A school waiting room?

Sue Cowley
Monday, May 14, 2018

From the 30 hours to Bold Beginnings to a new Baseline pilot, the DfE is consistently ignoring our sector’s concerns, says Sue Cowley

If you spend any length of time working in education, you soon realise that politicians love to tinker with it. Secretaries of state seem determined to ‘make their mark’ during their time in office.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the legacy of Michael Gove’s tenure at the Department for Education, which is still ripping its way through the system. Over the past eight years, there have been significant changes to the content and grading of GCSEs; there have been additions to the statutory testing regime in primary schools; and the National Curriculum has undergone a facelift.


However, one area that has mostly escaped attention is early years. Yes, our settings have been faced with the challenge of increasing funded hours, and there were attempts to change statutory ratios by Liz Truss.

But compared with schools, the department has taken a fairly hands-off approach to the early years sector, and they have left the Early Years Foundation Stage framework relatively untouched. That is, until now. Just when you thought it was safe to relax, we are about to face the ‘perfect storm’.

The 30 hours offer represents a significant investment in the sector, and politicians seem to feel this gives them carte blanche to mess around with curriculum and pedagogy.

We are about to enter a period when ever more pressure is put on practitioners, settings and children to ‘get results’.

The expectation of what children should achieve has increased in later phases, and this has created a downward flow of pressure that has now reached our youngest children.


The point at which the EYFS moves wholly into schools, in Reception class, has become a particular area of contention. The sector awaits with baited breath the publication of the revised early learning goals. All the talk is about how these will be more formalised and based on a view of childhood that does not align with evidence about early child development. It seems that the DfE is coming for Reception year, and the concern is that there will be an attempt to split it off from the rest of the EYFS.

Last November, Ofsted released its Bold Beginningsreport, which focused on the curriculum in Reception classes, and which is still attracting criticism almost six months after publication. The report raised a number of serious concerns for early years practitioners: its narrow focus on literacy and numeracy; the apparent emphasis on a more formalised Reception year; the lack of discussion of physical or emotional development; and the suggestion that the Foundation Stage must be more closely aligned with the Key Stage One curriculum. No matter how often we point out that you can’t base early child development on an ‘expected standard’ later on, those making decisions at the DfE do not appear to be listening.

The images on the front of the Bold Beginnings report tell a story about what Ofsted (and by implication, the DfE) believes that early years should look like. There are photos of children sitting at desks, practising their handwriting or maths, in preparation for trial by SATs. There is no free play or physical activity in sight. We are told the ‘core purpose’ of Reception is learning to read through systematic synthetic phonics. There is barely any mention of play. And yet this is a report about children who are not in compulsory education.


Next year’s pilot of the Baseline test is another point of contention between the sector and the department. The fiasco over previous attempts to bring in a test has shattered any illusions that the DfE might be listening to practitioners. Not content with the answer they got when they opened up the choice to schools, the department decided to tender for a single, formalised test rather than an observation-based assessment.

No matter how often or how patiently we explain that the test will be unreliable, ministers are unwilling to listen. The unintended consequences of a Baseline will be yet more pressure, percolating downwards through the system.

It can only be a matter of time until we are faced with the spectacle of parents ‘preparing’ their children for a test that is supposed to be about accountability for schools.


A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote at the inaugural Firm Foundations conference: an event set up by a group of early years specialists, who are concerned about the DfE’s direction of travel.

During the day we celebrated the role of play, we talked about the importance of outdoor learning, we shared ways to improve outcomes for children with English as an additional language.

As Helen Moylett (one of the authors of Development Matters) said at our conference, politicians need to understand that young children are ‘being, not becoming’. And those of us who work with them will not let early years become a ‘waiting room’ for school.

  • Sue Cowley is an author and teacher. She has helped to run her local pre-school for ten years and is one of the founders of Firm Foundations, www.ffed.weebly.com


‘Baseline £10m contract goes to NFER despite protests over Reception assessment’

‘Ofsted’s Reception report narrow and political’

‘EYFS Best Practice in Schools – Being Bold’

‘EYFS Best Practice in Schools – In the Balance’

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