EYFS Reforms Consultation Response

Given the ongoing concerns around the reforms of the EYFS, I have decided to publish my response to the consultation here – all 16 pages of it. My response includes a mix of comments taken from a reference document published by Early Education at the time, guidance given at the time from the Early Childhood Maths Group on the maths goals, alongside additional comments of my own.


Consultation Response


Please give us your views on whether the activities described in each of the proposed educational programme summaries support children’s learning and development throughout the EYFS. Please provide your view below, being specific about which educational programme this applies to where appropriate.


The revised Educational Programmes are not written in a way that supports children’s learning and development throughout the EYFS – it is particularly noticeable that the reforms seem to position the EYFS as a phase that is made up of school based settings, and children aged 4 and upwards, when in fact the majority of provision is in PVI early years settings.


Early Education has summarised the research evidence in Getting it right in the Early Years Foundation Stage: a review of the evidence (https://www.earlyeducation.org.uk/sites/default/files/Getting%20it%20right%20in%20the%20EYFS%2 0Literature%20Review.pdf). This summary demonstrates why extensive changes to the EYFS are not appropriate or required. Where changes might be beneficial – for instance an increase emphasis on children’s rights – the reformed EYFS appears even further away from achieving this.


A survey done by Early Education of 3000 practitioners demonstrated extensive support for the EYFS in its current form. Responses showed that practitioners did not see changes to the EYFS as likely to improve children’s outcomes or reduce workload. The idea that it is possible to reduce workload at the same time as introducing significant changes to a phase, alongside a new baseline test, is over optimistic to say the least.


In reference to each specific area:


Communication and Language


It is important and useful to highlight language development as a central part of early child development. However, the first sentence is out of kilter with the recognition elsewhere in the EYFS about the interconnected nature of the three Prime Areas, and how all three are foundational for children’s learning. It is misleading to suggests a primacy for spoken language which is neither developmentally nor chronologically correct. This descriptor overlooks the importance of vocalisations, facial expression and gesture in the earliest stages of a child’s life.


The descriptor should be careful not to exclude those children who are pre-verbal or who may never acquire speech. The description of practitioners “commenting on what children are interested in or doing, and echoing back what they say with new language added” appears to under play what is meant by ‘serve and return conversations’ in the early years. These are about more than “commenting on” what children are doing – they are about a genuine interest in children’s interests. It is about more than “echoing back what they say with new language added” – it is about the use of sustained shared thinking (i.e. open ended questions) as well as the introduction of new vocabulary.


New vocabulary is not best introduced through reading as suggested in this descriptor, with first-hand activities serving only as follow-up practice. This misunderstanding reflects the lack of awareness of the fact that understanding precedes the use of vocabulary in this age group. Children best understand words when they experience them in first-hand contexts, not in the more abstract situations of a practitioner reading them a book.


There is a danger that language development is being viewed in an overly simplistic way because of the current focus on memorisation. In this descriptor it is seen as being about memorising more words and as something that arises mainly out of reading and embedding, rather than also out of child initiated play (where the child’s language will develop from interactions with other children as well as with practitioners).


Physical Development


Outlining how practitioners can support the children in understanding about a healthy diet should be included in this educational programme. Healthy eating is vital in ensuring good physical development and understanding more about a healthy diet is important in combating childhood obesity. It might well be worth including a reference in this section to the fact that exercise is important for our mental as well as our physical health.


There should be recognition here of the importance of physical development and movement for developing sensory and cognitive abilities. Also the idea that children learn through their bodies and senses in active exploration of their world. For example, vestibular and proprioceptive development are crucial for moving and handling, but also for understanding oneself in space and how we develop mental maps and concepts through schematic play.


Physical development includes health and self-care, which should be restored to this section. For example, the development of continence is part of physical development and is affected by self-awareness of bodily processes and the development of the relevant muscles. Being able to dress oneself relies on gross and fine motor skills and proprioception.


Personal, Social and Emotional Development


This section should be first in the list of descriptors. It is fundamental to all areas, including communication and language —it is impossible to communicate or learn language except in relationship with others. When children are stressed, do not feel safe and cared for, their fight-or-flight response impedes brain activity in frontal lobes and impedes learning.


A feeling of belonging and self-worth is vital, because we learn through and with others, and so relating to others is essential. There is an attempt to introduce some concepts relating to self-regulation here such as “set themselves simple goals, have confidence in their own abilities, to persist and wait for what they want and direct attention as necessary”. Children within the EYFS may start to develop these skills with support, but it should not be implied that children will typically have fully developed these skills at age 5.


It is good to see the importance of attachments emphasised here. The term empathy might usefully be included in this descriptor. It would be nice to see more references to babies in all of the descriptors, to underline the (often overlooked) fact that this phase runs from birth to age five, and this might be mentioned in this descriptor to emphasise that point. Most of the descriptors feel as though they are written with a Reception class in a school in mind, rather than the whole phase, of which the majority is in PVI (non school) settings.


The references to learning “how to make good friendships, co-operate and resolve conflicts peaceably” are not relevant to most of this age group, and the current formulation “to form positive relationships and develop respect for others; to develop social skills and learn how to manage their feelings” is better.




The descriptors here seem to over look the emotional aspects of reading and writing (for instance writing as a form of self expression, reading as an act of love between carer and child) and to focus instead purely on literacy as a set of functional elements that are taught in a school classroom. While it is correct that stories help children to develop knowledge about themselves and their world, this is not all that they do – again the emotional aspects of being a reader – that reading gives us pleasure – could be more fully emphasised. The joy of reading is not just passed on by the teacher demonstrating his or her own enjoyment, but by the child experiences contexts in which reading gives them pleasure. The clarity of the message around how practitioners can ‘ignite their interest’ in the act of reading seems to have been lost. The word ‘knowledge’ is included three times in this descriptor which feels like over kill. The word ‘teachers’ rather than ‘practitioners’ is used in this descriptor and this may lead to practitioners in PVI settings feeling that they are being forgotten.


The last sentence of this EP about developing a love of reading should be at the start, not as an afterthought. The reference to teachers is not relevant to the younger age groups and referring only to “reading in class” overlooks the vital role for early years settings in supporting families to develop rich learning opportunities at home, which is an integral part of learning in the EYFS.


Overall, this descriptor is written as if the educational programme for literacy applies only to children who are beginning to read. It needs to be applicable across the whole of the EYFS. It should include concepts of print, mark-making, environmental print, familiar symbols, etc. Both here and in the introduction to CL, it needs to be made more explicit that communication and language (especially oral language) is the root of literacy. Listening comprehension – which is what the ELG is about – is not part of reading – it is part of underlying communication/language and should be reinstated there. Composition in speech is also not Literacy.


Literacy should be seen as a subset of communication and language, rather than the other way around. References to “mark making and writing” would be more appropriate than “handwriting” in this context. Handwriting is a physical fine motor skill, and depends on physical development and is age dependent. It is not necessarily part of writing, which is conveying meaning in text – which could be on a computer, magnetic letters, or through a practitioner scribing their ideas. This descriptor should focus on how reading and writing, as well as being mechanical skills, can be set in meaningful contexts that – as the current descriptor puts it – will “ignite their interest”. Children’s motivation to decode text comes from understanding that it empowers them to access something they want – stories or information. Motivation to write comes from children wanting to record and express their ideas.




The emphasis on number over all other aspects of early mathematics is perhaps the most troubling aspect of all the changes to the EYFS. Despite repeated requests, the DfE and its advisers have not been able to provide evidence for the claim that “number is the basis for all future maths”. What appears to have happened is that people who do not have a firm grasp of the EYFS as a phase, and who are perhaps more experienced in secondary, have advised on this aspect of the reforms from the perspective of working with older learners.


In this descriptor, the learning process that takes place from birth to five has been outlined the wrong way around and this has the potential to lead to confusion for practitioners in what they are expected to do, particularly with younger children in the phase. Curiosity about shape, space, pattern, measure and number are the key concepts on which practitioners should focus in this phase. This descriptor appears to describe EYFS solely from the perspective of a Reception class in school and even then narrows the subject to a simplistic view of conceptual development.


Early years maths should be grounded in children’s practical experiences and opportunities for problem-solving in real world play based situations. The descriptor should focus on how maths is embedded in all aspects of children’s daily experiences and the role of practitioners in drawing out key mathematical concepts and encouraging children to play with mathematical ideas through their daily activities. For instance, the way that mathematical learning is embedded in our setting through snack time activities. Understanding of number will develop far more effectively when grounded in these foundational mathematical experiences.


Research strongly suggests that spatial reasoning is a vital factor in early conceptual development in maths. Why is the DfE ignoring the evidence in the way it has approached this descriptor with the emphasis on number?


Understanding the World


Again this descriptor ignores the joy and curiosity that can be sparked by our early experiences, and instead views them through the lens of learning being about vocabulary, word recognition and so on. This part of learning in the EYFS does not need to be justified by reference to literacy – it is a key right of childhood for children to experience and find joy from the world they live in and it does not need to be justified by reference to other areas. The previous descriptor was much clearer about why this area is so important in early childhood.


The new text is unnecessarily specific about how to achieve the goals it sets – this area is now framed in terms of the experience provided by the school or setting (visits from or to the setting) and being read to. It is not helpful to suggest activity should be focused on “important members of society” (there are many occupations, not just “those who help us”, and many other aspects of community to explore) and or the very limited and unimaginative list of places to visit (“parks, libraries and museums”).


The descriptor fails to capture the broad experiences children will have within their homes and communities and the ‘cultural capital’ that they bring with them when they arrive in our settings. All reference to technology has been lost – this descriptor should reflect children’s emerging engagement with a range of aspects of science, technology and engineering in the world around them. It should be noted that the current goal is about Technology, not Information Technology as the consultation document erroneously suggests. Settings and practitioners need to encourage engagement with STEM in the early years, rather than downplay it. This is also an issue of access and equity as not all children will have access to technologies in the home environment.


Expressive Arts and Design


As explained above, again this descriptor ignores the joy and curiosity that can and should be sparked by our early experiences of art, and instead views the arts through the lens of memorisation and looking at the art which others have produced. Read out of context, it would be hard to see how this descriptor could possibly apply to babies!


Small children have the right to get hands on with art just because it is pleasurable, and because it helps them understand how they can express themselves through forms other than language. The arts are an area of early learning where babies and young children should be free to develop their self expression and not seen as an area where they must ‘learn techniques’ and ‘build knowledge’ before being allowed to get themselves covered in paint or play around with making music.


Again, it is a key right of childhood for children to express themselves and find joy through art and it does not need to be justified by reference to other areas or to memorisation and ‘high culture’. This is a non compulsory phase where children’s happiness should be our over riding priority. The reference to “quality” in this context is particularly problematic, echoing as it does a narrative around “the best that has been thought and said”. The arts in the early years are all about hands on exploration and the joy of ‘doing art’ no matter what the outcome of the art that you do.


General Points re. the Descriptors


Why does the word ‘play’ barely feature at all in these descriptors, given that it is a fundamental human right for children to have the freedom to play and the entire phase is fundamentally about play based learning?


The DfE and Ofsted have repeatedly said that the early learning goals are not ‘the curriculum’. The educational programmes should be the starting point for developing a curriculum in the EYFS and should be written to support an appropriate curriculum for all children in the phase – whether they are babies or about to turn five.


While it is technically correct that the goals are not ‘the curriculum’, the reality (as HMCI Amanda Spielman has pointed out) is that “ Across the whole education sector a mentality of ‘what’s measured is what gets done’ trumps the true purpose of education, and curriculum thinking – the consideration of what needs to be taught and learned for a full education – has been eroded.”


As the evaluation of the pilot showed, what is assessed gets prioritised, what is not assessed is marginalised when teachers are under pressure to deliver results. The ELGs therefore must align with the educational programmes (not the other way round). The test of the assessment should not only be whether it is an accurate predictor of future success, but also whether it ensures all aspects of the curriculum receive appropriate time and attention – the “broad and balanced curriculum” which is enshrined in English law.


Please give us your views on whether the proposed ELGs are clear, specific and easy to understand. Please provide your views below, being specific about which ELGs they apply to where appropriate.


General Points re. the ELGs


The ELGs are supposed to be summative assessments for parents/carers and teachers delivered according to the assessment principles set out in the EYFS Profile 2019 Handbook. Assessments are therefore professional judgements about best fit on the basis of a range of evidence, not binary test items based on how children perform in a one-off situation in the classroom. They should be clear enough to ensure consistency of judgement but should not attempt to present a simple tick-list of items a child must have achieved in order to “pass”.


The evaluation of the pilot found the concept of best fit was applied to the bulleted ELGs in a range of ways, not consistently – should all the statements be met, or just most of them? Does best fit for “knows 10 digraphs” mean knows at least 10 digraphs, or knows 8 or 9 and has achieved most of the other descriptors in the ELG? We know from the misuse of Development Matters as an assessment tick-list that simply stating it should not be used as a ticklist will not prevent it from happening.


The repeated use of the phrase “Children at the expected level will…” needs to be addressed. Does “expected” mean that all children should reasonably be expected reach this level by the end of reception, regardless of age, gender, EAL, etc? If so, these are clearly unrealistic expectations and should be revised to accordingly.


The annual crop of headlines stating that certain groups (FSM, summer born, etc) are failing this benchmark are an indicator that, if not all children are expected to meet these goals by the end of reception, the language used should be changed to indicate that while these may be typical developmental markers, children develop in different ways and that it is not reasonable to expect all children to meet them at a single point in the year regardless of age or other factors.


This is crucial in relation to the expectation that the ELGs should be a sign of readiness for Year 1. If the ELGs are to be an indicator of readiness for Year 1 then every child should be able to achieve them, including the youngest in the year – otherwise the Year 1 curriculum is clearly not appropriate for all children. Attempts to align the ELGs more closely with Year 1 appear to be creating goals which are not achievable by every child. We understand that the Government may be reluctant to review the Year 1 curriculum, but unless they do so this lack of alignment will not be resolved.


Communication and Language


Listening, Attention and Understanding


There is a lack of clarity here that may lead to inconsistencies in assessment. Terms such as “respond appropriately” and “hold conversations” are sufficiently vague as to lead to practitioners applying them in different ways. It is difficult to imagine a conversation that is not a “back-and-forth exchange” and so this part of the wording seems superfluous.


The removal of “a range of situations” and addition of “whole class discussions” makes it likely that practitioners might focus on spending more time on adult led whole class discussions than they had done previously. This in turn could lead to less time being spent on getting the children playing and physically active.


Removing “understanding” as a separate goal might lead practitioners to underplay the importance of non verbal communication as part of this area of learning. If the Government wishes to emphasise the importance of this area, why is it reducing the number of goals?




The introduction of the words “recently introduced vocabulary” here seems to tie in to the focus on memorisation as being seen as central. This is likely to be unclear to practitioners and hard to evidence – how do practitioners know whether a child has learned a word at home rather than in the setting? Vocabulary is not a proxy for the development of clarity or expression in speech.


In the report into the pilot of the reforms from the EEF, practitioners welcomed the removal of the requirement to use “past, present and future tenses”. This has now been put back into the ELGs and a concern would be that it suggests a focus on grammatical correctness, rather than an understanding of how we talk about the past, the present and the future.  The requirement to use full sentences and conjunctions and recently introduced vocabulary seems likely to lead to confusion and over complication. The focus in this non compulsory phase should be on children learning to express their thoughts and feelings, not on using grammatically correct Standard English.


‘With modelling and support’ seems likely to confuse the situation and lead to inconsistencies in application, since practitioners will have to make a judgement on what an appropriate level of support to achieve ‘expected’ will look like.


Personal, social and emotional development




The introduction of this as a new area is likely to lead to confusion, since the research into this area is complex and much of it is inter-related with the characteristics of effective learning. This ELG is very muddled. Giving “focused attention” to their teacher and following instructions is not self-regulation, although self-regulation does support this ability.


I am concerned that the requirement for children to give focused attention to what the teacher says, even if they are engrossed in an activity, is more about compliance rather than a realistic view of this age group.


The use of the word “several” to describe the number of ideas/actions in a set of instructions to be followed is likely to confuse practitioners and lead to inconsistencies. It could equally be taken to mean two or three, or perhaps four or five.


The original ELG is much more helpful than the proposed replacement in relation to self-confidence and self-awareness as it is about what children do and how they do it. The replacement is far too abstract. How will teachers judge whether children are waiting for what they want and controlling their immediate impulses? How often must they see these behaviours?


Managing Self


Trying to bring together areas from three existing ELGs under one heading is inappropriate. These goals are not as clear as the previous iteration.


The terms “independence, resilience and perseverance” are not clear and are likely to lead to inconsistent judgements. The term “know right from wrong” is vague and not as helpful as the idea from the original of knowing that “some behaviour is unacceptable”.


The hygiene and self care goals here would be far more sensibly included under the umbrella term of ‘physical development’. These are part of a child’s overall development and are not necessarily linked to personal choices about ‘managing’ oneself.


The removal of any reference to children understanding the importance of physical exercise for good health is regrettable at a time when obesity is a growing crisis, as this risks becoming another part of the curriculum which then receives less attention. Similarly, the loss of the reference to talking about ways to keep healthy and safe is a lost opportunity to ensure that children are given opportunities to talk about keeping themselves safe in different aspects of daily life.


Building Relationships


What is the word “work” doing in these goal? As Maria Montessori famously said, “play is the work of the child” and it is therefore unhelpful, confusing and tautological to include this word here.


The requirement to “form positive attachments” seems likely to lead to inequity for children from certain backgrounds – due to their history, it is not possible for some children to easily form attachments. Putting this as a ‘goal’ for children to ‘achieve’ seems counter to a philosophy of inclusion and our knowledge of SEND, since it is not about the child ‘trying harder’ but about the child’s personal circumstances.


Children who are introverted, and perhaps those who are only children, might find it more difficult to form “friendships with peers”. In addition, it is unclear how the word “friendships” is going to be defined.


The skill of working in groups with other children has been lost from this ELG, which is now more focused on compliance with the teacher. The ELG on managing feelings and behaviour has been unhelpfully split between the ELG on self-regulation and the ELG managing self, so that the link between understanding one’s feelings, linking that to one’s behaviour and its consequences and the ethical dimension has been lost.


Physical Development


Gross Motor Skills


It is limiting for this goal to have self care removed – physical development in young children is not just about muscle development and control – it is much wider than that. The reference to moving “energetically” is likely to cause confusion since the word is too vague in meaning.


This goal misses out important aspects of physical development such as the development of proprioception and the vestibular system. This goal also seems vague – what is meant by “demonstrate” – how often, how much, and so on? What level of skill at skipping and so on is required to reach the ‘expected’ level of development?


Fine Motor Skills


The reference to tripod grip in “almost all cases” is not developmentally appropriate, particularly for summer born children. In fact it could lead to pressure on children to use a tripod grip when they are not physically ready for it, and in turn lead to problems with posture in later life. This might prove particularly to be the case for children who are left handed and for those who are summer born. The reference is not inclusive for children with disabilities.




The rationale for changing these goals refers to children as “pupils”. This is not a term that would be used by practitioners working in EYFS and it should therefore be removed. Children in this phase are not in formal education, nor are they even of compulsory school age.


The level of detail in this goal mirrors the idea coming in Ofsted’s ‘Bold Beginnings’ report that learning to read is the “core purpose” of Reception. There has been no discussion with the sector about whether it is appropriate or useful to frame Reception in this way. The focus here is again on memorisation – building on the idea that learning is all about memorising things – rather than on the child’s response to what they read. The act of reading should not be uncoupled from the act of meaning making, or we risk returning to concerns from decades back about children ‘barking at print’.




Again the emphasis on “recently introduced vocabulary” risks a lack of clarity – how will practitioners be able to tell which words have recently been introduced? At this age children need to link new vocabulary with direct experience – it does not simply come from a practitioner teaching them new words.


The statements on comprehension might be better placed in ‘communication and language’. In order to show progression in language comprehension, this needs to include children understanding “how” and “why”. This is a better developmental marker than a focus on vocabulary, which could lead to misguided attempts to quantify how many words children should be learning.


Word Reading


Uncoupling reading from overall comprehension again runs the risk of children reaching the expected level but without fully understanding what they are reading. This perhaps mirrors the use of ‘nonsense words’ – words with no meaning – in the phonics check.


The sole reliance on phonetic decoding before engaging with meaning of words and texts, though supported by the current government, is a highly contested area. This does not reflect much current expert understanding of the development of reading. The approach is inappropriately restrictive and attempts to dictate approaches instead of leaving this to teachers’ professional judgement. There is nothing here about using pictures to support the understanding of words and comprehension. Nor is there any reference to enjoyment, which should be fundamental to all reading or we risk ‘turning children off’ the subject.


The first bullet point is inappropriate – this is too challenging for many children, and as clearly demonstrated by the pilot evaluation there is no clear consensus on current expectations in the teaching of phonics to support this. For children with EAL, SEND and summer born children this could be a significant challenge. Also, this will be used as a tick list – adding to workload as well as defining children’s progress as a deficit.


The goal is unclear – the evidence from the pilot suggests it may not be used consistently as the idea of best fit was applied to it in several different ways. This is one of the changes to the ELGs that could lead to a significant drop in outcomes at the end of the EYFS.




This goal is too narrowly defined as a handwriting and phonics task, rather than as a form of self-expression. This mixing up of technique with skill as a writer is a common misunderstanding of what is important in becoming a writer. There is nothing here about children using writing to express themselves, their ideas, their thoughts and their feelings.




I endorse the proposals of the Early Childhood Maths Groups for the revised ELGs for Mathematics as set out below, based on their extensive expertise and research evidence. I would strongly argue for the restoration of the ELG Shape, Space and Measure as a key indicator of children’s future success not only in mathematics but in other STEM subjects.


As demonstrated in the pilot, there is clear evidence that subjects that are not assessed receive less attention. Focusing on a deep understanding of the numbers to 10 is an improvement on the previous focus on counting to 20, but the ECMG proposal for numbers to 12 is preferable.


The goal for ‘numerical patterns’ is unnecessary and will inevitably become another ‘test item’ for children. It would be far better to keep Shape, Space and Measure as it gives children a wider experience of mathematics which aligns better with early child development. Many schematic patterns of thinking are the basis for these aspects of learning so it is crucial to keep them.


This goal should not be about ‘recall’ or rote learning – here we see the focus on learning as memorisation at its most pronounced. It is also unclear for practitioners what is meant by automatic recall – in the pilot teachers asked how fast children were expected to recall facts in order to meet expectations. Quick-fire recall is not an appropriate target for young children as it may lead to anxiety around maths and thus be detrimental to their mental health in the longer term.


There are a number of unclear phrases in the latest versions of the goals including “deep understanding”, “number bonds” and “patterns within numbers”. The ECMG formulation is much clearer and more specific in setting out what children should know and be able to do. Inclusion of evens and odds and double facts are not appropriate for all children at this stage and should not be included.


I support the following revised ELGs proposed by the ECMG:


Number ELG



  • With numbers to 12: count out a number of items from a larger group, match numerals to amounts, compare and estimate numbers, predict adding or taking one.
  • Subitise (recognise a number of items without counting) up to 5 and recognise how numbers are made up of other numbers.
  • notice, copy, continue and create patterns.
  • solve practical problems including: adding, subtracting and sharing.
  • communicate their mathematical thinking in a range of ways.


Shape, space and measure ELG



– make comparisons of length, weight and capacity

– begin to identify the rule in a pattern

– select and combine shapes for a purpose and talk about their properties using mathematical and everyday language

– follow directions and describe positions and routes


Understanding of the World


There is an excessive use of the phrase “what is read in class” here. Reading in class is not the only way that children can learn about and experience the world around them. The EYFS is a phase focused on direct experience of the world and this should be clearer in this goal. We should be starting from the children’s own experiences and interests, in order to better support their conceptual understanding.


The removal of technology from this goal is a negative and appears to be based on the misapprehension that the previous goal referred only to ‘information technology’ rather than the wide range of technologies that are part of our children’s lives.


Separating these two ELGs out from the current ELG on “People and communities” is muddled. The original ELG is better, with a deeper approach and supporting development of British Values and social mobility. In the new version “Lives of people around them… and roles” is about culture and communities yet is put under “Past and present”.


The concept of “past and present” appears to be suggesting that this ELG is focused on the study of history, rather than primarily on helping children understand their place in the world – starting with their family and community, ideas of citizenship (which the research suggests should be more strongly emphasised in the EYFS) and the everyday institutions which form their experiences. Past is personal at this age, and it is not about learning history from books, non-fiction texts, reading in class, etc. This is not at all appropriate for YR, as demonstrated by the findings of the evaluation pilot that “children often struggled to understand the history topics they had embedded into the classroom”. “Past and present” is not an appropriate focus for this ELG, which is an inappropriate attempt to mirror the structure of Y1.


It is pleasing to see the inclusion of the natural world in this goal. However again the reference to “what has been read in class” may act to push practitioners into focusing on reading about the world, rather than direct experiences of it or simply talking about it. It is a shame that climate change has not been considered in this goal.


The reference to technology in this area of learning should be restored, within the wider context of the importance of building early understanding of and engagement with STEM subjects. Children in Reception can engage in a wide range of engineering, design and technology experiences such as woodwork, construction, simple circuit design, coding, woodwork, making films and videos. These activities relate closely to Expressive Arts and Design as well as Understanding the World, but they need to be explicitly referenced as relating to our scientific and technical understanding of the world, not only to design, and they therefore belong in both areas of learning.


Rather than removing the Technology ELG it should be prioritised to ensure children from an early age are being encouraged to engage in STEM activity, and to ensure this kind of activity is not lost from the curriculum. There is a real risk that a largely female workforce in the early years feels less confident to engage with STEM activities through the lack of encouragement and opportunity in these in their own education. Removing the ELG could perpetuate the problem. It is also noteworthy that technology is one of the few ELGs where boys currently outperform girls (suggesting the pervasiveness of gender issues in STEM) and therefore its removal is likely to further increase the perceived gap between girls and boys in the EYFSP.


Expressive Arts and Design


The emphasis here is very much on the output (‘creating’) rather than on exploration and experimentation. This is not appropriate when learning art – the process should always be seen as more important than the product.


Why is ‘being imaginative and expressive’ limited to narrative, stories and songs? It is perfectly possible for children to be imaginative and expressive in all art forms, including when drawing and painting. Similarly, ‘draw and paint’ is narrow and sculpture, collage, etc. could be included here.


The focus on responding to stories here seems unnecessary – why prioritise art in response to stories over art in response to other stimuli? The central idea of children expressing themselves through art has been lost here.


The focus on performance here again seems to prioritise product (outcome) over process (learning). There should be no expectation that children of this age should sing for others as this may cause anxiety for shy or younger children.


Please give us your views on whether the proposed ELGs contribute to a well-rounded assessment of a child’s development at the end of reception year. Please provide your views below, being specific about which ELGs they apply to where appropriate.


See the answers given to Q7 for detail of specific concerns in the different areas and particularly in terms of the narrowing towards a simple view of learning that sees it as only being about memorisation. Not only is this definition reductive, but it is particularly inappropriate in the context of the early years.


The removal of the goal for ‘shape, space and measure’ means that the mathematics goal in particular is not well rounded. The way that certain areas are split away from their original formulation (for instance the removal of ‘self care’ from ‘physical development’) means that the new goals do not reflect a holistic view of early child development.


One of the key concerns is in the excessive detail of many of these goals, particularly in comparison to other countries worldwide, where the early years phase typically runs to age six or seven years, and the goals at the end of the phase are far less detailed and prescriptive. The level of prescription seems likely to cause excessive workload (as has been reported with previous iterations of the EYFSP) and to limit the amount of time that practitioners can spend actually interacting with their children.


What are your views on removing the LA statutory element of EYFSP moderation? Please provide your views below.


In many areas LA moderation of the EYFSP is one of the only pieces of early years specific professional development Reception teachers currently receive. Removing it risks further reducing opportunities to network with peers and for practitioners to develop their knowledge and skills around observation and assessment.


When done badly, LA moderation has been thought to increase workload through unnecessary collection of data. However, this is by no means the norm, and it would risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater to remove this requirement. Better to provide better training and guidance at national level to make clear that neither assessment nor moderation require extensive data collection.


Without some form of external moderation, the EYFSP would very quickly become inconsistent across areas and it is likely to end up being removed as an assessment of this age group due to concerns about inconsistent data, particularly given the introduction of a baseline test.


What are your views on whether removing the LA statutory element of the EYFSP moderation will help to reduce teacher workload? Please provide your views below


Workload is often caused by external forces – these are not solely or even typically from a local authority. These external forces might include senior leaders in a school asking for more detail than is required, or concerns about providing ‘evidence’ for Ofsted inspectors.


By creating an expectation that a specific % of children ‘pass’ the EYFSP – i.e. reach the ‘expected level’ – the DfE itself causes workload.


The early years teams within local authorities are now severely eroded after years of funding cuts, and would be further damaged by removing the one remaining statutory duty. The introduction of the revised EYFS will already be severely compromised by loss of expertise within the LAs which could once have helped roll out training nationally.


What alternatives to LA statutory moderation do you think could help to ensure consistency of EYFSP judgements across the ELGs? Please provide your views below.


Any new system runs the risk of simply replicating the old one – including any workload that it caused. There is an established body of expertise among local authority moderators that should be built on, not dismantled. In addition to external moderation from trained moderators, all teachers in Reception – especially those new to the early years – should have access to appropriate training in early years observation and assessment, so that the standards of professional judgements improve. They must also have access to high quality exemplification materials to support their judgements. This will improve the accuracy of judgements but would not provide a substitute for moderation.


What are your views on the proposal to remove the ‘exceeded’ judgement from the EYFSP? Please provide your views below.


Removing this judgement will make the “emerging”/”expected” divide a purely binary one, and risks further discussion of EYFSP results as though they were a pass/fail assessment, rather than a broad brush measure of children’s progress against a set of benchmarks. This is compounded by the issue of politicians talking about children who have ‘failed’ at being ‘school ready’ when discussing the outcomes of the EYFSP.


Parents may wish to see the ‘exceeded’ judgement retained to reflect situations where a child is particularly advanced in terms of attainment in comparison to the year group. However, it could also be argued that the judgement might lead to pressure from parents to demonstrate that children are ‘exceeding’.


The loss of the ‘gifted and talented’ category appears to have led to the downplaying of the need for provision to stretch high attaining learners and the same might happen here.


Should the requirement in the EYFS framework to ‘promote the good health of children’ also include oral health? Please provide your views below.


Given the issues with children being admitted to hospital for dental treatment, and the fact that most settings now routinely promote oral health, I can see no problem with this requirement. However, one note of caution would be to emphasise that this is not about supervised teeth brushing sessions. We do not want to encourage parents to see their children’s oral health as no longer being part of their responsibility and this could be an unintended consequence of the inclusion of this requirement within the EYFS Statutory Framework.


Please provide any representations and/or evidence on the potential impact of our proposals on people with protected characteristics for the purposes of the Public Sector Equality Duty (Equality Act 2010).


The new literacy requirements are likely to reduce the number of children achieving the literacy ELGs, with particular impact on summer born children, children with SEND and boys.


The literacy requirements also seem likely to discriminate against children with EAL, and to underplay their achievements, particularly the emphasis on vocabulary and language. Children may be conceptually advanced but may not be able to demonstrate their cognitive level in a newly acquired language.


The removal of the Technology ELG is likely to increase the achievement gap between girls and boys in the Profile as this is currently one of the few areas where boys score higher than girls


The new ELG Gross Motor Skills is less inclusive for some children with SEND than the current Moving and Handling ELG, for example with respect to references to hopping, skipping, climbing, etc.


The reference in the ELG in Fine Motor Skills to the tripod grip is not appropriate for all children, especially some with SEND (the qualified nature of the sentence is too ambiguous to be clear as to whether it is intended to accommodate this).


It would be helpful if a specialist SEND group could review the proposals to ensure that the final version of the ELGs did not unintentionally exclude groups of children and to ensure that best fit judgements would allow sufficient flexibility to be inclusive where possible and appropriate.


It is vital that these areas are considered, because otherwise the changes to the EYFS risk increasing the issue of children being seen to ‘fail’ when they are simply younger or have SEND. This could in turn lead to a significant increase in requests to defer entry to Reception, particularly from the parents of summer born children, and to additional pressure to find alternative provision for children with SEND.


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Learning: Not At School

There is no ‘right’ way to deal with educating your children during the current situation, but here are some thoughts about what we learned from the experience of supporting our own children’s learning when they weren’t in school.

1. A routine is really useful, but it doesn’t have to look like a school timetable if you don’t want it to. Our key routine during our unschooling adventures was to ask the children to write a page in their diaries every day. Routines give children a sense of security and help to give a pattern to your days.

2. Change your frame of mind around what learning looks like. It’s not all about academics – so much of learning is about social, emotional and physical development. For instance, talking on the phone to grandparents for half an hour would be valuable for everyone’s mental health and also supports speaking and listening skills.

3. Find the learning in the everyday tasks that have to be done, rather than seeing learning as something that can only happen in lessons. Cooking, planting some seeds, even doing cleaning – children learn from all these things!

4. Motivation is going to be key – families are going to have to get on together in unusual circumstances, and it’s not going to be helpful to focus on punishment to get things done. Think about what motivates your child in a positive way – ask your children for ideas about the motivators that work for them (and think laterally about what ‘rewards’ might mean).

5. It is helpful to let your child take the lead in what they want to be learning, if you can allow yourself to hand over a bit of control, because that way the motivation comes much more easily. Let your children make a list of the things they want to learn about and then tick off one or two a day, so you’re not constantly having to nag them about learning.

6. See yourself as someone who can provide the resources for learning, rather than as someone who is necessarily going to do lots of teaching, especially if you have older children. You will have your own work to do as well. Dig into the cupboards and pull out the old paints and toys, get them to read with siblings or learn a new language. (My youngest spent yesterday self teaching Japanese.)

7. Keep a sense of priority – focus on helping your children feel calm and loved, and on contact via phone/internet etc. with your family. Give them time and space to talk about their fears but also about their hopes. At the moment, health and community need to be the main focus. Don’t set yourself impossible goals – be kind to yourself and to others. Children are surprisingly self motivated to learn when you give them the space.

For more about our adventures in educating our children when they were not in school, you might like to visit my Road School website. Obviously travel is out of the question at the moment, but luckily we still have the Internet so we can do it virtually. Sending everyone good wishes for the weeks and months to come.

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Simply Put

It sounds so wonderfully simple doesn’t it? All you have to do to become ‘smarter’ is to know more words. And this ties so perfectly into the learning is memory narrative – memorise more words and hey presto! You are smart. This slide from Ofsted is clever in its very simplicity. A bit like the mantra ‘Get Brexit Done’ it makes something complex seem so very straightforward. And it demonstrates exactly the problem we have with the narrative around learning, memory and research. The fact that children who know more words do better seems at once intuitive and wonderful, but mostly it’s just a fact of the way that we measure learning. Yes, children who do better in exams know more words because that’s exactly the point of tests. You attain highly if you have more knowledge.

But you can’t work backwards like that from research. It makes a nonsense of the vast complexity of the process. Correlation, as we should never tire of saying, is not causation. Sure, there’s a link, but you can’t put the cart in front of the horse. Knowing more words didn’t happen first – you can’t use it as a substitute for best practice in EYFS because it came as a result of something else. Which, in the case of early child development, is what we call ‘serve and return’ conversations, where loving and attentive caregivers pay careful attention to small children in order to support them, within rich and imaginative environments that enable learning. And there ain’t nothing simple about that.

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Wagging the Dog

In 1992, the same year that I started my teaching degree, a new organisation was established to inspect standards in education. The national inspectorate known as Ofsted replaced the previous system of inspections, which were carried out by HMIs within local education authorities. To use a handy euphemism, it has been ‘interesting’ to observe and experience the progression of the inspectorate over that time. There was the lengthy notice of inspection which meant a term of preparing departmental handbooks in a secondary school in the 1990s. The no notice inspection of a PVI early years setting in the 2000s, where the inspector was literally waiting at the door at opening time. And our latest inspection under the new EIF where there were more adults than children in our setting and as a result of which I am undergoing the ‘illuminating’ experience of working my way through Ofsted’s complaints system (about the process, rather than the outcome).

Ofsted’s current iteration, under Amanda Spielman, was supposed to bring an end to the ‘gaming’ and ‘narrowing’ that has plagued the English education system for years. But instead of solving all our problems, it seems possible that her tenure might end up seeing the demise of an outdated accountability system – a system responsible for a narrowing of the curriculum, a huge increase in teacher workload, costing a fortune in tax payers’ money and yet which does not appear to produce valid or reliable inspection results. In 2016 a report from the Education Policy Institute identified just how strong the link is between a school’s Ofsted judgement and its intake. The report found that “the least disadvantaged schools are most likely to be judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’” and that “schools with the most FSM pupils are much more likely to be rated ‘inadequate’ than those with the fewest FSM pupils (15 per cent vs. 1 per cent).” The latest Framework, which was meant to deal with narrowing and workload, ironically seems likely to cause narrowing in EYFS and KS1, to disadvantage small primary schools and to increase workload. It strikes me that this is the dying gasp of an organisation that has had its day.

In today’s TES, we hear that Spielman is going to try and deal with “stuck schools” – those schools that have been rated as less than ‘good’ for more than a decade. But once again, we see our inspectorate unable to look at itself in the mirror and be honest about what it sees. We learn that “Ofsted has said it is well placed to help these schools diagnose their problems” and that the issue is with “antagonistic” unions and “a carousel of consultants” rather than about problems with the inspectorate itself. Press coverage shows that once again Ofsted have fallen victim to the myth of their own insights, with a tiny study being presented to support self serving conclusions. Ofsted has based its conclusions on “evidence” which is “drawn from a study where inspectors visited 20 schools” and that was “self-reported through focus groups and interview and was not independently fact-checked”. Rather than understanding how contextual factors, and its own grading system, have caused these schools to get ‘stuck’, Ofsted insists the answer is more Ofsted not less.

The EYFS is under intense focus from Government at the moment, with a consultation on wide ranging changes to the phase currently in progress. Ofsted seems keen to support these changes, with some of the same names consulted by the DfE cropping up on Ofsted panels as well, and many people now questioning how independent from Government the inspectorate actually is. The changes are, once again, based on small scale studies of early years settings – studies like Bold Beginnings which (in a move impressive in its circularity) used Ofsted judgements as the starting point for identifying best practice. What Ofsted says works well, works well; therefore everyone must do what Ofsted says works well in order to work well.

Over the last decade, there have been repeated assertions from teachers and practitioners that Ofsted are telling them how to teach, alongside repeated assertions from Ofsted that they are not. Part of the issue is that Ofsted reports and pronouncements are seen as a source of information about ‘what to do’ to get a good Ofsted result, and as a consequence we have seen people mining inspection reports and Ofsted announcements for advice on ‘what Ofsted wants’. Previously, this led to teachers reporting demands from SLT to see group work/less teacher talk/progress every 20 minutes/every book marked in multiple colours/3 part lessons and so on and on. With the new regime at Ofsted, we see a situation where the demands have changed (to the apparent approval of those happy with the new demands), but the pattern is exactly the same. I have already heard of changes being made based on Ofsted’s recent Bold Beginnings report – an increase in formal approaches in EYFS, desks in rows for 5 year olds, phonics from day one in Reception, and so on.

We can see the pattern of Ofsted dictating practice, and telling teachers how to teach, in this recent blog from Gill Jones, Deputy Director for Early Education, on early reading under the new Framework. The blog claims Bold Beginnings (at the time of its publication presented merely as a ‘scoping report’) as “evidence” for “the things that make the biggest difference”. In this blog, Jones tells schools and teachers exactly how they must teach early reading. They must teach “direct focused phonics” every day, they must only let children read from books with sounds they know, they must provide extra practice for a specific cohort (“the lowest 20%”), they must use “the best” books, they must ensure “all children in Year 3” can read “age-appropriate books”. (This last apparently ignoring the existence of any children who have SEND.) However, we are perhaps supposed to be relieved that (in an apparent misunderstanding of the wider nature of phonological development in small children) Ofsted “do not expect to see phonics” in continuous provision.

It will be crystal clear to schools and teachers from reading this blog that Ofsted want to see discrete, adult directed instruction in systematic synthetic phonics happening daily in Reception. Whether you agree or disagree with this approach is beside the point – this is an organisation that has repeatedly told us that it will not tell teachers how to teach, telling teachers how to teach. In the blog Jones uses quotes from reports to identify what Ofsted views as good and bad practice, apparently forgetting that this is what got Ofsted into trouble with their last framework. Teaching must “start from the beginning” of Reception. Books must not “contain sounds they have not yet been taught” and must not “vary in quality” (although quite what this means is not apparent). Interestingly, the blog tries to downplay the known link between Ofsted judgements and school intake. With the implication that disadvantage is irrelevant to Ofsted, that the PSC is no longer considered a ‘light touch’ screening check but rather a test that all children must ‘pass’, that passing the test equates to the totality of learning to read, and that ‘some schools’ just aren’t doing what they must, the blog states that:

“Some schools in disadvantaged areas help all their children learn to read well from the start. Some schools have said that this gap in the PSC between poorer and more affluent children is because of the lower levels of cultural capital among disadvantaged children. However, as we know, the successful learning of systematic synthetic phonics is not dependent on cultural capital.”

Even the most ardent supporter of Ofsted would have to admit that we have now reached the situation where Ofsted says “leap” and many settings simply ask “how high”? No matter what they do or say, it seems impossible for Ofsted to break this cycle. When the new EIF was published, Ofsted insisted that there was no need to prepare for it, but yet again we see a flurry of ideas, advice, training, books, articles, blogs, tweets, conferences and so on, all aimed at helping settings prepare for it. To my mind, and with our setting having recently undergone an inspection under the new EIF, I feel it is wise to know what the new Framework says. Not because I think that settings should ‘prepare’ for inspection, or do ‘what Ofsted wants’, but because of what can happen if you don’t. The assumption that there will be no hiccoughs when a new framework comes into place is naive. If you don’t understand the changes, how can you hope to know if something happens in your inspection that is not appropriate or that is not in line with the new framework?

The idea of an inspection system that does not twist and bend the education sector to the will of the current HMCI seems to be wishful thinking. With schools risking academisation if they ‘fail’ an inspection, and likely to struggle to attract children and parents if they are in a category, the stakes are just too high not to do ‘what Ofsted wants’. This issue has led to a parallel issue where Ofsted constantly have to ‘myth bust’ as interpretations of ‘what Ofsted wants’ very quickly start to do the rounds, particularly on social media. A line in an inspection report, a comment from an inspector – these quickly morph into Ofsted ‘wanting’ something that they subsequently have to claim they don’t. Again we can see this in the reaction to Ofsted announcements about a two year versus a three year Key Stage 4, with schools now scrabbling around to decide whether they need to shorten their GCSE courses in response to ‘what Ofsted wants’.

Since its inception, the idea of a national inspectorate with a ‘figurehead’ at the top, seems to have led to an issue with over reach. Any readers who might think I am unnecessarily harsh on the current chief inspector might like to read my views on Wilshaw’s tenure – for instance, here, here and here. Wilshaw was prone to exactly the same issue of believing in his own publicity. Indeed the role of chief inspector seems to go hand in hand with a desire to impose one’s own viewpoint on the education system. At the moment, we are being told that Ofsted are not imposing a viewpoint but are simply basing their approach on the evidence. And yet at the same time we see an inspectorate that is happy to tell us what the “core purpose” of the Reception year is. Nowhere in the EYFS Statutory Framework does it say that reading is the “core purpose” of the Reception year. And yet with Ofsted there is no room for argument – the vision is what Spielman says it is, it will be enforced via the new EIF and the inspection system, and that is quite simply that.

What are we to do then, if we feel that Ofsted is not correct in its judgements of our own settings? Well apparently, our only recourse is to complain to Ofsted themselves. Who will then proceed to inspect the complaint against themselves. In an amusing example of how little Ofsted understands how it feels to be inspected by Ofsted, the new Framework suggests that, if a setting is not happy with the way an inspection is progressing, they should challenge it with the inspector on the day. If they wish to make a complaint after the event, they can instigate the formal complaints procedure. Speaking from recent and direct experience, this is a torturous process in which the evidence used by Ofsted to support its conclusions is the evidence collected by its own inspectors. It is a process that seems custom built to make you give up in exasperation or dismay.

Although it has felt cathartic to write, I am loathe to finish this blog without offering some kind of potential solution to the Ofsted problem. First and foremost, the grading system has to go. It is outdated and poisonous, encouraging a ‘dog eat dog’ atmosphere between settings and warping the system out of shape. Next, there needs to be an independent complaints system, so that when problems arise, settings feel confident that there will be an unbiased appraisal of the evidence and that both sides of the story will be heard. And finally, there needs to be a serious rethink of the relationship between the inspectorate and Government, so that it is genuinely independent of  politics. Because otherwise we will continue to have a situation where Ofsted is used as a blunt instrument to enforce Government policy, rather than to support and challenge schools. And the tail will keep wagging the dog.


Posted in Accountability, Bold Beginnings, Children, EYFS, Ofsted | 2 Comments

Growing Weather

You have to time it right, sowing. Start too early and your seedlings will become leggy and soft as they wait to be planted out. Sow seeds outdoors in cold sodden soil, and you might as well throw them in the bin. There are ways to trick the weather: start your seeds in a propagator; grow them on in the warmest lightest place you can find; cover the soil where you are going to plant them with polythene to warm it up; use cloches to create a micro climate that will protect your plants as they grow. But don’t start earlier than it says on the seed packet – an early spell of fine weather can trick you into going too early and there’s always the chance of snow in April.

The funny thing is that when you let the plants decide when, where and how they want to grow, they pop up in all the best places, and grow strongly where you wouldn’t have thought to plant them. Today, I found native primroses that had seeded themselves in a shady bark path, behind my greenhouse. A rosemary had layered itself in the border, making me a new plant for free. Self seeded coriander and rocket are busy defying the weather in my raised allotment beds. I repositioned foxglove seedlings to make sure that they have space to grow, and I dug up strawberry runners to make more fruit for my family to eat and enjoy, and for me to defend against the badgers.

There are lots of things that it’s important to do, to make sure that your plants grow well. You have to give them the right soil, with the right nutrients, and if they’re growing inside, or if they’re outside and it doesn’t rain for a while, you must water them the right amount. Some plants need super sharp drainage and others need wet roots. You need to give your seedlings enough light, and if they’re on a window sill you need to turn them so that they grow straight and tall. You must pot them on at the right time, and you should definitely acclimatise them gradually to their outdoor positions. But the one thing that you must never, ever do, is to crush or tread on them. (Even if you’re laying a lawn, designed to walk on, you don’t tread on it while it is establishing itself.) Because you’ll never grow a strong plant if you keep flattening it down and small plants aren’t as tough as old ones.

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Coping with Critique

These days, when you put anything into the public domain, you can expect to receive critique on it. On the world wide web, the world is watching and many people will be perfectly happy to tell you what they think about what you do. As a writer, a key aspect of my work has been learning how to cope with criticism. Over twenty years I’ve managed to move beyond simply coping with critique, and have learned how to channel it to get better at what I do. Positive reviews are lovely, but they’re not actually much use in helping you improve. As I explained in this blog, as an author it is the negative reviews that you really need to listen to, and to dig through, for any nuggets of critical gold they might contain. Your readers have every right to tell you what they think of your book, or your video, or your training, or your conference. They might or might not be right, in your opinion, but if you block out any negative critique with defensiveness, you miss out on the opportunity to develop and improve.

There are two key difficulties in coping with critique. The first is that this is your ‘baby’ – you spend months or even years writing a book, or organising an event, and it comes to feel like a part of you. It’s very easy to get critique of your ideas confused with critique of you as a person, when your ideas are so closely bound to the thing you have created. The second problem is that people generally have quite fragile egos, and it can feel like an attack on yourself to hear someone flag up any potential issues with what you have done. This is especially so if you are someone in the public eye, because you get so used to positive feedback that it builds up your ego probably past the point which is sensible, and then any negative feedback can feel like an affront. My partner has a very useful reminder for me, when someone has praised me and I am all wrapped up in how wonderful I am at what I do. He says “don’t get too up yourself”. And he’s right.

Last year, I was part of a team of early years educators involved in setting up a conference called Firm Foundations. We did all the work in our spare time. (In fact, pretty much all of my early years work is as a volunteer – my contact with the sector arises out of having been the chair of committee at my local preschool for the last ten years. Most of my paid work is in secondary schools, rather than in primaries or early years settings.) Anyway, after the event was over, we were challenged by a couple of colleagues about the lack of diversity in our line-up. It was easy at this point to become defensive, and to point out that we had tried to get a diverse range of speakers. But that’s not the point, and our defensiveness was not appropriate – the line-up was what it was, and there wasn’t enough diversity. And that was our problem to deal with as conference organisers, rather than being the problem of people who weren’t available to speak, or of people who had pointed it out. We needed to keep trying until it was sorted, not to throw our hands in the air and say “well we tried!”.

Our second Firm Foundations conference is happening shortly, and I am grateful to the people who critiqued us last time round, because it meant that we worked to get a much more diverse selection of speakers this time. But even now, the point is that, if someone were to raise a concern with me again, about another aspect of what we had done, I would have a long hard think about whether there was anything valid in what they were saying. If I didn’t feel there was, then fine, and there would be no need for me to become defensive about the challenge. But if I did think they might have a point, then their critique would be incredibly helpful. Because we can only improve at what we do, if we are open to the possibility that we might not always get everything completely right.

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I have a complicated relationship with humility. I suspect we all do. On the one hand, I like people who are humble about their achievements; who do what they do for the sake of doing it, and not for any public acclamation that might accompany it. On the other hand, I’m a writer and a public speaker by trade so my job involves sounding confident in front of other people. If I don’t believe in my own voice and my own ideas, I’m up the proverbial creek without a paddle. The irony of writing about humility in a blog post is not lost on me. I am hardly one to talk about how people should or shouldn’t get attention, since the word ‘buggers’ features in the title of some of my books, and I tend towards sweary in person.

If you want lots of press, it is useful say things that are controversial. Getting people to disagree with you pretty much ensures great coverage. It is also a good idea to point out your achievements – to say how great you are doing and how many wonderful things you have done. Unless you are the Pope there is no story, really, in humility. But the danger is that you can end up becoming that person who spams other people with your genius all the time. “Look at how I am changing the world,” you want to say, “see what a difference I have made!” Or that you fall so in love with your belief that everything you say and do is right that you think people need to hear about it more than they might want to. Both teachers and writers are prone to this fault, because in both jobs you can actually make a difference to your world. Although let’s be honest, the same could be said for many jobs – doctors, care workers, plumbers. If your pipe bursts in the cold weather, there’s only one person you want to turn up at your door.

There are a lot of angry people in the world at the moment. To be honest, I’m one of them. I look at the political situation in our country and all I can do is despair. It is easy to get infected by the idea that he who shouts loudest will win the race; that those who are humble will be lost. But the danger is that we all end up standing in different corners of a room, shouting at each other but never finding any common ground. So I can only think that maybe the best way for me to learn and to grow is not to take a position that I am right and that everybody else is wrong – that I have ‘the truth’ or ‘the answer’ and if only everyone listened to me and did what I said then everything would be fine. Maybe the best way for me to learn and to grow is to accept that I don’t know everything and that I can’t change the world, but that if I keep my head down and I focus, I might just be able to make a difference to my tiny corner of it.

I’ve been planting lots of seeds over the last couple of weeks. At this time of year it’s an act of hopelessly optimistic faith (some might even say madness) to get the propagator going, especially when 5-10 centimetres of snow are forecast overnight. But what the hell, while all around you chaos reigns, when the news is filled with politicians hating on each other, and hopeless attempts at resolving the mess the UK is in, you have to have something to look forward to and to give you hope. My tiny seedlings are popping their heads above the compost, fooled by the warmth into germinating earlier than is sensible. I will nurture them, turning them daily so that they don’t get leggy, keeping them warm until they are ready to brave the cold greenhouse, then get potted on and eventually put outdoors. Because one day, the sun will rise warm and bold and the cold hard times might even be over. And I will be ready to plant them out and in time I should hopefully get to crop them. And as I do I will whisper to myself as humbly as I can, “Yes, it was me, who grew this.”

Posted in Allotment, Learning | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in EYFS | 3 Comments

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