Reception is for learning as well as playing

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Gill Jones shares her thoughts on Ofsted's annual report and the debate surrounding the inspectorate's 'Bold Beginnings' report.


Gill Jones, Ofsted deputy director, early education

We’ve come a long way in the last five years.
In 2012, fewer than three quarters of early years settings were good or outstanding. Ofsted’s Annual Report, published on Wednesday, revealed that this proportion has soared to 94 per cent of the 65,000 early years registered providers.
This means that many thousands more young children are enjoying high quality early education than was the case just half a decade before.
What’s behind this success? At Ofsted, we can point towards tougher registration rules and the replacement of the satisfactory judgement with requires improvement. And, since November 2013, Ofsted has re-inspected nurseries and pre-schools within a year. So they have had the opportunity to show improvement quickly.
But most importantly of all, it’s down to early years leaders, managers and staff. It is Ofsted’s role to support improvement by focusing on those providers that are not yet good. As long as some children are not getting as good a deal as others, there will be more work to do. That’s a message that applies to early years just as it applies to schools, colleges and children’s social care.
With obesity an area of concern in the early years, children’s physical development is central in the minds of inspectors when they visit nurseries and early years settings.
Inspectors will judge how well the nursery is promoting children's physical as well as emotional health. They'll ask themselves: how does the environment meet the needs of young children? How often are young children encouraged to get out of breath during activities, so that they become fit and healthy?
All of us want children to be well prepared, both physically and emotionally, when they start school.
Our research into the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) this year found that the best schools build on children’s learning from pre-school or nursery, so that Reception Year is not just a repeat of what they already know. With so many children leaving regulated childcare with good or better outcomes, it is important that schools take this into account when planning their reception curriculum. That’s why I am pleased that the Government is reviewing it.
We think the EYFS could be improved for Reception Year, so that 5 and 6 year old children have the language and literacy they need for starting the national curriculum in Year 1.
So this leads us to the question: Is the Reception year a time to learn or play?
I think we can all agree that it’s a bit of both. Certainly, Reception teachers don’t have to make a choice between the two. As we said in our previous survey ‘Teaching and play, a balancing act’, setting up teaching and play as polar opposites is a false dichotomy. One builds upon the other.
But when we published ‘Bold beginnings’ two weeks ago we were surprised by the debate it provoked about the purpose of the Reception Year. The report is based in part on visits to 41 good and outstanding schools across England. We also considered more than 200 responses to our questionnaire and analysed more than 150 inspection reports. In short, we put a lot of work into it.
Our findings told us that Reception teachers should focus on developing children’s spoken language and teaching them to read using systematic synthetic phonics. Schools should also make sure that children sit at tables and hold a pencil correctly when they learn to write.
Inspectors visited schools across England where children are learning to speak clearly and to take turns talking about stories and why they liked them, and then listening to what others had to say.
Tom Bennett, Director of ResearchED, said the report was 'sensible'. Sussex primary school headteacher Michael Tidd said: 'I like this.' And London primary school headteacher Clare Sealy said: 'This report is a game-changer for EYFS practice.'
Jo Pearce, primary writing project programme director, described Bold Beginnings on Twitter as: 'A clear report full of common sense+ reflects what we see in our best schools.' Marc Rowland of the Rossendale Research School said: 'This looks excellent. Thank you. Especially the points about maths and Yr R to Yr 1 transition.' And Simon Camby, Cognita Schools Group Director of Education, said: '"Bold Beginnings"is an excellent piece of work and hugely useful for school self-evaluation and reflection.'
Yet there were others who criticised Bold Beginnings. Too much emphasis on reading and not enough on play, they said.
Let me emphatically say here that Ofsted is not against play. On the contrary, our report’s key findings state clearly that play is an important aspect of the curriculum. And inspectors will still be using Ofsted’s ‘definition of teaching’ from the inspection handbook when they inspect all types of early years settings.
If you are reading this article the chances are that you have tens, perhaps hundreds, of books at home. Perhaps you are wondering what books you will receive for Christmas and whether you’ll be able to find space for them.
Yet we should not assume that all households are the same. Earlier this month, the National Literacy Trust published the results of its survey, which found that more than 9 per cent of children did not have any books at home. That equates to more than 770,000 children.
This is where early years settings and schools fill a vital gap. By teaching all young children, regardless of their background, how to read and develop their language skills.
We were to some extent caught in the debate about phonics. But I hope it is clear that reading is much more than recognising words on a page.
By reading, we mean children hearing and joining in with stories and rhymes, and singing with their friends. Learning stories and rhymes by heart is a great way to develop language and literacy. By hearing and repeating stories and ideas about the world around them, children increase their vocabulary and understanding. And that will be the foundation for all learning from Year 1 onwards.
In 2018, as our corporate strategy set out, Ofsted will be a force for improvement through intelligent, responsible and focused inspection. Through the Ofsted Big Conversation and National Consultative Forum we will be willing to address criticisms and take on board feedback. But, in the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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