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Controversy surrounding the benefits of formal testing during the early years period is likely to continue for some time following the publication of a major Ofsted report today.
The regulator’s Early Years Annual Report has been launched in a keynote speech by HM chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, targeted at improving the impact of pre-school education on children from poorer backgrounds.
Sir Wilshaw said in his speech: “Too many of our poorest children are getting an unsure start because the early years system is letting them down.
“We need a solution that is focused on the right things. It is no good a child attending early education if, when they get there, the provider isn’t effective. And what is most effective for the poorest children is the opportunity to learn. I know there are those who dislike the words ‘education’ and ‘teaching’ when it comes to very small children. They fear that teaching the smallest children will inevitably lead to less play and less freedom.
“Setting up play and learning as opposites is a false dichotomy. The best play is challenging.
“What children facing serious disadvantage need is high-quality, early education from the age of two delivered by skilled practitioners, led by a teacher, in a setting that parents can recognise and access. These already exist. They are called schools.”
Tests & Assessments
Recommendations within the report, intended to make early years education more flexible, include a new pupil premium for two-year-olds, more transparent childminder inspection reports and more incentives for schools to expand their provision.
However, Ofsted’s plans for regular baseline assessments of two-year-olds has failed to convince experts within the sector that poorer children will experience any benefits, while the focus on making the most of school environments has also alarmed some, including Liz Bayram of PACEY, who feels that more specialist day nurseries and childcare environments might be overlooked.
Commenting on the report, chief executive Liz Bayram says: “PACEY does not believe that increasing the level of formal education delivered to pre-school children will help reduce inequality or provide children with a strong foundation for success in the classroom and beyond.
“The evidence shows that high quality childcare delivered through a play-based approach to learning is vital to help children develop the social, emotional and physical skills they need to thrive and is one of the most effective ways to lift children out of disadvantage. A child’s confidence, independence and willingness to learn is more important than being able to recognise letters, sit still and focus on a task.
“High quality early years education can take place in a wide range of settings, not just schools. We need to see more support for all childcare professionals to help them improve their expertise and deliver the best possible care for those children and families most in need.”
Early years consultant and former nursery headteacher, Sue Chambers, offers her own perspective, saying: “I have deep concerns about the direction which Ofsted is taking. I believe that children deserve the highest quality early provision possible but Ofsted’s focus is no longer around children's uniqueness and well-being but rather geared towards a false concept of ‘school readiness’ based on narrow tests and assessments.
“My mentor from my early days of teaching, an inspirational and extraordinary headteacher, always used to say, ‘I educate children for life, not for the infant school’. Ofsted could have learned much from her. (She was Jewish and grew up in Austria. In her teens she and her family were sent to Auschwitz. She survived but all her family died. She believed her strength, resilience and innate sense of joy came from a gloriously happy early childhood).”
The manner of Ofsted’s report launch suggests a determination to see through these goals as part of a new long-term vision, however.
Nick Hudson, national director for early education, says, “Today’s report is just one chapter in a longer story about the importance of raising expectations for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and communities. Ofsted’s publication in June 2013, ‘Unseen Children: Access and Achievement 20 years on’, emphasised the importance of the early years for breaking the cycle of disadvantage.
“We believe that not enough is being done to support and encourage parents, but particularly those who need the most help, to secure for their children the benefit that the best early education and childcare can offer.
“This report unashamedly tries to break down the barriers between schools that teach the youngest children and the early years provision outside of schools. But we are clear that the most successful early years providers, whoever they are, are focused on helping children to learn.”
General secretary for education union Voice rejects the notion that the primary purpose of nurseries is to ‘prepare children for school’ and warns against childcare becoming ‘schoolified’, saying:
“Yes, it is essential that children receive the right foundation for learning but it must be appropriate. There is no one-size-fits all model, and a school-type, formal approach that stifles children’s natural curiosity and creativity is not the right foundation. “Nurseries – whether standalone or school-based – and schools should have separate and distinct functions and roles.
“We need to remember that nursery is not compulsory and that children develop at different rates. Some will have been to nursery, some to playgroups, some to childminders, while others will have not had any form of pre-school care or education outside the home.
“The early years need a developmentally appropriate, play-based approach – not formal lessons and assessment. We need to let children be children and not subject them to a ‘too much too soon’ culture of formal learning, tests and targets.
“As with phonics in schools, there is not one ‘right way’. Some children benefit from one approach, while others benefit from other approaches. Children are individuals with different needs.”
Chief executive of charity 4Children, Anne Longfield, says that Sir Michael Wilshaw “is wrong in dismissing the excellent early education and care that is provided in thousands of nurseries around the country every day and it is simplistic and misguided to suggest that all children will be better served by the provision of formal education in schools from two. 4Children is calling for the Government to put early years on an equal funding and statutory status to schools and for Sir Michael to create a new group of expert early years advisers to support his team in measuring and developing early years quality in nurseries, childminders and schools.”
She continues: “Ofsted has a respected track record in improving quality in schools and now has the opportunity to help raise standards in the early years. However, a one size formal school solution is not the solution for many young children and parents and Ofsted needs to take a more informed and sophisticated approach to quality in the early years.
“Sir Michael should join with 4Children in its mission to develop the highest quality environments for children in all nurseries, with childminders and, where appropriate, schools and create a new expert group of early years advisors to provide the knowledge and technical skills to make it happen.”
Director of daynurseries.co.uk, Davina Ludlow, is also critical, saying:
“Assessment at a young age would undermine natural development.
“Rather than giving two-year-olds tests, we should be giving them the opportunity to learn through interaction and play. We need to change the notion that ‘starting sooner means improved results later.’
“All nurseries already evaluate the children in their care without resorting to a formal testing system. Nursery practitioners should be able to make their own assessments of children at the appropriate time.
“In a poll carried out by daynurseries.co.uk, only 4% (44 out of 1,251) of the respondents agree that there should be more formal testing of young children.
“Our findings show parents and nurseries are very much in agreement and want children ‘to have fun and learn at the same time.’”
The report found that the quality of provision in this sector has been rising in recent years – 78 per cent of providers on the Early Years Register are now judged good or outstanding.
However, barely a third of children from low income backgrounds reached a good level of development at the age of five last year – and in some areas it was less than a fifth.
This is the first time Ofsted has produced a separate annual report on early years education – showing the increasing focus that is being placed on the early years. Up until now, it has been included as part of its overall report.