Exclusive: I don't understand anxiety over new handbooks, says Ofsted chief

Hannah Crown
Monday, July 8, 2019

The Ofsted chief inspector has said anxiety about the creation of a two-tier system for early years inspections has been ‘whipped up’ by a handful of early years representatives.

  • Amanda Spielman says there are only 'slight differences' between schools and early years handbooks
  • Anxiety over the differences has been 'whipped up'
  • Fears about an over-emphasis on reading ‘a bit of a red herring’

Amanda Spielman said she ‘doesn’t think it is the case’ that handbooks associated with the upcoming Education Inspection Framework will encourage more formalised teaching in Reception.

Speaking exclusively to Nursery World at the National Day Nurseries Association conference last month, she said, ‘The [new early years] handbook very much builds on the EYFS’, while the ‘slight differences’ in the new schools handbook were ‘essentially about making sure that expectations that are right for Reception don’t accidentally bleed down into early years because we don’t do separate nursery inspections in schools. We don’t want nurseries to think they are expected to teach children to read and write.

‘The policy team can explain each of them and why they had to be slightly different, but it was very much around protecting the integrity of the early years. I don’t think it’s a general feeling [of concern in the early years sector] – there are three or four very vocal people who are pushing this,’ she said.

Unlike the early years version, the schools handbook does not mention the key person system, attachment, or interactions in the Good and Outstanding grade descriptors, and has a significant focus on phonics and reading in Reception.

Early years experts have warned that the contrasting language implies children will receive a different education in school and PVI settings. TACTYC and Early Education are concerned about a narrowing of the curriculum in the EYFS, while the Early Years Alliance and PACEY have said it suggests a ‘cleave’ in the sector and a ‘two-tier system’.

Ms Spielman countered that inspector training was key to ensuring schools’ early years provision was inspected appropriately. ‘A great deal of work goes into making sure that inspectors really understand [inspecting early years]. It feels like a slightly whipped-up anxiety – I don’t understand why people are getting so hung up on what are some fairly tiny differences.’

She added, ‘We have to work across the proliferation of structures in England and inevitably it is not as neat and tidy as people might like. People are reading something into it which just isn’t there’.

In a question and answer session with an audience of early years representatives, Deborah Drewett from St George’s Dragons nursery in Harrow, part of a primary school, said she was ‘confused how the curriculum will be different in a nursery. We have two handbooks so I am confused about which book I need to use.’

She added, ‘For me it feels like teachers leading nurseries in schools can teach more than nurseries’, and ‘a lot of school nurseries are teaching phonics – and the schools want them teaching phonics.’

Ms Spielman said teaching of phonics in nursery ‘is not something that we require or encourage’, while to think that nursery classes in maintained schools could teach more than nurseries was ‘completely wrong’.

Ms Spielman said identifying which book to use would depend on the school’s registration and pointed out there was already an early years handbook and a schools handbook under the current Common Inspection Framework.


Ms Spielman told the audience of early years representatives that the curriculum ‘really is the most important thing to think about as educators… the very essence of what we want children to learn’.

This ‘isn’t about excessive formality, and treating toddlers like children two or three times their age. We don’t expect you to drill them in phonics and times tables,’ she said.

She described the EYFS as a skeleton – ‘and you decide how to colour it in’.

‘Cultural capital’, which she defined as ‘the essential knowledge, those standard reference points, that we want all children to have’, would not be inspected separately but instead was a thread to be woven through provision.

Vocabulary was a ‘continuing theme’ in the new inspections. ‘A child with plenty of words has agency,’ she said, adding that while vocabulary can be picked up through activities and in everyday conversation, ‘there will always be some words that need to be taught quite explicitly.’

She also talked of ‘the power of reading’, saying, ‘Forgive me for banging the drum once again, but reading really is one of the best things you can do to help children increase their vocabulary.

‘Take two past favourites in our house. Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth”. And the words of Beatrix Potter in The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies – “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’.”

‘So there are a whole host of words in those simple lines that children will rarely hear through day-to-day chatter, however articulate the adult.’

Emphasis on reading

Ms Spielman also told Nursery World that the emphasis on reading in Reception came ‘from a deep understanding of the path that children take. When we might once have thought it didn’t matter too much if children are slower at reading, they’ll catch up, we know now that really isn’t the case. Children who fall behind will fall further behind.’

There should also be a ‘huge emphasis on spoken language, all the things that build a child’s vocabulary so when they do come to school they can learn to read quickly, efficiently and with as little pain as possible – and have as much time as possible for the richness of the rest of the curriculum and all the play and all the things that are very much part of a good Reception experience’.

Concerns that there was an over-emphasis on reading were ‘a bit of a red herring’, she added.

On sequencing, Ms Spielman said ‘most nurseries expose children to an array of wonderful activities and tools they may not have at home’, and ‘signposting is needed’. ‘It’s not enough to simply put everything out there and hope something sticks. This isn’t about [having a] tick list of what a child should do and when. If a child is having difficulty with something, it’s about stepping in to try a different way.’

She told Nursery World, ‘[A child is] unlikely to be able to do one thing if you haven’t got the hang of something else before that. So it is just recognising that and making sure nursery isn’t just some lovely experiences where some children will engage very fully and some will [just] play football all hours of the day.

‘It’s about [the] pieces we want to make sure every child gets, about making sure that some children don’t miss out.’

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