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Nurseries angry at Ofsted's 'schoolification' approach

Article By: Michaela Chirgwin

The new chief inspector of Ofsted has angered the early years community with the findings of her first annual report, which suggests a significant amount of primary schools are not improving year on year due to the ‘weaknesses’ of early years education.

Credit: Takasu

The Ofsted’s annual report for 2016-17 wants schools to alter their focus from 'childcare' to 'education' at reception age.

’Weaknesses’ of early years education

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance criticised Ofsted for this ‘unwanted’ shift towards 'schoolification' of the early years and a ‘radical’ departure from accepted best early years practice.

Mr Leitch called it "both confusing and concerning, to see such a sudden shift towards advocating, alongside Government, for a radical move away from accepted best early years practice and towards the 'schoolifcation' of the early years - and one that Ofsted would be well-advised to reconsider."

30 hours ‘a huge success' says Ofsted chief

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, who began her role in January 2017, said in a speech launching the report: "Despite the fact that most early years providers are doing well, [report] findings cast doubt on whether the early years foundation stage provides a strong enough curriculum, especially for the children who arrive at school further behind."

She hailed the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare scheme as a success, and said there are clear distinctions between early years childcare and early years education.

Ms Spielman said: “The rollout of 30 hours has largely been a success, though I continue to believe that supply could increase further if the Government allowed the additional 15 hours for working parents to be used for childcare rather than for early education.

“Early education is vitally important, which is why the Government makes the first 15 free hours universally available. But the second 15 hours is explicitly designed to support parents to work. Greater flexibility would enable other providers to enter the market, boosting supply and providing more support for parental work patterns, such as shift work.”

In response, Mr Leitch said: “Given that it is now widely accepted that separating early years provision into ‘childcare’ and ‘early education’ is a deeply flawed approach, it is galling to see such a misinformed statement being made by the chief inspector. Such a comment not only suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what early years provision is, but also risks devaluing the professionalism of a highly rated and highly skilled sector."

Despite negative comments about the pedagogy of the current early years system, data highlighted in the report suggests early years practitioners ‘continue to achieve high inspection outcomes’.

Report findings also show that, up to the period of 31 August 2017, 17 per cent of early years providers were judged ‘outstanding’ and 76 per cent ‘good’. It was noted that local authority-maintained nursery schools, ‘have exceptionally positive inspection outcomes, with 63 per cent judged ‘outstanding’.’

But the early years sector’s response to the Ofsted report and Ms Spielman’s comments highlight a growing frustration amongst practitioners over a perceived inability of the chief inspector to grasp certain intricacies in early years development.

One major criticism in the report is the “weaknesses in the statutory framework for the early years foundation stage as a guide for children’s learning in reception year.”

“Schools that are best at preparing children for Year 1 are going beyond the framework and setting more challenging expectations, with an emphasis on reading and maths.”

New report a continuation of 'Bold Beginnings'

Ms Spielman’s previous criticism of the early years framework, most notably in Ofsted’s ‘Bold Beginnings’ report published last November, has led to some in the sector not being surprised at the EYFS being singled out in the annual report.

Credit: Poznyakov

The ‘Bold Beginnings’ report looked at early years settings that were graded as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. It held these settings up as examples of what should be happening within the early years sector, with an increased focus on reading and numbers in reception aged children.

Neil Leitch was one of the critics of this new focus but he had hoped the watchdog’s annual report recommendations would diverge from those of the ‘Bold Beginnings’ report. He said: “In the midst of these excellent results, it is incredibly disappointing that, even in light of the vast criticism of the recent ‘Bold Beginnings’ report, Ofsted still sees fit to criticise EYFS as failing to prepare children for KS1.

“Let's be clear: the purpose of the EYFS should never be about ‘preparing’ children for formal schooling. It should be about fostering a love of learning through supporting the broad range of skills, such as physical development and personal, social and emotional development, that children need in order to flourish – both inside and outside of school.

“In recent years, Ofsted has been very clear that its role is one of an independent inspectorate focused on assessing the quality of education providers, not dictating the best way to teach and support learning.”

Sector rejects ‘radical’ departure from 'accepted best early years practice'

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders also believes Ofsted has taken a ‘judgemental approach’ with its report and went as far as to say that it was Ofsted’s obsession with performance and targets that was stopping teachers and leaders from entering the sector.

Mr Barton said: “Research needs to include looking at the stigmatising impact of Ofsted judgements and Government performance measures, which make it difficult to recruit leaders and teachers and which deter some parents from sending their children to these schools."

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) was encouraged that the report acknowledged the high amount of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding ratings of nurseries, demonstrating the ‘remarkable achievement’ of practitioners under difficult circumstances but was also dismissive of Ofsted’s criticism of the early years framework.

She said: “Nurseries are doing a fantastic job at getting children ready to learn. We know there are overall shortcomings in areas such as literacy and maths by the end of the school reception year but we are supporting the sector to address these through embedding learning opportunities in settings through play-based activities.

“Schools need to work more closely with early years providers to make sure the good work that takes place there in developing our children is passed on and a smooth transition takes place. This is the best way to give a child the best start in life.”

Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY said: “The EYFS has served our youngest children well and any changes to it should be based on the wealth of evidence we have on what supports the best outcomes for children.

“Through this, we will be championing the important contribution of early years practitioners and how best to ensure we build on the strong foundations a high quality early education provides to all children.”


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09 Jan 2018 11:55 AM

I am a little perplexed as to how nearly four times as many local authority maintained nurseries as in the PVI sector gain an outstanding. If I was really cynical I would start thinking that there were maybe some political agendas at work here.... again - there is absolutely no evidence that supports earlier and earlier starts in school actually improves childrens' academic performances and outcomes. We are the only country in Europe, if not the developed world that thinks its a good idea to start school at 4 or earlier. I recommend The Education Minister and the Head of Ofsted read, ' Upstart' - all the research and analysis has been done, so no need for expensive consultations or reviews!!

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Pete Gronback

09 Jan 2018 11:29 AM

I find it very disconcerting that this government does not seem to grasp what Early Years is about. To have the Chief Inspector making the remarks she is making makes me wince with what is to come for Early Years as a sector. I believe the government need to stop, take stock of the whole situation, sit with and discuss Early Years with hardened Early Years professionals to ensure we move forward correctly and positively. I believe we all want to improve and ensure a continual improvement program for our settings and indeed Early Years as a whole...but this approach from the government as a whole is confusing and in a lot of ways destructive. It also feels like there is a divisive manner in the governments approach. A blame culture seems to be emerging between Early Years and schools too. I do not see how this is to the benefit of children or their families. That said, what can we expect. When you have misinformed, inexperienced and lack of knowledge at the top (government) then it is unlikely you are going to get a satisfactory outcome. Good intentions are one thing...but that does not achieve the right outcomes when you have folks at the top with no idea how to deliver!