Are schools really best for twos?

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The publication of this year’s Ofsted early years annual report should have been cause for celebration for the private, voluntary and independent sector, says Neil Leitch

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Neil Leitch

For all too long, we’ve heard the (false) assertion that PVI provision ‘tends to be of lower quality’ bandied around as fact, and so it was heartening to see a report that reflected what we in the sector already knew to be true: that the vast majority of PVI providers provide high-quality care and education. In fact, 85 per cent of such providers (87 per cent of group settings and 84 per cent of childminders) now deliver ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ early years care and education, roughly the same proportion as primary schools (86 per cent).

You’d be forgiven for being surprised, therefore, that much of the media coverage of the report didn’t focus on the fact that the quality of early years provision was at a record high, nor did it acknowledge the fact that PVI providers have now been shown to deliver provision that is just as good as that of schools (despite significantly lower funding rates). Instead, we saw article after article focusing on Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw’s call for more schools to take disadvantaged two-year-olds.  

Because while the annual report itself was, in fact, rather balanced, clear and objective, the speech given by Sir Michael at its launch was none of these things. In fact, for the second year running, the Ofsted head seems to have completely disregarded the contents of the report – and the evidence and research on which it was based – and used the launch event as a platform to air his own (largely ill-informed) views on what’s best for the early years.

So despite admitting that 'rising standard are now more evenly spread across different types of providers than in the past' and that 'school, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders now all have high level of good or outstanding provision', Sir Michael still used the vast majority of his speech to push a ‘school are best’ agenda – specifically arguing that two-year-olds accessing places under the free entitlement scheme should do so in schools.

This is not a new argument. In September last year, Sir Michael controversially stated that funded two-year-olds should 'go to a school‑based nursery, not the local childminder'– an insulting and inaccurate comment that was roundly – and rightly – condemned by the sector. The language used this time around was gentler and less abrasive, but the message was the same:  disadvantaged two-year-old should be in schools. But what exactly is this call based on?

Not very much at all, by Sir Michael’s own admission. In his speech, after arguing that schools are best placed to support funded two-year-olds, he explicitly stated: 'No, it is not proven.' Hang on a minute – have we completely done away with the concept of evidence-based policy?

And it gets worse. Sir Michael went on to argue that even though there’s no proof that schools are the best places for disadvantaged two-year-olds, 'it is obvious what has been done to date has not worked [and so] it’s time to try something different'. I don’t know about you, but this seems to be an utterly ludicrous basis for an argument. Surely we could just as easily call for all young children to be forced to write with their left hand as a way of closing the attainment group. Sure, it hasn’t been proven to work, but letting them choose which hand to write with hasn’t worked so far, so clearly we need a new approach.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Sir Michael then argued that primary schools have demonstrated an ability to close the gap for older children, deducing from this that if children start at primary school at two, this work can start even earlier. Again, this is an incredibly flawed and simplistic argument. Yes, primary schools are adept at supporting primary-age children; of course they are. But it cannot be simply assumed that this will extend to younger children too. As I have said before, while there are undoubtedly some primary schools that are able to provide high-quality care for two-year-olds, the fact is that the vast majority are not experienced in meeting the specific needs of this age group, and even less at meeting the needs of those from disadvantaged backgrounds (let’s not forget that only 6 per cent of schools currently deliver places to funded two-year-olds).

The problem is that Sir Michael doesn’t seem to make any distinction between two-year-olds and older children. He states that 'what the poorest children need is to be taught, and well taught, from the age of two'. Now, while I appreciate that Ofsted has stressed that it does not take a narrow view of what ‘teaching’ means, the assertion that two-year-olds need to be ‘well-taught’ (as opposed to cared for and supported in their learning and development) makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

He also argues that 'well-qualified graduate teachers make a difference', citing evidence from Oxford University to support his claim – conveniently ignoring the fact that this research focused on three- and four-year-olds. When giving evidence to the House of Lords Affordable Childcare Committee, Sandra Mathers of Oxford University herself stated: 'In the evaluation of the Graduate Leader Fund, we had trouble measuring the impact of graduates on quality for children under three because there were not enough graduates working with this age group to get a true sense of their impact'. Sir Michael’s arguments are looking flimsier and flimsier by the second.

What’s perhaps most concerning, however, is that the Ofsted chief feels he has the right to decide the direction of early years policy in this country. While the early years team at Ofsted has made a concerted effort over recent months to positively engage, and work in partnership with the whole sector to tackle some of the challenges around the inspection process, Sir Michael himself seems to be increasingly occupied with making demands on government. Toward the end of his speech, he proudly proclaimed, 'I am pleased that two of my recommendations from last year [changes to the school admissions code, and to the rules on schools taking two-year-olds] have been acted upon'. Ofsted is, by its own description, an ‘independent and impartial’ inspection and regulation body. It is Sir Michael’s job to lead this body and ensure it carries out its duties to a high standard. It is not his job to attempt to direct government policy. The fact that the demands he makes are based on little to no evidence simply adds insult to injury.

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