The Controversy: Ofsted’s ‘Bold Beginnings’ Report

Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report sparked great debate this week as educators, once again, appeared to be tackling the question: should reception classes be taught a narrower curriculum of more formal literacy and maths (and therefore less learning-through-play)? Based on research internationally and what we know about the psychological importance of play, the idea initially sounds worrying.

So what does the report say?  

It was identified (in the few schools investigated) that the transition to year 1 was difficult because the Early Learning goals were not aligned with the year 1 national curriculum (NC).

The successful schools featured gave ‘sufficient time for’ direct teaching of reading, writing and mathematics each day, and it is this that forms the basis of the recommendations.

The report observes that achievements up to age 5 are important – although it appears to condone the attitude that children cannot ‘catch up later’. This contradicts other findings from the Nordic countries that children are better equipped for learning if they start at age 7 after several years of learning negotiation, communication and risk-taking through play, particularly outdoors.

In defense of the report, it identifies:

– The ELGs do not prepare children for the Year 1 demands
– The efforts to meet the EYFSP statements are often pointless activities which detract from real learning
– Language and literacy are the cornerstones of learning
– Story time in the successful schools are a valuable part of the daily routine
– There was a good mix of whole-class teaching, partner work, group teaching and play
– Play is an important part of the curriculum
– Teachers need specific CPD for these reception-level classes and NQTs are not sufficiently trained for it in their ITT courses
– The obsession with gathering evidence (p28) distract staff from their core purpose of teaching
– Moderators often have a motive contrary to checking the accuracy of teachers’ assessments

An interesting study on page 13 of the report shows how restricting free access to snacks encouraged the use of language and questions and gave the opportunity to engage in conversation about the numbers of plates or describing the vegetables.

So why the uproar?

The concern arising from this report is that it makes clear recommendations based on their findings, starting with the CORE purpose of the reception year being the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics.

The threat of the loss of time for play has caused particular backlash and many educationalists are calling for it to be withdrawn.  However the report does clearly state that play is an important part of the curriculum. The ambiguity comes in the point that: “except for literacy and mathematics, the schools were not clear about the time they devoted in a typical week to the different areas of learning,” which could be interpreted as saying that the lack of declared time for play implies that there was not structured dedicated time.

The report also, rather frustratingly, advises that educators ‘use the EYFSP as a guide to end-of-Reception expectations rather than to define what should be taught’. This echoes of the old notion that SATs could be simply a measure of teaching that would be naturally happening, and not seen as a benchmark to be taught to.

Right for all?

While reception leaders involved shared the view that the Reception year should “develop children’s confidence, concentration and ability to listen and follow instructions” and “generate a love of learning and an enjoyment of school.” it is important that we question whether more desk time and formal academic learning can give that opportunity for all. By reducing the time available for play, we risk not meeting the needs of the children who thrive on other forms of interaction to understand concepts.

Is reception important?

Another report “Students’ educational and Developmental Outcomes at age 16″ (2014) showed that the quality of the reception year can be the difference between 7 Bs at GCSE and 7Cs.

Perhaps the more concerning missed opportunity for this report is further investigation of the school starting age in the UK.

What’s your take on the report?

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Author: Katie Newell

Katie Newell

Katie Newell BA(Hons) PGCE is an ex-primary school teacher, Head of Maths, Head of Year five and languages specialist. Katie qualified in Psychology at Liverpool then specialised in Primary Languages for her PGCE at Reading. Before teaching, Katie was a financial commentator and is now the Content Manager for Eteach.com and Fejobs.com. Katie feels passionately that teachers are the unsung heroes of society; that opening minds to creative timetabling could revolutionise keeping women in teaching, and that a total change to pupil feedback is the key to solving the work life balance issue for the best job in the world.

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10 thoughts on “The Controversy: Ofsted’s ‘Bold Beginnings’ Report

  1. I love the Nordic model. This idiotic idea seems like another tick the box, and take away the joy of learning exercise. Let our young ones learn about caring for each other, and finding a sense of self worth in a safe and stimulating environment.

  2. Why don’t we just stick a book and pencil in thier hands the day they are born?? That way we can have them all prepared for school before they even walk and talk.. Ridiculous document!!

  3. Why take away something so innate? What is the rush? Why can’t year one adapt and meet the EYFS philopsphy on play? I am mortified!

  4. I’m no scientist but I think I heard that ignoring evidence renders work unscientific (re: evidence from Nordic countries.)

    A data industry has taken over education in England. Thus, the substance of what is learnt is rendered insignificant in relation to the measurement of it.

    Take the league tables. I like to use a football analogy to make the point. We know that 70s football was rubbish, a lot of hoofing the ball by fat footballers. But you still had teams at the top of the league and teams at the bottom. So even though the football was rubbish you still had clubs ‘doing well’.

    The way that education is organised in England is like measuring the worth of a painting by counting the amount of colours that have been used. The three year old in nursery: ‘outstanding’… Guernica? ‘special measures’.

    Imagine as a teacher that if you do not get 70% of your students using over 50 colours in each painting, you lose your job. You might have an instinct that this is a ridiculous way to practice art, but you need to eat.

    So all your energy is put into getting each student to use more colours and recording the amount of colours used in spreadsheets. You have notebooks for each student filled with learning objectives about using this colour or that one, filled with highlighted annotations and paragraphs advising students about mixing colours so they can up the amount of colours applied to each painting. Every single joule of energy you have each week is put into increasing the amount of colours your kids use. The work ethic in all its splendour.

    Your Headteacher got 70% of her school using over 50 colours in each painting, but she did that last year so now people think that she is ‘coasting’. There’s pressure to get it up to 75% or she’ll be out of her job and lose the mortgage and there goes the kid’s future.

    The county that the school is in is competing with Exasperationshire next door who last year managed 72% of their kids using 50 colours in each painting, so there is no room for them to start whining about how ridiculous this process is. They are also under pressure to get those colours up higher than 72%.

    Who is in a position to ask, ‘Is this the best way to do art?’ Where is the room for innovation for what is actually taught and how it is taught? To question WHAT WE MEASURE?

    Our data-riddled education system has closed down the space for innovation. Everyone is heavily monitored to ensure that they are doing what they can to make sure that we get those colours on the canvas.

    Thus, in this system innovation can only ever comes right from the very top, from OFSTED. A small pool of minds detached from the job are the only people able to suggest new ideas – to change what we measure so that teachers can change what they do. For all the damage it does, it might be the time to consider how much good it does us to obsessively measure everything in the first place.

    In Finland, just one of the much acclaimed beacons of education that we wilfully ignore, the only measurement happens at the end of the line when students do exams. Thus teachers are free to creatively develop practice and to innovate while responding to their students in real time – not in response to a government directive cooked up who knows where.

    In England’s education system, everyone is living and dying by the numbers. It does not matter what rank you are, bad numbers can get you the sack. The stagnation of education under this process is heart wrenching, but as long as the Secretary of Education can stand up and say we’ve got 80% of kids using 50 colours in their paintings compared to 75% last year, nothing changes.

    Educational decay in England and Wales is going undetected because as with the football, there are still schools at the top of these tables, ‘doing well’. We need an Emperor’s New Clothes moment where we are provided a vision of something that is so clearly better that it is impossible to ignore. So blinded are we by the prison of data, it may well be right in front of our nose.


  5. The idea is definitely worrying! Children do learn through play and a ‘more narrowing’ curriculum sounds ridiculous!

  6. Some children will thrive on an increased amount of formalised teaching of maths and English at an early age. A significantly greater number will not. In maths for example, Some very fundemental concepts cannot be grasped until a given child is it a developmental stage ready to do so. As this varies from child to child, we are going to guarantee that some will fail to do so. That a child can learn or relearn these concepts at a later date is not in question, (I am evidence of this -I was unable to read or write at the age of 11 was able to catch up during my time at Secondary school and after.) but the damage done to their confidence will often act against this happening. I now tutor many students one to one. Teaching the concepts and techniques to them when they are ‘developmentally’ ready to learn them is relatively easy. To rebuild their confidence to a point where they believe they are capable of learning is not.

    Phil Wastell

  7. As any early years educator will know in our heart, this is what we do on a daily basis – it does not have to be ‘directed’ …..but we record ……

  8. Well, as usual the pendulum swings from one side to another, from lots of play to more formal methods, yet the advocators high above never seem to reach a balance.

    In my view, different teaching strategies suit different learners, and that is always the way in whatever year group being taught.

    After a move (after many years) from Key Stage Two into Y1 (with a new ‘Letters And Sounds’ initiative to introduce and an EYFS framework to interweave with the national curriculum level one) I decided it was easier to treat them as two completely different assessment systems. Points 8 and 9 did not mean that a level 1C had been covered in Maths, so the way I did it was to immediately group the higher point children together and to assess what their knowledge was of a level 1C. It seemed to work and the children who were still working through EYFS continued to do so.

    It worked for me in a similar way to having had older children in a vertical year grouped class (two or three different year groups in one class). Some teachers in small village schools taught with vertical year grouped classes for years.

    It is possible to combine different teaching styles in one class with children of different learning styles.

    As long as play was purposeful it worked well. Children who needed and were ready for a more formalised setting chose to sit more at tables etc. anyway.

    My only criticism of the old EYFS framework was that it assumed there was adequate outdoor resources and not all schools had foundation stage units where FS 1(Nursery) and FS 2 (Reception) children could be grouped together according to their academic and / or social skills.

    There was also the issue of some schools having nurseries which catered for more children than reception classes the following year. Some schools did not have nurseries at all and started at reception age. Some authorities had part-time nursery places whilst others had full-time places.

    However, the government as usual (as any year two or year six teacher will tell you) introduces a ‘one size fits all’ concept for little children who are not all the same.

    Foundation teachers have, over the last few years, experienced considerable changes which other key stages have had for many years with SATs, optional SATs and whatever else, bringing in their own pressures.

    My answer? The content of what is taught should be standardised and not the method / strategy, so that teachers can use their own expertise and discretion as to how it is delivered. Experienced teachers will be more used to curriculum changes and in foundation stage units staff can easily provide more support to less ecperienced staff.

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