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.