There was much rejoicing in the primary/secondary sector when Sir Michael Wilshaw sent a letter to school inspectors, insisting that they should not look for a particular teaching style when observing lessons, but focus solely on the outcomes for students. This week a similar letter was sent to early years inspectors. Interestingly, the reaction of the early years sector to ‘their’ letter was very different. To the puzzlement of some commentators, not everyone in the sector sees this message as an entirely ‘good thing’. To help understand why, here are ten practical reasons why it may be problematic to measure early years settings on their outcomes rather than on the quality of their provision. Please note that the word ‘play’ is not mentioned once in this blog (except just then).

1. Given the absence of numerical data from tests such as SATs or GCSEs in the early years, there is no externally agreed numerical measure of children’s progress with which to assess settings. Attempts to create a set of numerical descriptors for this age group are fraught with difficulty, because of the complexity of early child development. For those not experienced with this age group, Development Matters is a great starting point. The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile is, of necessity, a detailed descriptive document rather than a set of numbers or grades that might easily be compared one to another. (This may be part of the reason it is going – it gives lots of information about each unique child.)

2. Only a limited number of aspects of early years education can be subjected to direct measurement – skills/knowledge such as counting to ten, or being able to identify colours. Measuring these areas is necessarily different to a focus on the development of the ‘whole child’, because of the importance of social and emotional development at this age. By putting the focus on outcomes, rather than on the nature of the provision, we must assess each small child at the point of input and at the point of output, and at lots of points along the way. Development in this age group is notoriously ‘slippery’ – one day a child seems to have mastered something brilliantly (e.g. toilet training) the next day they can no longer do it (i.e. they wet their pants).

3. There is no commonly agreed definition of ‘school ready’ (an aspect of early years provision emphasised by Sir Michael Wilshaw in his letter). Inspectors and politicians may have a different definition to early years practitioners. The Professional Association for Childcare and and Early Years (PACEY) make this point very clearly here.

4. Some children only attend an early years setting for a few hours a week. How is it possible for an inspector to differentiate outcomes according to the amount of time a child spends at the setting?

5. Children do not arrive at an early years setting simultaneously, as happens at school. How will inspectors take account of the variety of timescales a child might have been in the setting? This is not a statutory part of education, and parents are not subject to fines if their child is not in the setting. Children are much more likely to be taken out of the setting for days and even full weeks during term times.

6. Many outcomes (e.g. ‘toilet trained’) have to be done in conjunction with parents, particularly where children only attend the setting for a few hours a week. These outcomes cannot be achieved by the early years setting alone. You cannot ‘part toilet train’ a child, so that they use the toilet when in the setting, but then revert to nappies when at home.

7. The two year old check is done in an early years setting, while the end of the key stage happens in a school. The input into Foundation Stage does not happen at the same place as the output.

8. An early years inspection can be as short as two and a half hours, and is often done by a single inspector. How will it be possible for one person to judge outcomes in such a short time, except by observing the nature of the provision?

9. There are no ‘lesson observations’ in an early years inspection, because there are no ‘lessons’ as such. The observations done in this short period of time, by a single inspector, cannot possibly hope to give the whole picture of what goes on daily in the setting.

10. We read almost weekly about politicians making comments such as this … “Ofsted inspectors will be told to mark down nurseries which do not … provide more structured learning.” While Ofsted may be immune to political pressures, there is a clear message being sent to the sector from ministers, about a ‘preferred teaching style’.

Today the Government finally published its response to the consultation on primary assessment and accountability. There is a line in this document that neatly sums up a key problem in testing outcomes to measure progress: “We will use a reception baseline as the starting point from which to measure a school’s progress.” There’s a word missing from that line. A very important word. The reason why we are all here in the first place. Child.

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Fluffy Ducks All in a Row

In the early years we have a term: ‘Fluffy Duck Syndrome’. It is very useful to understand what this term means when discussing the ‘best’ methods for young children’s learning. ‘Fluffy Duck Syndrome’ describes a situation where the adults decide that the children are going to make an piece of artwork for their parents. The adults prepare a set of resources that are all the same – same size, same materials, same ‘end result’ as the goal. The adults give the children step-by-step instructions as to how to make their cards. At the end of the activity, all the children have a card that looks exactly the same. The cards are the same size, with the same art materials stuck on in exactly the same places to create exactly the same pictures. The Fluffy Ducks are officially all in a row. The cards look lovely and neat, and the parents are pleased. But there are some important learning opportunities that get lost in this approach: not least, creativity, individuality, choice, experimentation and decision-making.

There are times when ‘direct instruction’ is entirely the right approach to use with young children. This is what some might call ‘teaching’ but what people in the early years often refer to as ‘adult-directed learning’. When our children are helping prepare the snacks for snack time at preschool, it is completely appropriate for the adults to show them the best way to do it. In this situation, it is the best and most efficient way for learning to happen. ‘You should hold the knife like this when you cut, to be safe’ and ‘it’s best to cut the chunks this way so they are bite size’ and of course ‘shall we count the chunks to check that we have got enough for everyone?’ Similarly, if you want to help a young child learn how to get dressed independently, you would help them understand how best to do it. Why on earth would you not? (Although this is definitely not to say you should not at least encourage them to try and do it by themselves as well.)

Interestingly, it is not just the adults who use ‘direct instruction’ in the early years. You will often find the children using this technique brilliantly as well. When the children teach us, we tend to refer to this as ‘child directed’ or ‘child initiated learning’. ‘You have to put on the chef’s hat, Lynne, because you are going to be the cook in our café and we don’t want hair in our food. Remember to wash your hands before you start cooking, so you don’t spread germs.’ The adults are highly responsive to this kind of instruction from the children, because it is such a wonderful way to help them build confidence and vocabulary, and to find out what they already know. It’s a bit similar to saying to the children ‘you be teacher’ at primary or secondary level.

And then there is ‘play’. It strikes me that the term ‘play’ is sometimes misunderstood when it comes to learning in the early years. ‘Play’ is not some kind of random, free-for-all where children race around the setting chucking toys at each other. (Yes, we too have an agree set of ‘rules’ to ensure everyone is safe and can learn.) ‘Play’ is a cleverly structured set of learning opportunities, devised by the adults in response to an in-depth knowledge of their children. The ‘play’ sometimes begins with the adults putting out a set of resources that they know will inspire their children to learn a specific skill, attribute or piece of information. (In the early years we would usually refer to this as ‘adult initiated learning’.) If yesterday the children were really keen to play on the ride-on toys, then today you might create a ‘road network’ together, and encourage them to ride the cars and bikes along the roads. You might also offer resources so that they can create a set of road signs to use in their play. In doing so, you guide their play, and you also create opportunities to learn – in this instance, building physical dexterity, identifying symbols in the world around us, and learning how and why we follow ‘the rules of the road’.

Early years practitioners also love to give children a choice of resources, as a method both for differentiating learning and also encouraging children to make considered decisions. This is often referred to as ‘child initiated learning’. The children’s ‘choice’ will always be limited by the resources you have available in your setting, and this is why creating an ‘enabling environment’ is such a key factor in a great early years setting. You provide the ‘best’ resources to ensure that learning can happen. The children can only play with what you offer them (although often they will not play with it in quite the way that you had anticipated.) However, when children initiate play of their own accord, the adults do not stand back and let them get on with it. They make subtle but crucial interventions to ensure that the play builds learning. One of the best techniques for this is ‘sustained shared thinking’. As you join in with the child’s play, you talk together about what is going on. You ask the children questions to guide and build their thinking, as they play. These are mainly open-ended questions (‘What do you think will happen if we add another block to your tower? Why do you think it might topple over?) At exactly the same time, you can encourage learning to happen in other ways (‘Shall we count how many blocks were in the tower when it fell over?)

If we go back to those Fluffy Ducks with which I began this post, why then, in some instances, is adult directed learning (a.k.a. ‘teaching’) the ‘wrong’ thing to do? If your goal is to create a setting full of children who know how to follow adult instructions, surely that activity is entirely justified? The point is this: a set of identical cards is one possible outcome of the activity, but it is not necessarily the most appropriate outcome for this particular activity. One of our aims as educators is surely to encourage children to think for themselves, to take creative risks, to experiment with different art resources and to end up with artwork that is an expression of their own imaginative thinking? This is an art activity, after all. And if that is the case, then the best method for this particular activity is to give them the resources and then let them decide what is ‘best’ by themselves. To let them learn through that wonderful technique that us adults might refer to as ‘play’, but which, for small children, is simply what they do.

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When I’m Not in the Room

MCQ 1. The word ‘obedience’ is …

(a) indicative of an old-fashioned, paternalistic attitude to children;                                           (b) a missed learning opportunity;                                                                                                   (c) what happens when the adults are in the room;                                                                       (d) every parent’s (unattainable) dream;                                                                                         (e) it’s just a word, I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about it.

Obedience —–> Compliance —–> Co-operation

When I was at school, we did what we were told without questioning the adults. It wasn’t that we thought the adults were always right, it was more that we were too scared to raise our voices to be heard. The threat of physical punishment or verbal humiliation was ever present. It was seen as acceptable to scream at children who did not offer instant obedience. I became a school refuser. I was literally too scared to go to school. Thankfully attitudes have changed since that time, but in changing they have made things a lot more complicated for the adults.

There is only one reason why we need children to follow rules in the classroom: so that everyone can learn, in a safe and respectful environment. Obedience is not a virtue in its own right. History has shown us where unquestioning obedience can lead. If we want learning to happen, the children have to follow a commonly agreed set of expectations. But they need to understand why these rules are in place, because that is part of what we are teaching them. One day they will leave our care and take their place in adult society. Society needs people who make the right choices around behaviour. That’s not to say it is easy – it certainly isn’t – but surely that is the end goal?

Sometimes we follow the rules, and other times, we don’t. We know what the speed limit is on the motorway, intellectually we understand why it is in place, but the motorways are not full of people driving at 70 miles per hour. Like the children, we push at the boundaries, especially if we feel they could do with a shove, or if we are sure that no one is looking. There are many reasons why we don’t obey the rules: we think the rule is stupid, or it doesn’t apply to us; we have a rebellious streak, or get a thrill from being naughty; perhaps everyone else is doing the wrong thing, so we are drawn to join in. Maybe we just can’t be bothered. We need rules and consequences, but the right behaviour can also be a conscious decision, sometimes even a moral one. That’s why a focus on the why behind the rules is useful, as well as on the consequences of getting caught breaking them. (Empathy is a great starting point for the question ‘why?’.)

When children are small, adults have to make most of the decisions, because small children don’t know what the ‘right’ thing is to do yet. But there is absolutely no point in saying to a baby ‘just obey me and go to sleep, will you?’ Getting children to behave as you need them to is an awful lot more complicated than that. It’s about coaxing, and encouraging, and explaining, and motivating, and yes, sometimes it is about saying ‘because you must’. From the day that your children are born, you understand that your real job as a parent is not to get them to obey your every command, but to teach them to become independent of you. You want them to learn to do the right thing, for themselves and for others, even when you are not in the room. You can say to children ‘you must obey or else’. But if you do, you had better be sure your ‘or else’ is going to change or at least control their behaviour. Because if it doesn’t you are not teaching them how to obey. You are teaching them how to rebel more successfully. And I’m not entirely convinced that was the lesson we wanted them to learn.

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Somebody’s Child

One of the most striking differences for me between teaching in primary, and teaching in secondary, is the depth of the relationship that we can develop with each child. This is not to apportion blame: it is a simple fact of mathematics. In primary, those 30 children very quickly became ‘my class’. In secondary, those 250 children very quickly became ‘that tricky Year 9’ or ‘my favourite Year 7 group’. In secondary you get a flavour of what it is like for primary teachers, when you work with a GCSE or A Level class, or when you have your own form group. But it is still not quite the same. In primary you get to meet the parents each day, as they wait to pick up their children: there is no escaping the fact that they come from a family. In secondary, your first contact might be at a parents’ evening, and even then it will only be a snapshot rather than a deeper relationship.

When I came into teaching, I did not have children of my own. I understood intellectually that my students were somebody else’s children, but I didn’t ‘get it’ emotionally. Fast forward twenty years and I now see education from the point of view of a parent, as well as from the point of view of an educator. When I read blog posts written by teachers, I do so partly with a professional eye, but also from the perspective of a parent. And one of the questions that runs through my mind as I read is “would I want this teacher to teach my child?” I know without a doubt that my son would do well in Chris Chivers’ class – he would flourish under the gentle, intelligent guidance of such a thoughtful teacher. And I’m 100% sure my daughter would have an absolute ball with HeyMissSmith as her teacher. She would literally sob for days at the end of the school year, when she had to leave Miss Smith’s class behind. (She’s the dramatic type, a bit like her mum.) And, oh boy, if I could rewind thirty years, I would absolutely relish the chance to be in Ray Wilcockson’s English class.

The point I’m trying to get to is this: it is oh so easy to lose sight of the fact that each and every student in your class is somebody’s child. That they are not a case study, or a test result, or a book to mark, or an expected levels of progress to achieve. That each and every one of them is a flesh and blood human being, with a set of experiences, expectations, hopes, fears, joys, interests, dreams of their own. I was reminded of this yesterday, first when I read Chris Chivers’ incisive blog post ‘Knowing me-knowing you‘ and again when I read Chris Hildrew’s beautiful blog post ‘Proud Letters’. Here are teachers who never forget that every child is somebody’s child. Who cherish children as individuals, each with dreams, hopes, aspirations and a family at home who want the best for their sons and daughters. Most thrillingly of all, from next September Chris Hildrew’s school will be my own child’s secondary school. How lucky are we?

It is often the case that when we focus in on the detail, we stop seeing the bigger picture. As the saying goes, ‘we can’t see the wood for the trees’. Whatever else we do as teachers, when we are studying the individual trees, we must always keep the child at the centre of our thoughts. Not the methods, or the knowledge, or the research, or the subject, or the data, or the progress, or the SATs results, but the child. We must strive to do this even when that child has grown up into a hormonal teenage acne riddled behaviour management nightmare. Because they are still, and they will always be, somebody’s child.

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Five Top Tips for Speakers

1. Don’t just read it out. They can read. If they wanted to read it, they would have read it. They came to hear you bring it to life.

2. Speaking is performing (same as teaching). You get to use your voice, face, hands, body, movement, character, props, jokes, drama, imagination. You bring it to life. It’s great fun.

3. You can rewrite your ideas live, with the help of your audience. Let them challenge and add to your thinking. Be responsive, soak up their collective intelligence.


5. Use your pause.

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Too Many Hats

The Playwright sits in a darkened room, scratching thoughts, ideas, knowledge on a page. 

The Actor brings the script alive (some audiences are tricky to please).

The Artist turns a simple resource into the key to another world.

The Kitten Herder keeps all the kittens in the same room.

The Parent wipes noses and asks gently ‘Are you okay?’ 

The Editor takes the raw material, and slowly (painfully) nudges it into shape.

The Evaluator checks how things are going, works out why they are not going well.

The Social Worker looks at the world and tries to put it back together again.

The Researcher builds personal knowledge and explores how things can work better.

The Administrator keeps things tidy, organised, safe, with numbers, data and filing.

The External Evaluator arrives. From now on every hat you wear will be monitored, measured, scrutinised. Need we even ask if teachers have an unsustainable workload?

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Love is … being a Parent

1. The years fly past and will never happen again. The moments really matter.

2. I would rather earn less and spend more time with my children, than earn more and spend less time with them.

3. No one is a perfect parent but kindness goes a long way.

4. I should let them spread their wings but be there to catch them if they fall.

5. Education doesn’t just happen at school.

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