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As Ofsted publishes its second Early Years Annual Report, Nick Hudson looks at how early years settings need to balance teaching and play in a child’s early years

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 A child’s early education lasts a lifetime. That is the clear conclusion of an increasing body of academic research.
 
So it is absolutely vital that we get the early years right. It can mean the difference between gaining seven grade Bs at GCSE compared with seven Cs. And it is estimated to be worth £27,000 more in a person’s salary over the course of their career.
 
It has been more than a year since we called on nurseries and other forms of early years setting to focus more on learning through play.
 
For most parents, it is obvious that children learn by playing. Good parents do this instinctively. Whether it is by singing when counting, or encouraging a young child to hold a pencil to colour in.
 
And that is perhaps why there was something of a reaction when we published our last Early Years Annual Report in April 2014.
 
In the subsequent annual report, published today, and in Teaching and play in the early years – a balancing act? we have outlined many excellent examples of nurseries and other forms of early years settings that are teaching young children through play. They are often serving highly diverse communities in terms of parents’ income and ethnicity.  
 
One early years setting provided children with the chance to become builders. The young children were challenged to build a brick wall to stop the Big Bad Wolf from taking their toys. But they also learned about working as a team, counted bricks, used their physical skills to load and unload the bricks in the wheelbarrow, and solve a problem. And they had great fun while they did all of this.
 
To lead this kind of play requires skill on the part of early years staff. That is why Ofsted supports the government’s emphasis on early years qualifications.
 
Another early years setting we visited employed an early reading specialist to teach reading skills. For two-year-olds, this involved singing well-known songs and using colourful pictures to support children’s developing vocabulary.
 
On the other hand, there can be challenges in teaching numeracy to young children. For our survey, we observed one school which was particular adept. Inspectors observed children hunting for minibeasts and recording their tally.
 
Skilled staff can make the stress of the transition from early years settings to reception year that bit less stressful. But I was concerned to find that some of them were telling our inspectors that schools were rebuffing their attempts to develop a partnership.
 
The reasons for this can be historic but the current system of school accountability does not do enough to encourage schools to reach out to early years settings in their local area.
 
In our survey of perceptions of teaching and play in the early years, published today, we have highlighted early years settings which are successful in achieving good or better outcomes for children in some of the most deprived areas in England.
 
They are childminders, as well as private, voluntary and independent early years settings, and schools. They provide a diverse range of early education, but they all have one thing in common.
 
Crucially, they do not see teaching as something which is distinct from play.
 
In one striking example, a headteacher told us that the learning environment was the 'best teaching tool' they have. That is because it allowed children to use resources that they may not have at home. Changes to their early years space allowed children to solve problems, play with each other, and develop their imaginations.
 
But in undertaking this survey, we found not enough poorer two-year-olds getting the benefit of early education. Many schools took as few as four two-year-olds at a time – barely scratching the surface.
 
More positively, where two-year-olds are accessing early education, we found that they were spending most of their time in activities which addressed their speech, language, and communication, as well as their personal development. Inspectors saw the greatest progress in those early years settings which had developed children’s skills across a rich range of experiences, supporting their interaction with, and understanding of, the world around them.
 
However, last year we found that around two-fifths of children did not have the essential skills needed to reach a good level of development by the age of five. The outcomes for disadvantaged children were even lower, and the gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers remaining unacceptably wide.
 
I sincerely hope that this gap has narrowed when we come to publish the next early years annual report. 

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