“Let me be clear: what the poorest children need is to be taught,
and well taught, from the age of two.”
I’m not really sure where to start with Michael Wilshaw’s speech, made as he announced the publication of Ofsted’s Early Years Report for 2015. The report itself makes interesting reading, and the way that Mr Wilshaw chose to speak about it does not necessarily reflect its contents. You might have assumed he would be happy, given that 85% of early years registered providers got a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted. (This despite the fact that our sector is chronically underfunded and is staffed by dedicated practitioners who work for a pittance.) But no, as with the schools sector, the early years sector needed an ear bashing too, although at least we didn’t receive it via the Sunday Times. I’ve been asked by quite a few people to comment on Mr Wilshaw’s speech, so I’m going to try and pick apart why I feel what I feel about what he said.
“I am committed to using the power and influence of inspection …”
From what I read online, educators have just spent the entire year debating the usefulness, and indeed the continued existence, of Ofsted. Ofsted have had to ditch lesson observation grades, and promise that they’re not looking for either a particular style of teaching or a specific way of marking (although no one seems to quite believe them on the latter yet). Ofsted also recently ditched 40% of their contracted inspectors. Maybe it’s just me, but is that a distinct whiff of hubris in the air?
“I am particularly pleased to see the progress that childminders have made.”
Childminders play a crucial part in the early years sector, because they offer a kind of flexibility that other settings simply cannot provide. There has been an unprecedented drop in the number of childminders in recent years: 14% in the last three years alone. Mr Wilshaw can be as pleased as he likes about how well childminders are doing, but if he wants real choice and flexibility for parents, he needs to figure out why so many people are quitting the job and ask the government to do something about it.
“last year … I used the word ‘teach’ to describe the practice we wanted to see. This provoked a very strong reaction from the sector … a pile of irate letters that landed on my desk …”
The definition of what practitioners do with children in the early years has become a bit of a bone of contention. My feeling is this: if the word ‘teach’ becomes the over-riding narrative of the work we do with 0 – 5 year olds, this subtly alters the very nature of the foundation stage. The word “teach” makes more sense if you work with a Reception class, but we shouldn’t forget that we are talking about babies as well as rising fives. We should also never forget that this is not a statutory part of a child’s education. In the annual report itself, we are told that: “In one outstanding school, all of the experiences provided for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds involved adult direction …”. I am very uneasy indeed with the idea that adults should direct everything that a two year old child does, no matter how disadvantaged that child might be. (To be fair, I think he actually means “support” when he says “teach”, it’s just that he’s not used to how small human beings work.) Mr Wilshaw is entirely right when he says that: “Young children can learn without any loss of freedom, imagination or excitement.” But please, let’s be clear that teaching is not the same thing in this context as learning.
“the most important measure of success for the early years sector is whether the poorest children are doing as well as their better-off peers by the time they start school.”
That this is “the most important measure of success” is a very strong statement indeed. It would appear to define everything that Ofsted wants the early years sector to do. It’s very hard to argue with the ‘closing the gap’ narrative, because if you do, some people accuse you of not wanting to make a difference. I’m delighted to try and make a difference – I wouldn’t give up so much of my own free time to help run a preschool if I wasn’t. But the thing is, I am not convinced that the education sector should be so willing to try and close a gap that is not of our own making. I am not convinced that we can close a gap that is not of our own making. The gap is a fact of society, not a fault of education. And the figures bear this out. Despite so many positive inspection reports for early years settings, Mr Wilshaw cannot help but notice that the gap has not closed at all. He says as much in his speech: “Six years later … the gap had not closed: it was still around 20 percentage points.” This is awkward for the ‘closing the gap’ narrative, but never fear, Mr Wilshaw has the solution.
“Let me be clear: what the poorest children need is to be taught, and well taught, from the age of two …. schools are best placed to tackle disadvantage.”
This is where I get very antsy indeed. The figures around early years education are skewed, and always will be, by various confounding factors. One is that it is only schools that have Reception classes, which are counted as part of the foundation stage. Another is that schools have historically been funded and run very differently to other early years settings. (Non school settings don’t have a head teacher, for a start.) Another is that the foundation stage is not statutory: some children will go to an early years setting from the age of six weeks, others will turn up when their statutory education begins, the term after they turn five. Comparing one to another is not just like comparing apples to pears, it’s like comparing apples to elephants. The gap between good and outstanding inspection results in schools, and in early years settings, is a wafer thin, statistically insignificant 1%. But do not fear, because Mr Wilshaw has the answer to the pesky gap that just refuses to close. And the answer is: get more two year olds in schools.
As a parent, the last thing I would have wanted for my two year old children was to put them into a school. This is not to denigrate the wonderful work that is being done by both schools and early years settings. It is just to say that, when my children were two, I didn’t feel that a school setting was the right place for them. It may well be the right place for other parents and their children. But that is up to the parents to decide, and it is not the business of Ofsted in any way, shape or form. Awkwardly for Mr Wilshaw, 42% of children who were eligible for two year old funding did not take up their place. This tells a story, both about the supply of places, and also about how parents decide to bring up their children. This, from the report itself, is very interesting as well: “primary school places for two-year-olds were disproportionately occupied by children from better off families”.
“No, it is not proven. But it is obvious what has been done to date has not worked. It’s time to try something different.”
This statement is interesting: when I read the speech, it made me stop and go ‘say what?’. At a time when we are told that what we do in education must be based on evidence, and millions are being spent on research studies, Mr Wilshaw is bucking the trend. Hey, it’s not proven that putting two year old children in schools will work. But let’s not allow something as insignificant as evidence of impact stand in the way of a multi million pound policy. (If you’re interested in the issue of value for money, and you have the time to wade through Hansard, the Lords committee readings of the Childcare Bill make fascinating reading.)
“Of course, disadvantage is not the same as special educational needs. Too many schools make that mistake. But if a child does need specialist help at age two, three or four, a school should have the specialists on call who can step in.”
This bit needs a lot of picking apart. Throughout his speech, Mr Wilshaw refers to “the poorest children” (see here for what I think about that). But all of a sudden he changes tack, and wants us to remember to keep disadvantage and SEN separate. (He gets in a quick dig at schools, while he’s at it.) The bit about access to specialist help really stuck in my throat, though, because our Local Authority has had to cut the Early Intervention Grant that used to help us access the specialist support that our children required. Perhaps there are primary schools throughout the land with speech and language therapists on tap. Or perhaps there aren’t.
“Another advantage is that schools are familiar with tracking children’s development …”
We’ll just chuck those lovingly crafted Learning Journeys in the bin then. Thanks Mr W.
“Well-qualified graduate teachers make a difference too.”
They do. Of course they do. Our setting is run by a graduate leader who has an Early Years Professional qualification, and she’s brilliant. However, the new qualification of ‘Early Years Teacher’ does not come with qualified teacher status, or access to the teachers’ payscale. You cannot create a graduate led profession on £3.51 an hour.
* * * * *
The early years sector is about to encounter a time of unprecedented change. With the introduction of 30 hours of free funding for ‘working parents’, we are going to be firmly in the spotlight over the next few years. There will be lots of issues around the funding and administration of the scheme. But one of the main issues will be about the capacity within the sector to actually deliver these places. The childcare sector is overwhelmingly outside of state control – the vast majority of places are provided by private, voluntary run and independent settings. And there is very little that a government can do to increase supply within a market, if they are not willing to pay the going rate that the market demands. I’m not sure how Mr Wilshaw’s speech fits into all that, but I’m willing to bet that it does. For now, he has fired the first salvo at schools, and it’ll be fascinating to see how they respond.