The recent Ofsted report Bold Beginnings, which looked at the Reception curriculum in a number of good and outstanding schools, highlights what most EYFS teachers have always known; a good Reception year can have a positive impact upon a child’s long-term academic attainment. Recent research from Durham University corroborates this and has shown that intervention at this stage can have a greater impact upon GCSE success than interventions made when a child is older.
However, although we all agree that Reception children deserve high standards during this important year, there is controversy about some of the suggestions made in the Ofsted report about how this might be achieved. For example, it suggests that the distinctive nature of the Early Years curriculum should be watered down due to a belief that Reception risks being a ‘repeat of their pre-school experiences in Nursery or earlier’. However, continuing the EYFS curriculum throughout Reception is no more a repetition of Nursery than Year 2 is a repetition of Year 1, even though both of those are in KS1. Reception children have longer attention spans and are able to work on more cognitively challenging activities than children of Nursery age.
Developing mathematical awareness at 48 months
My co-author, Cherri Moseley, and I took this into account when writing Rising Stars Mathematics in the Early Years (RSMEY); we described activities which recognised the distinctive needs of Early Years children but which allowed them to make the rapid progress that they are capable of during this important year. Crucially, RSMEY also recognises that alongside their developing mathematical awareness EYFS children can be at a range of developmental stages. Some of the youngest, who will only be 48 months old at the start of the year, may have immature fine motor control and may only be able to sit still for a short period of time. Rushing to push these children into a more formal way of learning risks ‘switching them off’ right at the start of their academic journey.
Another controversial suggestion in Bold Beginnings is the argument that schemes of work can be a valuable way to secure high standards in Reception. This idea can be alluring; wouldn’t a well-written scheme of work ensure that all children receive a high level of teaching from the start of their schooling, even when teachers are inexperienced? Cherri and I thought not; it is our belief that a rigid scheme of work can actually lead to poorer quality teaching. What Reception children need is not teachers who are following instructions written by people who have never met their children or worked in their particular set of circumstances. Rather, they need teachers who have a good understanding of the requirements of the mathematics curriculum as well as of the developmental needs of four and five year olds and their families. We believe that prescriptive schemes of work can actually prevent teachers developing both this understanding and the confidence to trust their own judgement.
How to develop teachers in the early years
Nevertheless, we do believe that Reception teachers need better quality support than many of them are currently getting in order to develop these understandings. Their needs in this respect can be particularly acute. EYFS teachers are in the minority in primary schools, and in some cases can be a lone voice in the staff room; there is consequently often little EYFS-specific support available for them. However, unlike a scheme of work, RSMEY is designed to support teacher’s developing pedagogical understanding rather than replace it. An important aspect of RSMEY are the sections which give teachers information about where the learning sits in relation to other mathematical concepts (in the ‘Importance of this unit’ and ‘prior learning’ sections). Another important element is the ‘Pedagogy pointers’ which aim to support teachers to develop an understanding of the misconceptions or difficulties that children of this age are liable to face when learning particular concepts. Alongside this pedagogical information we have provided a menu of activities for teachers to select and adapt according to their own assessment of their children’s needs. These include whole class direct teaching, ideas for small group work, playful activities, games and ways to set up the Early Years environment in a way that inspires children to explore the concepts in question. The relative isolation of Reception teachers can also mean that their particular skills go unrecognised by colleagues, including senior colleagues, who may not understand the rationale for Early Years practice.
The importance of free-flow activities
This perhaps explains why some headteachers quoted in Bold Beginnings ‘did not believe in the notion of ‘free play’. They viewed playing without boundaries as too rosy and unrealistic a view of childhood.’ Child initiated play, however, is not the same as leaving children to run wild, or depriving them of adult supervision or support! Indeed, we believe that supporting productive child initiated play is the most challenging aspect of being an EYFS teacher. It represents a synergy between the inspiration provided by adults, the past experiences of the children and the circumstances of a particular moment. It cannot be predicted or planned for in the same way as any other sort of teaching, and requires teachers to combine flexibility with a deep understanding of children’s needs; it certainly cannot be facilitated by a pre-written scheme of work!
Rather than trying to predict or restrict what might happen during free-flow activities, Cherri and I tried to encourage an attitude of ‘preparedness’. We suggested what resources might be made available and what sorts of adult support might best support children to lead their own play. We warned teachers not to impose particular learning objectives at this time. Rather, we encouraged them to respectfully listen to and reflect upon what children said and did. When EYFS teachers are open in this way, child directed play provides opportunities for children to enter a state of flow and apply much higher levels of competence than during adult imposed activities. It also represents the richest possible way of getting to know the children and the deepest form of assessment, informing teachers of children’s understanding and interests and productively informing future planning.
Bold Beginnings and Assessment in the early years
Bold Beginnings argues for including a range of assessment strategies including ‘screening tools [and] standardised tests’. I feel that this message from Ofsted might encourage senior leaders (who, as I have already noted, may have an incomplete understanding of effective EYFS practice) to devalue more holistic approaches to EYFS assessment and to expect their staff to use formal tests which are not only potentially stressful for Reception children, but often give an incomplete picture of their competencies and needs. We are not suggesting that teachers should never plan activities which will support them to make judgements about their children or that they should rely exclusively upon serendipity for their assessments. However, RSMEY is designed to supplement informal observations with planned assessment opportunities such as playing a game with children, rather than by administering inappropriate formal tests.
The report rightly highlights problems with current assessment practices in some settings including excessive workload for teachers and an inefficient use of teacher time (such as the example of a learning journey with 15 photographs of a child putting on their coat). However, examples of poor EYFS assessment practice should no more lead to the abolition of current EYFS assessment than previous recorded abuses of KS2 SATS tests and GCSEs have led to the abolition of these forms of assessment! The answer is better CPD for both EYFS teachers and senior leaders alongside an atmosphere of trust where teachers do not feel that they always need photographic evidence to back up their professional judgements. In RSMEY we argue that recording should be kept to the minimum needed to inform planning, show progress and for statutory reporting, including reporting to parents.
Providing excellent support for excellent early years teachers
Although the recognition of the importance of the Reception year is positive there is a real danger that high quality Early Years provision might be undermined by this report. Even the message from the Durham research that ‘primary schools should consider putting their best teachers into Reception classes’ is subtly undermining. We do not believe that you could move an effective teacher from another key stage and expect them to provide the best possible education for EYFS children. Rather, we think that effective Reception teachers, and senior leaders who can provide the optimum environment for excellent EYFS practice, need to be valued and supported. We hope that RSMEY goes some way to providing the information and support that they need.
Find out more about Rising Stars Mathematics in the Early Years