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How will Ofsted evaluate how much a four-year-old knows?

James Bowen website news.jpg

Many questions over early years remain as Ofsted opens a consultation on its new inspection framework, says James Bowen

As with the rest of Ofsted’s new inspection framework, when it  comes to the early years section there are both proposals to welcome and also a number that will cause some concern.

In the credit column is the clear message that inspectors "need to get beyond the data as quickly as possible and ascertain how well the curriculum is meeting the children’s needs". For many years at NAHT we have argued that data should only ever be the starting point when judging how effective a school or provider is, so it is pleasing to see this written so explicitly in the early years section.

It is pleasing to see that Ofsted will no longer be expecting to see reams of internal data tracking for children. If this allows early years professionals to spend more time engaged in meaningful interactions with children and less collecting progress data, that can only be seen as a good thing.

Personally, I also have no issue with the focus on early reading. Laying the foundations for children to go on and become confident readers is a key part of any early years professional’s job. I’m particularly pleased to see that there are explicit references to staff developing children’s love of reading through "reading aloud, telling stories and rhymes" and not just a focus on the teaching of phonics.

Does Ofsted want us to narrow the curriculum?

However, as I have already suggested, there are also some proposals that will cause concern.

On first reading, the framework would appear to imply that it could be appropriate to narrow the curriculum in the early years and key stage 1. The draft handbook states: "From key stage 2 onwards and in secondary education, inspectors will expect to see a broad, rich curriculum." 

It is hard not to infer from this that Ofsted is suggesting, or even encouraging, that schools might want to consider narrowing the curriculum before that point.

Not only does this run counter to the spirit of the rest of the document, it would also put infant and early years teachers in direct conflict with their statutory obligation to offer a curriculum that is "balanced and broadly based". My hope is that this is not Ofsted’s intention and, from their initial responses to others who have raised this point, it would appear that it might not be what was intended. Either way, it’s certainly an area that we (and I expect others) will seek clarification on through the consultation process.

Another area which requires further examination is the assertion in the document that inspectors will able to judge how well the curriculum is meeting children’s needs by looking at "how well children know and remember more". This would appear a very narrow way of defining or judging the effectiveness of an early years curriculum. Surely there is more to a young child’s early learning experiences than a simple measure of how much they can remember? I also suspect inspectors will be faced with huge challenges when it comes to actually evaluating this.

How much, exactly, should we expect a four-year-old to be able to remember from a day, week or term in school? For how long should we expect them to be able to remember these things? Should all children able to remember roughly the same amount? How easy is it for an adult to measure a child’s ability to recall information in what will inevitably be a quick interaction during an otherwise busy inspection? How many children do you need to ask to get a reliable sample? These may sound like pedantic or overly academic points to some, but we need to be clear on such issues if we are going to use this as a basis for drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of an early years curriculum. Again, these are all issues that need exploring further over the consultation period.

Ofsted should certainly be congratulated for making a genuine attempt to design an evidence-based approach to inspection, and Amanda Spielman, in particular, should take a great deal of credit for this. What is important now is that we ensure that the research being used is directly relevant and applicable to the youngest children. This point has been made already by Professor Dame Alison Peacock, who has said: “The evidence base underpinning evaluation of the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum by schools and the inspectorate should include research data from school-aged children as its foundation,” and that the evidence base should be “suitable and applicable for the phase under inspection.” 

I certainly do not claim to be a research academic and I’m always very wary of entering into the academic debate, but this would seem like a very sensible recommendation and one I hope Ofsted will consider further.

There is now a long consultation period where early years professionals and experts will have an opportunity to have their say on the proposals – it is vital that they do so.

This blog was first publised in the TES on 17 January 2019

First published 31 January 2019