms Spielman’s discussions with the Education Select Committee in October when she said: “Full compliance with the Early Years Foundation Stage framework still doesn’t mean that children are well-prepared for primary school.”

This is in spite of the fact that 93 per cent of early years settings are now rated as good or outstanding, a fact that would seem to contradict the concerns that Ms Spielman expresses. She continued: “Our view is that the looking-after-children side of things is very good. The education side is not so good.”

The early years are perhaps under closer scrutiny then ever before at present. With the announcement that a Reception Baseline is to be introduced in place of that of key stage 1, eyes are on how the new measurement and the EYFS Profile will sit together. Other plans include the possibility of reducing the number of Early Learning Goals (ELGs) with a view to bringing them more in line with key stage 1, particularly for maths and literacy.

This intention, clearly stated in the government’s response to the primary assessment consultation, would seem to pre-empt Ofsted’s conclusions about the early years curriculum.

Bold Beginnings

Bold Beginnings focuses on the curriculum for four and five-year-olds and how it prepares them for the rest of their education and beyond. It is a clear endorsement of a more formal curriculum for this age group with both eyes firmly fixed on what will be expected in year 1.

The report is clear from its opening statements: “A good early education is the foundation for later success. For too many children, however, their Reception year is a missed opportunity that can leave them exposed to all the painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers.”

The tone of the report is clearly a move away from play-based activities to a more formal system of direct teaching of reading, writing and maths. An indication of a shift that has left many early years teachers anxious about the future of early education.

The report criticises the EYFS Profile, citing teachers as indicating that it is burdensome. The ELGs are accused of determining the Reception curriculum in the absence of clear curriculum guidance. According to the report, the ELGs are not aligned with the increased expectations of the national curriculum as children experience it in year 1. This is particularly the case in relation to maths, where early years providers were criticised for not giving sufficient emphasis.

There are 15 recommendations, which for schools include:

  • That the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception year.
  • Attaching greater importance to the teaching of numbers in building children’s fluency in counting, recognising small numbers of items, comparing numbers and solving problems.
  • Making sure that when children are learning to write they are taught correct pencil grip and how to sit correctly at the table.
  • Devoting sufficient time each day to the direct teaching of reading, writing and maths.
  • Using the EYFS Profile as a guide to end-of Reception expectations rather than to define what should be taught.

The recommendations to the Department for Education (DfE) include the review of the EYFS framework so that “schools better understand the nature and purpose of the Reception year and what should be taught”.
Ofsted also proposes that there should be a similar investment in the development of appropriate maths schemes and resources as there has been in the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics.

Recommendations to Ofsted include that the report should be used to help shape the new education inspection framework from September 2019. However, schools should be alert now to the intention that during inspection there will be a sharper focus on the teaching of reading and numbers.

The messages of Bold Beginnings have also been repeated in Ofsted’s annual report for 2016/17, published in December. The report repeats warnings of weaknesses in using the Statutory Framework for the EYFS as a guide for children’s learning in Reception year.

It states: “We found that schools that are best at preparing children for year 1 are going beyond the framework and setting more challenging expectations.

It adds: “Inadequate early years providers generally face issues of poor safeguarding, welfare and compliance. They also tend to not have effective procedures for supervising staff or monitoring the progress children make. These failings are often in addition to weaknesses in the education on offer and how they follow the EYFS framework.” (For more on the annual report, see our article here).

Early years reaction

The Bold Beginnings report might reflect the discussion that inspectors had with headteachers in 41 successful schools, but it has left many early educators reeling. Early years organisations have raised concerns at its recommendations and the extent to which it will attract a narrowing focus on literacy and maths at the expense of physical development and personal, social and emotional development.

The Preschool Learning Alliance is concerned that once more the report remains an attempt to force learning down rather than building up: “We have long argued that the principles of the EYFS should be extended further up into primary education, rather than the principles of key stage 1 being extended down into the early years,” explained Neil Leitch, its chief executive.

The report is quite dismissive of the importance of softer skills such as developing confidence, a love of learning and enjoyment of school. Rather the language is of acceleration, quick starts and rapid progress.
“While both skills of literacy and mathematics are of course vital,” Mr Leitch continued, “research has shown that a focus on them over and above broader skills such as physical development, and personal, social and emotional development is likely to be detrimental to children’s early learning experiences.”

Other commentators and educators are also asking why a report with no secure research base should be allowed to dictate the direction of early education. From a research point of view, the report hardly commands respect in relation to its reliability or validity.

In response to the report, Early Excellence undertook an analysis of the Ofsted inspection reports of all of the 41 schools and says these show that the schools’ good or outstanding judgements were underprinned by much more than the narrow focus on literacy and maths described in Ofsted’s report.

National director Jan Dubiel said: “It is quite clear from this analysis that the good and outstanding judgements were derived from a much broader and balanced view of the Reception curriculum, pedagogy and provision than those specified in the recommendations in Bold Beginnings. Therefore, we believe that clarity is required to avoid further confusion posed by potential misinterpretation.”

Ofsted’s involvement in the curriculum

The report has also left the education service wondering about just how far Ofsted is involved in determining the curriculum and teaching styles. Ofsted’s myth-busting claims, which the inspectorate promotes heavily to schools and teachers, have focused on challenging the belief that Ofsted is looking for prescribed types of planning and marking.

It is interesting to note that in July 2017 they also indicated on their “Ofsted inspection: myths” that they “don’t prescribe any particular teaching style – we know that different things work for different teachers and trainers. Inspectors are only interested in how much progress students make”. This first of the “myths” was removed from the guidance in October.

However, Ofsted has consistently interfered in teaching styles. The latest being its insistence on the use of systematic synthetic phonics as “the route to decoding words”.

This is in spite of the findings of the DfE’s favourite researchers, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which makes three recommendations for improving literacy in key stage 1:

  • Use a balanced and engaging approach to developing reading, which integrates both decoding and comprehension skills.
  • Effectively implement a systematic phonics programme.
  • Teach pupils to use strategies for developing and monitoring their reading comprehension.

The EEF does not suggest the exclusive focus on systematic synthetic phonics as pushed for in Ofsted’s most recent literature, but rather emphasises the quality of training available to staff when selecting a programme and that lessons engage pupils (EEF, September 2016).

The way forward?

To change the EYFS curriculum based upon the 41 schools studied in the report when there are around 16,000 schools with a Reception class in England seems a dangerous move to make. At a time when concerns about the mental health of students has never been greater, moving the pressure of exam success ever downwards would seem to be an unusual, if not disastrous choice.

Concern has been expressed that those who will struggle most are those who have SEND, summer-born children and boys. Those who are already vulnerable and may need more time spent on their nurturing rather than propelled into preparation for baseline and key stage 2 SATs.

Most would agree that the EYFS Profile does need to be reviewed and perhaps more guidance should be available on the Reception curriculum. However, Ofsted is using a small-scale survey to support a preferred view of education that would appear to ignore international evidence. In light of this report, it perhaps is also up for grabs whether they are, in fact, an independent inspection service or a DfE pressure group for curriculum change.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

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