A Child Called It

Just before Christmas, Ofsted published a suite of materials on curriculum, ahead of the consultation on their new Inspection Framework. One of the videos is  on ‘Early Reading’ and it features Ofsted’s Regional Director for the South West – Bradley Simmons. Biographical information about Mr Simmons is not easy to find online, beyond a brief description on Ofsted’s own website telling us he used to be a head teacher. There are a handful of news stories about the upset he caused in Swindon when he wrote a report saying that children were “failed by its schools at every key stage”. But my guess is that there is no point at which Simmons has worked with children in the EYFS.

Early reading is a pretty controversial subject, particularly on social media forums such as Twitter. Ofsted had previously promised not to tell teachers ‘how to teach’ but Simmons is keen to get stuck into the subject and to share his forthright views on exactly what you should be doing in your classroom. Unfortunately, though, his views are badly phrased and inaccurate, although they do inadvertently tell us quite a bit both about Ofsted’s attitude to early years, and also about how keen they are to separate Reception from the rest of the phase. Simmons appears not to know that the Early Years Foundation Stage runs from birth to age five. He uses the words “from the very moment that a child starts in the EYFS” to describe the child’s entry to school, apparently failing to understand that most EYFS provision is in non school settings, and that only a handful of children enter a Reception class without ever having attended an early years setting before.

According to Simmons “There’s no more important intervention and assessment in the early years foundation stage than checking that children are making the right progress with reading”. This ties in nicely with claims in Bold Beginnings about reading being the “core purpose” of Reception. However, even if you accept this as a premise, there is a hell of a lot more to early reading than phonics. Parents of a child with language delay, or glue ear, or any one of a number of potential issues that might require support prior to learning phonics, are swept aside in his determination that “every child masters the phonic code as quickly as possible”. He uses the word “furious” to describe the way in which teachers should approach the teaching of phonics, a word that might not sit well with parents. If I was the parent of a summer born four year old, and I was considering deferring entry to Reception, the way he says “furious” would be more than enough justification for me.

To compound the confusion, Simmons confuses decoding with comprehension, suggesting that decoding is the same thing as reading, in a verbal sleight of hand worthy of Nick Gibb: “from there [phonics] of course comes the ability to actually decode words to read them and to comprehend a larger text”. But perhaps most tellingly and worryingly of all Simmons uses the word “it” to refer to children, not once but twice. He wants us to “teach it to read fluently” and to ensure that “every child is getting what it needs”. And I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sit at all well with me. If I was asked to give this video an inspection, it would fail in every area. It’s only a short video, but it packs in a lot of issues. You really must do better, Ofsted – it’s our taxes you are spending on this.

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The Medium and the Message

Just before Christmas, Ofsted published a series of short videos on YouTube about their proposed new Education Inspection Framework, with specific reference to the focus they are going to be putting on Curriculum in future inspections. The Framework is going out to consultation shortly (information is to be published on 16th January) and it will come into operation from September of this year, so time is fairly short for schools and settings to get to grips with the new approach. One of the videos in the set is entitled ‘Vocabulary and Reading’, and it features footage and images of early years children, including the still seen above (this is actually an image from the cover of the Bold Beginnings report). The video features Gill Jones, Ofsted’s Deputy Director of Early Education, and at the point in the video when we see the still, she makes the following claim: “The most rapid way for children to increase their vocabulary is through listening to stories, rhymes, poems, that they can then internalise, repeat and learn new words and the meaning of new words through those stories. It is the most rapid way to gain vocabulary.”

No one who works in early years would dispute the idea that reading, stories and nursery rhymes play a fundamental role in childhood, and that they form a vital part of early education. In the early years setting that I help to run, they are a key part of our daily offer to our children and their families. When parents arrive to drop off their children, they choose a picture book together from the box, to take away with them and share at home. We give advice and support to parents on reading with their children. We read a story to the children every day, and we share nursery rhymes daily at snack time, using Makaton signs as we sing. However, what we do not do is to instruct the children in vocabulary, and get them to repeat it. We don’t need to! New words appear as if by magic at this age, when practitioners talk to and with their children during hands on activities. When I went into preschool earlier today, our lead practitioner was talking with the children as they made snacks together, using language around cutting, food and colours, and the preparation and sharing of a meal. “It’s a purple pepper!” the lead practitioner said, merrily playing with vocabulary. “No it’s not – it’s red!” the children informed her in response.

During the video we see footage of a group of very small children sat in an outdoor area (looking more than a bit cold and fed up, if truth be told). They are all togged up for what looks to be an exciting outdoor learning or forest school session. But instead of romping around in the mud and the water, chatting merrily about what they are learning, they are listening to an adult talk. I’d imagine that the footage was set up for the camera, rather than representing usual practice in the setting, but that is exactly the point. We are seeing a model of direct vocabulary instruction in the early years, a method that would normally play only a tiny part in the work that we do. These images have been chosen to send a specific message, because that is how video works. Match the images to the voiceover as the children are sat listening and the message becomes clear: “So if we take children in the early years, for example, it’s very important that teachers are aware what sort of vocabulary could be picked up through the activities that children are doing, but what needs to be taught quite explicitly through reading to children.”

Where a taxpayer funded organisation says that its approach is based on evidence, and it puts videos into the public domain to show the thinking behind its new inspection framework, it is important that the claims made can be backed up with evidence. I cannot find any evidence to support the claim that listening to stories is “the most rapid way to increase” a child’s vocabulary, especially in the early years. Yet this is a claim that is made and emphasised not once but twice in the video, over footage of our youngest learners. Despite requests for a link to the research to support this claim, Ofsted have been unable or unwilling to provide it. The video has already had over 2,000 views and some of those viewers might have taken away the message that Ofsted wants more sitting and listening to develop early language, and less hands on interactive learning. This is a lesson that Ofsted do not appear to have learned from the images on the cover of Bold Beginnings – that the medium (the pictures, the video, the very words that you choose to use) contains the message that you want to send. Unless, of course, this is the message that was intended. If it had been phrased as “one useful way” there would be nothing to see here.

Why does all this matter? Why all the fuss? Why not wait and see what the consultation materials say next week? Well first and foremost, because ‘consultations’ have a habit of turning into a fait accompli, when it comes to this government. And also because, more than a year since publication, concerns about Bold Beginnings rumble on in the early years sector. These concerns are particularly around the potential for the report to lead to increased formalisation within the phase, both in Reception and via a ‘trickledown effect’ to an ever younger age. I am already hearing teachers and parents report that children are doing more formal phonics instruction in nursery, and yesterday I heard that in one Reception class play ‘stops after Easter’ in order to prepare for Key Stage One and SATs. Sector concerns are not going to be ameliorated by videos that seem to encourage more teacher led input and explicit instruction of vocabulary, without any evidence to support what we are told is the most rapid method to learn new words. The video explains that our “educational programmes” should “focus on increasing children’s vocabulary” and we are shown how this should happen in the film.

While reading stories to our children is a valuable and wonderful part of the EYFS, and a great way to give children access to new words and new worlds, it is not the only or the main factor in language development from birth to five years old. There are a range of ways in which language acquisition happens in the early years, but at heart it is about warm and attentive interactions between children and their carers, particularly during play. ‘Serve and return’ conversations, sustained shared thinking, role play and talk during hands on experiences – all these will contribute to children developing vocabulary. Although stories play an important part, early language acquisition is not about being static, listening to an adult, following instructions, or memorising words given to you out of context. It is about using language within rich, meaningful, enabling environments in the company of supportive adults, whether that is them reading you a story, or working alongside you as you play and learn. When the medium is video, the words and images chosen matter, and to me the message is clear: the new Framework comes with an agenda, but without the evidence to back it up.

 

If you’d like to watch the video, you can find it here:

Posted in Bold Beginnings, EYFS, Ofsted | 1 Comment

Joining the Dots

At the same time as testing increases and we put ever more pressure on children to achieve high academic results we see rising rates of poor mental health in young people.

At the same time as schools are being put under ever increasing pressure of accountability, the curriculum is narrowing and potential off-rolling is raising serious concerns.

At the same time as exams have got harder, funding has got tighter and SEND support has been cut, behaviour is back in the headlines and exclusion rates are up.

At the same time as workload demands on teachers have got higher, and school funding has got lower, we have a serious recruitment and retention problem.

At the same time as child poverty has risen, children are in settings longer and parents are working longer hours, Ofsted talk about a rise in toileting issues in young children.

And in a stroke of genius, at the same time as we have a developing obesity crisis in children, they promote an approach to early education in which children have to sit still. (The obesity might not be their fault, but they could at least read the NHS Guidelines.)

We could argue forever about whether these things are linked – to what extent correlation or causation might be involved – but we’re talking about children here. So the DfE needs to get busy on joining the dots.

Posted in Accountability, Behaviour, Government, Ofsted | 1 Comment

In Partnership

One of the key elements of being in EYFS is that we work in partnership with our parents and families. This phase is about the care, learning and development of the children who attend our settings. Small children have many developmental needs, including things like toilet training, so we have work closely with families to support them as well as we can. Most young children in the 0-4 age group are in PVI (private, voluntary and independent) settings, but many schools also take children from 2 years old and sometimes younger. There is no single moment when a child is ‘toilet trained’ and children might have accidents in Nursery, Reception and later on. This can be distressing for both them and their parents. Children with SEND and medical situations may have continence issues for a variety of reasons and to describe these children and their parents as having to be “excused” as “extreme cases” is unhelpful.

Where we face a situation in which parents are struggling to toilet train, or to do other things that we might say are ‘their job’, we need to think about why that might be happening. What is it about policy or practice that is causing this phenomenon? Parents are working longer hours, so children are in settings for many more hours than they used to be. There seem to be ever more demands on children, at ever younger times. Settings can’t just down tools and refuse to step up, so telling parents what to do is unlikely to help, because it doesn’t reflect the realities faced by families, early years settings and schools. None of us can take the children we work with and replace them with children who aren’t affected by government policies.

Schools are being given an endless list of things to ‘solve’ and this needs to stop, but blaming parents isn’t going to help anyone and it might even make things worse. The statutory EYFS framework in England gives guidance about the duties of settings in relation to children’s toileting (see p.30, point 3.60). The early learning goals require that settings support children to “manage their own basic hygiene and personal needs successfully, including dressing and going to the toilet independently.” (see p.11) If there is research evidence available showing problems in this aspect of child development, then government organisations should disseminate it. But anecdotes don’t meet research standards and the headlines about parents they generate are often unhelpful. Settings are working in partnership with parents on behalf of their children, because that’s what we are there for. And it’d be great if Ofsted could stop doing things that get in the way of that.

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Navigate the World

It’s muddy in the forest
So we have to wear our boots.
That’s the way you do it!
First right foot and then left foot.

The forecast is for rain
So we’ll wear coveralls for luck.
And pack up our tarpaulin
Neatly, in the truck.

There is danger on the road
So we’ll walk in single row
Down the narrow pavement
To the lane where cars don’t go.

On the lane there is a robin
Let’s keep quiet, so it stays,
Keep our eyes peeled for the birds
See what we can spot today.

You’d like to sing a song now?
That’s a really great idea.
We can make a big loud noise now
We can sing and we can cheer!

Oh you want to carry a stick now?
Well, I know you know the rule.
Hold it downwards, sticks can hurt us
And none of us are careless fools.

Well which way should we go here?
To the right, into the trees?
Or straight on, to the allotments,
Where they keep a hive of bees?

In between the place we started
And the destination where we go
There are many different lessons
Lots of things we need to know.

The grown ups give us guidance
But we have to learn to do –
All the things that are important
In the world as we move through.

We might drift, or lose our focus
Do some things that aren’t so great
But one day you won’t be there
And then it’s all too late.

We can chatter with excitement
We can get to know our friends
We can listen to our teachers
Dream of what’s around the bend.

So let us make mistakes now
While there’s still time to be shown
Because one day all too soon
We’ll be doing it alone.

And then you’ll have to trust us
All those tiny boys and girls
And hope you taught us properly
How to navigate the world.

Posted in Behaviour, Children, Early Years, Poetry, Self Regulation | Leave a comment

The Power

“Just give me, give me, give me the power
And I’ll make them bleed”
Suede

I’m a big fan of silence in classrooms for when teachers are teaching, when children are writing, or when a student is addressing the whole class. In my book on behaviour I talk a lot about how to set ‘one voice’ as a key expectation, how to get the attention of a class, and what to try if your students won’t listen. When we listen to each other, we can learn from each other; silent listening helps to create a calm, respectful atmosphere in which the exchange of ideas can take place or focused individual work can happen. It’s definitely not easy for teachers to get silent attention or focus, but when they do it is a powerful tool for learning. The thing you really want is for your learners to fall silent of their own accord: to make the possibility of learning to be the thing that draws them in. Not the system, not the punishments for refusing to comply with it, but sheer interest in something new to learn. Of course this can be incredibly hard to achieve with some young people, and in some contexts, but I can only hope that it is the ultimate goal of every teacher.

If I’m honest with myself, there is something of a thrill in being able to get (and keep) a large group of people silent so that you can address them. The feeling of having people ‘in the palm of your hand’ is pretty special. I often speak to groups of over a hundred teachers, and if I didn’t ask for silence at times when anyone is addressing the room, learning would be impacted. At the same time, though, I always intersperse periods of listening with times for chatting and sharing ideas. People don’t tend to do well if you talk at them all the time, because they need to assimilate what you’ve said. When a session is over, the biggest buzz is if people want to talk about it afterwards, either coming up to talk with me one on one, or discussing what we’ve just done as they go for their break. Silent listening is a great tool for learning but human connections can be even better.

Earlier this week I saw the following tweet:

The author of the tweet is a head teacher. And if your change of policy is even alienating parents who are head teachers, then it is probably fair to say that you need to think again. It’s a completely normal human behaviour to talk about a lesson as you leave it. If the lesson didn’t particularly grab you, you might want to let off steam for a bit before you go on to the next period of learning. Of course it’s important that children move quickly, safely and sensibly between lessons, but trying to keep them in a constant state of silent attentive focus has to be counterproductive. There’s no sensible reason for it. They’re children, not monks. It’s not a choice between silent corridors and anarchy. For all the talk of ‘opportunity cost’ and needing to make every minute count, when I send my children to school I don’t imagine that learning only happens within the walls of classrooms. I want them to learn how to be good friends, how to laugh and have fun while they work, and how to deal with the complicated human situations that crop up in everyday life.

The problem with the feeling of power you get when you control a group of other people is that it can tip over into bad decision making. Yes, it’s great to get a room full of people silent so that they can learn, but being silent is not a good thing in and of itself, if I drone on after everyone has stopped listening. Yes, it’s fun to make people laugh, but not if I hurt someone’s feelings when I do. Yes, we can make ever higher and higher demands, have ever higher and higher expectations, and sanction people into accepting them. But along the way we might lose something we didn’t even realise we had. Because it’s not about me and my power to hold an audience. It’s not about me and the power of my knowledge. It’s not even about me and the power of my teaching. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s about showing young people that they have the power, to take charge of learning for themselves.

Posted in Behaviour, Teaching | 7 Comments

Advice for NQTs

Do not do the things I did
Try not to shout at a class of kids
Smile if you want on the very first day
Don’t send kids out early to play.

Explain what you need, children want to know
Have a back-up plan in case of snow
Listen to others, but trust in your feelings
Learning is hard, so make it appealing.

Beware the ‘to do’ list, it spawns and grows
In case of vomit, have a spare set of clothes
Ask for resources, reach out for support
Lean on those who’ve already taught.

Don’t aim to be perfect, protect yourself
Wash your hands lots and maintain your health
The first year of teaching is pretty tough
Let good enough be good enough.

And if you’ve been given a hellish class
Remember too that this soon shall pass
In one year’s time you’ll look back with pride
So buckle up tight and enjoy the ride.

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