I caught up with the Ofsted deputy director, early education after she spoke at a London briefing on the report organised by Early Excellence.
You have just given a very comprehensive presentation. It was interesting that at the end, some people felt you had made it clearer and were reassured. How will you get that message out there?
Gill Jones: [Ofsted ]regional directors work with local authorities, academies, leaders – I think it would be helpful if they have ‘Bold Beginnings’ on their agenda for those meetings so that the key messages can be shared via the groups that lead educational practice.
We received a lot of comments from readers in response to [Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s views that] ‘you don’t learn phonics quickly and efficiently by playing with soggy letters near the paddling pool. The sandpit is not a great place for early number work.’
GJ: I think there are some things that we do in early years practice that we think is about learning numbers or letters, which actually isn’t. For children to learn number correspondence, they need practical experience of knowing what ‘1’ is and be able to understand that the number has a visual representation. They have to make the connection between what the visual representation is and the concrete number, and they need lots of practice doing that.
So, I have five shells; what do I have if I take two away? All those practical number problems that you do with children are really important. Putting a number in a sandpit, just the symbol ‘6’, doesn’t mean children will have any better understanding of what six is. Finding six shells in the sandpit is a different thing – and can you find me the number on a number line to show me the six shells. Just putting a number in the sandpit isn’t going to magically help children understand number, and that’s the point we were trying to make.
And the same for letters. Putting a ‘b’ in the sandpit doesn’t mean children know that when they pick out a ‘b’ it makes the sound ‘b’. Just putting a number or letter in the sandpit without the teaching and the practice and the concrete experience doesn’t actually get the children to where we think they should be.
How will the report impact the Early Learning Goals for maths and literacy?
GJ: They are the DfE’s goals. They’re in the process of revising them and I hope that they do revise them because there needs to be more clarity in the Early Learning Goals, particularly the goal for reading. And number. Experts have been invited to work with the DfE to look at the goals, and those groups will feed into the revision.
As you said, the report isn’t going to change the way inspectors inspect schools…
GJ: We inspect against the inspection framework, and that hasn’t changed. There are no changes. There’s nothing in ‘Bold Beginnings’ that isn’t covered by the inspection handbook in the definition of teaching.
There are concerns there will be more pressure on early years settings to adopt more formal approaches, that this is a politically driven agenda…
GJ: I don’t see why they’ve interpreted our report to be a politically driven agenda to make Reception more formal. If they accused us of saying we want to ensure children are immersed in language through hearing language, hearing stories, through being read to, taking part in stories, through learning rhymes and poems, etc., getting a love of reading and a love of literacy, then I could understand that. But I don’t see why that has translated into ‘formal’.
I looked through the report to see the context in which we had used the word ‘formal’, and every time it comes up it is about going on to formal learning later in a child’s schooling.
There are about eight references to it, but each time it is prefacing later years. So, the fact that we’ve said that when learning to write, children should sit at a desk or a table and hold a pencil properly, I don’t think there is a single Reception teacher who would argue with that. But what they are arguing with is that they think we’re saying they should do that all the time.
Our report doesn’t say that at all. That’s other people’s interpretation of that finding.
I think it is probably because of the emphasis on phonics that comes across…
GJ: I’ve not been to a single Reception class in the past year or two years of Reception work where I’ve not seen phonics being taught. I don’t think our report is requesting for more phonics teaching at all. In fact, its focus is on ensuring children are read to and immersed in books and a love of books and that they are taught phonics quickly, efficiently, so that they can then apply that to their own reading.
So the key is making sure the books that children are given to read support them to become confident readers because they use the phonic knowledge that children develop – so they’re not guessing at words through vicarious means.
But that’s not formal. Actually, we’re talking about Reception, not pre-school or nursery. And if I had a wish for pre-school or nursery, it would be more singing, much more emphasis on singing, because children get so much good articulation and good phonetic knowledge through singing. And not just singing along to a tape or an interactive whiteboard, but singing led by someone singing with them.
People have asked for clarification. You said you would take that to Ofsted…
GJ: I think we will have discussions about that, but it’s not my decision. And it’s difficult to know what to clarify when we don’t think the report says what Twitter has indicated that it says.
Why do you think it has been criticised so heavily?
GJ: I think the fact that Ofsted recommendations focus on what needs to improve rather than on what’s done well. I think because we hadn’t put in things like ‘improve the way you organise your classrooms for children to learn through play’, because it’s not a problem. The intent was to improve reading in Reception, particularly for disadvantaged children to get them off to a stronger start.
I thought the criticism would be more around the way we teach maths or reading, rather than about ‘formal, not formal’. Every report we’ve ever published has generated some criticism. We’re probably not doing our job if it doesn’t. The day when we can write a self-congratulatory report will be the day when we’ve got it really right everywhere.
EARLY EXCELLENCE DIRECTOR JAN DUBIEL
‘[This is a ]watershed moment for Reception. We’ve been having conversations like this for 30 years and need to look at this in a measured way. Is it just about the language or is it something more fundamental concerning us?
‘In early years we have good words and bad words. “Play” is a good thing. We have bad words like “formal”. It’s not that simplistic. When you strip everything down, there isn’t actually a disagreement. There isn’t anybody who says children should just be untaught all the time, and nobody says children should just sit in rows and be drilled all the time. The issue comes when words take on an almost religious meaning. Formal isn’t always a bad thing. If you have a workbench and want children to use it, you could say, “Here’s a hammer and a saw and some nails, off you go” and see what happens; or quite directly and formally teach them how to use some tools.
‘I don’t use the word “play” because I don’t think it adequately describes the complexity of children’s learning. Some of the debates about Bold Beginnings and play have ended up with people arguing about whether an activity is about play or not. But does it matter? What matters is whether it is an effective learning experience or not, not whether it is play or not play. We use the word “play” all the time – play-based learning, learning through play – but no-one really agrees what the word “play” means in those contexts. We have our own individual interpretations, but there isn’t a shared one.’
This is an edited extract from the presentation on 18 January.