Making the most of Reception

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Ofsted's Gill Jones explains why she considers Reception to be the most important year of a child's school life

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Gill Jones, Ofsted deputy director, early education

Reception is the only part of school that is not compulsory. Parents are often surprised when I tell them that they don’t have to send their child to school to do the Reception year.

So it’s somewhat ironic that Reception is perhaps the most important year of a child’s school life. Done well, a good Reception year sets four- and five-year-olds on the path to a childhood of successful learning, and beyond.

It’s a measure of the importance of Reception that Ofsted embarked on the survey that resulted in our report published today. For ‘Bold beginnings’ we visited more than 40 good and outstanding schools across England; from Chagford Primary School in Devon to Shilbottle Primary School in Northumberland. In each school, inspectors talked to Reception teachers and school leaders and observed Reception children’s learning.

Ofsted inspectors went to really good schools for this survey. They were making a difference for all young children, regardless of their background, because of what they taught.

Our research confirmed that Reception is vital for children’s development. But too often it is a false start for young children and leaves them exposed to all the painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers.

First and foremost, Reception is an opportunity for schools. At the schools our inspectors visited, they could see what great strides children we making in their learning. By the end of the Reception year, they had got nearly all their children reading well.

Primary schools should be introducing an element of formal teaching in Reception. It should not just be an extension of pre-school.

It’s in their Reception year that four- and five-year-old children get into the habit of the daily school routine. It’s when they enjoy playing together and make good relationships, are introduced to everyday school life and, get to use the school’s sports facilities for physical education.

They also learn to sit properly on a chair when writing; how to form capital and lower-case letters correctly; and to read aloud what they have written.

So if a child falls behind during Reception it’s going to be that bit harder for him or her to catch up later. The evidence for this is clear. A good early education can mean the difference at GCSE between gaining seven grade Bs or seven grade Cs.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of reading. Along with listening to stories and singing nursery rhymes this is how young children expand their vocabulary - as HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has stressed in a recent speech at the Nursery World Business Summit. They learn the kind of linguistic fluency that will serve them well in later in life.

However, I’m afraid the same cannot be said of the way young children are introduced to early mathematics. It is very important for young children to understand the concept of numbers, not just be able to count.

So Ofsted wants all primary schools to:

  • make sure that the teaching of reading is the core purpose of Reception;
  • attach more importance to the teaching and understanding of numbers
  • ensure that when children are learning to write, they are taught how to sit and hold the pencil and paper correctly
  • devote enough time every day to the teaching of reading, writing and maths, including opportunities for young children to consolidate and practise their skills.

But it has to be said that the move from the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) to the national curriculum is not always straightforward. And one reason for that is because the early learning goals are not well aligned with the expectations of Year 1.

Indeed, staff in nearly all of the schools we visited told inspectors that the EYFS profile places an unnecessary burden on teachers. The reason? Every interaction becomes evidence for the end of year assessments.

To deal with this issue, Ofsted wants the Department for Education to review the scope of the EYFS Profile. We want a slimmer EYFSP to help reduce teachers’ workload. I’d also like to see the Department for Education place more emphasis on numbers. We’ve seen big changes, for the better, in the teaching of phonics. I’d like to see a similar push from central Government to help improve the teaching of mathematics at this early stage of school.

I want to stress that we are not criticising pre-schools, nurseries and childminders. Indeed, earlier this month, Ofsted published statistics that revealed the proportion of childcare providers on the Early Years Register judged good or outstanding is now 94 per cent. We know that this improving quality of provision really helps get our children well-prepared for Reception.

'Bold beginnings' has recommendations for those who work in Reception, central Government and initial teacher education providers. For example, we want to see all trainee teachers have enough knowledge of Reception, so that they understand progression from the EYFS onwards.

For our part, we will review and update the guidance for inspectors about evaluating the quality of early years provision in this first year of school.

Reception is often a child’s first experience of full-time education. A time when leaders and teachers set the rules, routines and expectations that will serve them well for more than a decade to come.

It is my hope that this report will spur on a better experience for young children. Bold beginnings will also inform the next inspection framework that will take effect in September 2019.

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