Ofsted finds Reception class teaching 'failing' a third of five-year-olds

Ofsted is calling on the Department for Education to review the EYFS to ensure it provides ‘sufficient clarity for the effective teaching of reading, writing and numbers’, in a report highly critical of Reception class teaching.

In the report ‘Bold Beginnings’, published today, Ofsted says that in 2016 around a third of five-year-olds did not reach the expected level of development in Reception. For disadvantaged children the situation is even worse, with more than half of them failing to meet expected levels and falling behind.

According to Ofsted, for too many children the Reception year 'is a false start and may predispose [children] to years of catching up rather than forging ahead.'

‘A good early education is the foundation for later success,' the report says. '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.’

Newly qualified teachers are not well prepared to teach reading, writing or numbers in Reception, the report also says.

The DfE should also raise the profile of early mathematics teaching, and make a similar investment to that made in teaching phonics.

Ofsted recommends that the DfE streamlines the EYFS Profile to reduce teachers’ workload, following headteachers’ comments that it places an unnecessary burden on teachers.?

The chief inspector commissioned the survey as part of a wider review of the curriculum in England.

The report is based on visits made by Ofsted inspectors to 41 good and outstanding primary schools during the summer term, where children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, achieved well. It examines the Reception provision in these schools and the extent to which it was preparing four- and five-year-olds for school and life.

Key findings:

  • Reception teachers should focus on developing children’s spoken language and teaching them to read using systematic synthetic phonics.
  • Schools should make sure that Reception class children should sit at tables when they learn to write
  • Headteachers should put reading at the heart of the Reception curriculum
  • Many schools found the EYFS Profile ‘burdensome’, with heads keen to reduce teachers’ workload by recognising that, although some assessments were best made from observations, others were not.
  • There is no clear curriculum in Reception. Most leaders and staff in the schools visited said there was little guidance about what four- and five-year-olds should be taught, beyond the content of the Early Learning Goals.
  • Schools therefore set their own curriculum, beyond the statements in the EYFS Profile, to prevent staff using the ELGs as their sole framework for teaching.    
  • Play was an important part of the curriculum. Heads knew which aspects of learning needed to be taught directly and which could be learned through play. However, except for literacy and maths, schools were not clear about the time they devoted in a typical week to the different areas of learning.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said, ‘Reading should be at the heart of the Reception Year. It is important that in the Reception classroom young children hear new vocabulary and have the opportunity to practise new words and phrases.

‘The best schools know how to design their curriculum so that children’s learning an development sets them up well for the rest of their schooling.

‘Reception should not just be a repeat of what children learned in their nursery or pre-school, or with their childminder. They deserve better than facing years of catching up.’

The report says that in the best schools Reception children:

  • learn to read quickly and easily
  • enjoy listening to stories as the highlight of the day
  • learn poems and rhymes by heart
  • learn about numbers through practical activities and formal, written recording
  • develop their personal, social and emotional skills through play.

The report says that, ‘Reading was at the heart of the curriculum in the most successful classes. Listening to stories, poems and rhymes fed children’s imagination, enhanced their vocabulary and developed their comprehension. Systematic synthetic phonics played a critical role in teaching children the alphabetic code and, since this knowledge is also essential for spelling, good phonics teaching supported children’s early writing.’

It goes on to say that, ‘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. Progression and continuity in mathematics were seen as particularly problematic.’

Gill Jones, Ofsted Early Education deputy director, said, ‘Reception is essential. For many children, it is their first experience of full-time education, when teachers set the routines and expectations that will serve children well for the rest of their school life. So schools need to get Reception right.

‘Reading lots of stories, poems and rhymes out loud to children, and encouraging them to join in and learn them by heart, will introduce them to new vocabulary, language structures and ideas. Providing children with the right reading books to practise what they have been taught in their phonics lessons will make sure they master the alphabetic code so they can read by themselves. This is the essential knowledge that children need to open up the rest of the curriculum.’

Sector response

Early years organisations expressed concern about Ofsted's narrowing of the focus on literacy and maths at the expense of children’s physical development and personal, social and emotional development.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘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. As such, although we know that this shift is one that has been led by the Department for Education, it’s disappointing that this report focuses so heavily on aligning the Reception year with Key Stage 1, and the narrow skills of literacy and mathematics.

‘While both skills are of course vital for early development, 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. As such, we urge both the Government and Ofsted to work with early years experts to ensure that the Reception year is focused on all the skills that children will need during their primary years, and throughout their longer educational journeys.’

PACEY also said that preparing children for school should not be overly focussed on literacy and numeracy.

Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY, said, ‘In England, formal schooling, and the teaching of literacy and numeracy, starts significantly sooner than in many other high performing countries, notably South Korea and Finland. However, there is a wealth of evidence arising from a range of disciplines across the globe that an extended period of playful learning is highly beneficial for the development of children under the age of seven.

‘While the experiences of the 41 schools studied in this report are interesting, they represent less than one per cent of the 16,000 schools with a Reception class in England. Any changes to the EYFS curriculum, including what is delivered in Reception year, must be based on robust evidence of what benefits a child’s whole development, not just their educational attainment.’

Ms Bayram also pointed out that as Ofsted judgements showed quality in registered childcare had never been higher, with most children experiencing good or outstanding early education.

The report also 'fails to recognise children who enter Reception have many different starting points. Some have only just turned four, others are almost five,' she added. 'Most will have accessed some early education in a registered childcare setting, but not all. Some will have additional needs. None of this variation is recognised in the current EYFS Profile.’

Ms Bayram said that recommendations around ‘streamlining the EYFSP and associated moderation processes’ needed ‘careful consideration, particularly given the evidence that alternative approaches such as baseline assessment do not help to identify a child’s starting point, and  have no value in helping a Reception teacher to identify the needs of individual children.’

The National Day Nurseries Association, which developed the Maths Champions programme for early years settings, welcomed the recommendation that the DfE should raise the profile of early mathematics teaching. However, NDNA chief executive Purnima Tanuku criticised the report for failing to recognise the benefits of children’s early years provision.

‘We are concerned that so many children are failing to meet their expected level of development – but also that Ofsted does not recommend a closer working relationship between schools and early years settings,’ she said.?

‘Head teachers agree that ‘children’s achievements up to the age of five can determine their life chances’ – and yet this report barely mentions pre-schooling years.?

‘Although the report acknowledges that schools need to “build on children’s learning from the end of nursery or pre-school” it stops short of recognising the hard work that early years providers are doing to support children with their development.?

‘Head teachers are also seeing more two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds who have benefited from funded nursery places "primed to succeed" in school.?'

Ms Tanuku called for 'a fundamental, robust relationship' between early years and Reception  'where both professions have a clear understanding and share knowledge of their children’s achievements and challenges.?

‘Good schools do have those beneficial relationships in place and the children thrive as a result of it. They need to make sure any transitional experiences don’t have a negative impact on children’s educational attainment,’ she said.?

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, 'We absolutely agree with Ofsted about the crucial importance of the Reception Year, especially for the most disadvantaged children, for whom gaps that open early are hard to close as time goes on. However, it is deeply disappointing to hear them making recommendations based primarily on the opinions of headteachers, not on the extensive evidence base in relation to child development and its implications for good early years pedagogy.

'The EYFS provides firm foundations for all children when taught by teachers who are trained in age appropriate pedagogy. When excessively formal approaches are used, the gap will widen especially for boys, summer born children, those with SEND. The supposed workload issues around the EYFS profile are another indicator of where lack of early years expertise is turning a simple summary of what teachers already know about children's learning into an unnecessary bureaucratic exercise - the need for review of the Profile is much overstated. If we are to give every child the best possible Reception experience, Ofsted and government need to engage with the evidence base and established good practice, not perpetuate the misunderstandings of those used to teaching later key stages.' 

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said, 'Ofsted has missed the opportunity to call for the quality of early education that our children need and deserve. Reading, writing, numeracy have their place in the curriculum, but the best early years education involves teacher-guided learning through play. The international evidence for this is clear, and it is a great pity that Ofsted is paying it no attention.
'Instead of exploring research evidence, Ofsted has chosen to play politics with young children’s learning based on a small-scale survey. This report risks strengthening moves towards the formal teaching of content to young children, in ways that are not appropriate to their age and interests.
'The youngest children in our schools should not be fed a narrow curriculum diet of synthetic phonics and rote memorisation, but encouraged to explore their world through play. Play-based learning is not a soft option, but the best way to ensure rounded development of young children. Done well, a play-based approach will help children to develop the broad vocabulary, self-regulation, and the fine motor skills to thrive when the time is right to begin more formal learning. This is something that other countries grasp, but we are in danger of forgetting in England.'

In response to Ofsted's report, a DfE spokesperson said, 'Thanks to our increased emphasis on phonics, six year olds are reading better than ever before – with an additional 155,000 more on track to become fluent readers. We also know the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is narrowing.

'But we want to make sure all children have access to a high-quality education from the earliest age, so they get the best start in life and a strong foundation for success at primary school and beyond. That’s why we’re making improvements to the early years foundation stage profile, as set out in our response to the primary assessment consultation, and opening our £140m Strategic School Improvement Fund to programmes that help boost literacy and numeracy in Reception.'

The DfE also said it was revising the communication and language early learning goals (ELGs) to focus on developing children’s vocabulary and strengthen numeracy, reading and writing skills.

This is a move previously announced in the Government's response to the review into primary assessment published earlier this year.

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