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Ofsted does not have a preferred style of teaching for early years

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Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings has certainly provoked some lively debate since it was first published in November 2017. The report focuses on the areas of learning with the lowest early learning goal (ELG)  outcomes, English and Maths. Often teachers and leaders find that although children make good progress and achieve the ELGs in prime areas, sometimes from low starting points, achieving the ELGs for writing and number often prove just too challenging, particularly for summer born children.

All good leaders would agree that leaving reception with a good level of development is important, as this sets the foundations for success for their time in primary school. However, it is essential to consider that improving outcomes in specific areas may not be as simple and straightforward as focusing on reading, writing and maths.

Outcomes in reading are dependent on characteristics of effective learning (CoEL), in addition to phonic knowledge – learning to read is difficult, so children need to be able to persevere, be willing to have a go, and not be put off when they make mistakes.

Outcomes in writing are also linked to CoEL as well as to physical development; not just fine motor skills, but upper body and core strength are essential if a child is to be able to write comfortably.

A focus on communication and language is essential if we are to enable children to write meaningfully and for a purpose. As Britton said, Early literacy floats on a sea of talk. If a child is unable to sequence and articulate their thoughts in a meaningful way, writing will be very difficult. This is where creative development and role play come into their own. In fact, role play is highlighted as an important feature of early years practice in Bold Beginnings, unfortunately, it isnt mentioned in the recommendations. Communication and language are also linked to outcomes in maths. Children will find problem-solving and reasoning about numbers and shapes highly problematic if they do not have the right vocabulary, ability to process and confidence to express their thoughts.

Finally, the often overlooked understanding the worldimpacts on outcomes in reading, writing and maths. If children are to be able to really understand texts, to infer, deduce and make predictions, as real readers, they need to understand the world which they are reading about. If they are to write for a purpose, they need to have something to write about. If they are to use maths in meaningful contexts, they need to fully experience and understand those meaningful contexts.

All of these points were recognised by Ofsted in their report Unknown children - Destined for Disadvantage? (2016) In fact, Lee Owston (HMI specialist Advisor in Early Years) and Gill Jones (Ofsted’s Early Education Deputy Director ) have spoken frequently since the publication of Bold Beginnings and have stated that the report should not be looked at in isolation. It covers the areas not covered by Ofsteds previous reports and should be seen as complementary to them and part of a suite of documentsrather than superseding them.

If staff havent had the chance to look at Unknown children”, “Teaching and play in Early Years- a balancing act (2015)and Are You Ready (2014)it is essential that they do so, in order to get the full picture of best practice in early years. "Teaching and play" also has four very helpful accompanying videos, available on Youtube, which are well worth sharing and discussion, not just with early years practitioners, but with governors, parents and subject leaders who may be out of their comfort zone in EYFS.

Lee and Gill have reiterated frequently that not one of the 41 schools involved in the Bold Beginnings report did not have play as an important part of the curriculum. It is a statutory requirement, as set out in the EYFS (2012) a document which leaders and teachers should return to and familiarise themselves with if they are unsure about best practice. It is also important to note that the survey took place in the summer term; when the Reception class can look quite different in preparation for the transition to year 1.

A  positive outcome of Bold Beginnings is that it has got everyone talking about EYFS, this can only be a good thing. It is essential that leaders at all levels understand what best practice looks like in their school and the whybehind their chosen pedagogy.  Reading the key documents for EYFS and discussing the pedagogical and curriculum choices being made are essential if we are to get the balance right in EYFS. The first Ofsted video accompanying Teaching and Playis called No one way. There is no one wayto teach children, as with the rest of the school the methodology used will be based on a myriad of factors.

It remains the case that Ofsted does not have a preferred style of teaching. Leaders should familiarise themselves with pages 12,13 and 14 of the Ofsted handbook which state what inspectors should and shouldnt request. If challenged on teaching methodology this quote from Teaching and Playis also useful:

Ofsted does not have a preferred style of teaching; those working in schools and settings, not inspectors, are best placed to make the decisions about how young children learn.

It is essential that leaders read Bold Beginnings alongside Unknown children“, “Teaching and Playand Are you ready?”  None of these reports are statutory, they are surveys carried out by Ofsted, who describe them as think pieces”.

It is also worth remembering that the EYFS remains statutory. If leaders are familiar with the statutory documentation, have read the surveys and have had a discussion with their teams about their curriculum and pedagogy, and their children are making good progress, they have nothing to fear.

This blog has been written by early years consultant, Ruth Swailes. 

First published 26 June 2018