On soggy ground

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Michael Pettavel disagrees with the chief inspector on the role of the sandpit in early number work.


Michael Pettavel, head teacher, Brougham Street Childcare and Nursery School, Skipton

‘The dichotomy here is not about formal learning versus play. It is about understanding the different ways in which children acquire different kinds of knowledge and skills. 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.’

The above statement from Amanda Spielman made me cringe. I have my ups and downs with our Chief Inspector of Schools and in the past even welcomed her intervention in areas such as risk aversion. Not on this though.

I haven’t seen many soggy letters in paddling pools recently, although I know there can be a misguided pedagogical understanding (in my opinion, often the result of senior school leaders with no understanding of early child development press-ganging inexperienced staff into justifying early literacy in play). Her statement beggars belief and simply demonstrates that people who have limited understanding should not make ‘expert’ judgements.

I think the sandpit is exactly the place that early number work could be developed appropriately. Understanding of how young children learn is startlingly absent from ‘Bold Beginnings’ and the dichotomy referred to by the Chief Inspector comes from exactly this sort of statement. All you have to do is read a basic Level 3 textbook and you will understand that concrete experience is the basis for effective learning – and no, I don’t mean the nursery years should be ‘repeated’. Depth is important in learning and often this means an opportunity to revisit concepts and ideas in new ways.

If you see (life-long) learning as developmental and incremental, why is Ofsted’s review back to front? Taking inspection reports as evidence, you can see 93 per cent of early years settings are Good or Outstanding, and for nursery schools the figures are 63 per cent Outstanding (37 per cent Good) vs 19 per cent of primary schools rated Outstanding. Now, unless there is something wrong with the inspection system, then why not use an area of strength (nursery education) to develop provision within the early years phase? There is a not-so-hidden agenda here: a review of the EYFS to become formal, over-regulated and prescriptive, much as the National Curriculum did over 15 years ago.

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