If you spend any length of time working in the early years sector, you start to get the feeling that you are not seen to be quite as intellectual or rational as those working in other phases. This doesn’t come from everyone, by any means, or even from the majority, but it is the narrative from a small but fairly influential group of commentators. It’s nothing obvious – no one comes right out and says it, but there is definitely a subtext that working with the under 5’s is (a) not particularly hard, and (b) means one becomes far too prone to emotional reactions. While everyone is happy to say how important they believe your work with small children is, there is the hint that they don’t think you get it right – mainly along the lines that provision is not formal enough. (This despite the fact that 94% of early years settings and 100% of maintained nursery schools are graded ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.) While none of us working in any sector would ever claim to be perfect, I have observed a strong desire to be self reflective and to continuously evaluate and update our practice. The undercurrent of criticism seems to emanate from those who have not worked with the under 5’s and I’m sorry to say that the majority of it comes from male colleagues. The reaction to the anger over Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report is a great case in point – lying just beneath the surface of the language being used on Twitter seems to be the idea that the women who make up 98% of the early years sector should just calm the hell down.
In case anyone thinks I’m over stating the case, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen all of the following things tweeted about those of us who work in the early years sector and who have objected to Ofsted’s report (I will leave the authors anonymous, to spare their blushes). That “It’s the politicised ‘why oh why won’t someone think of the children’ hyperbole that grates”. That we may be “culpable in the gap growing between those [disadvantaged] chn [sic] and others”. That we “find any criticism – however gentle” difficult (that one made me laugh – how kind of you to be gentle with us!). That blogs from those not working in the EYFS offer “a rather more sophisticated conversation than you normally see surrounding Early Years”. And that we “shouldn’t be allowed to let [our] own wilful [sic] misreading of Bold Beginnings stop education being improved for millions of children”. Recently I even saw someone make the astonishing claim that children “spend all of R [Reception] splashing about in [the] sandpit instead of learning to read and count”. Taken individually, it might be easy enough to shrug these comments off as ill informed and lacking an evidence base, but over time the cumulative effect is to create a distrust of the early years sector and a misunderstanding of the pedagogy we use. Taken together with the latest push by the DfE to implement a baseline test, the inclusion of schools in ‘baby PISA’, and a report from the Teaching Schools Council in 2016 describing “aimless activities” in reception, a clear pattern begins to emerge.
Clearly, there has been a strong reaction to the Bold Beginnings report, culminating in a number of articles and an open letter being published in The Guardian yesterday. Heated words have been exchanged on both ‘sides’. Early years organisations have written a number of detailed responses, demonstrating how the evidence base supports the pedagogy that settings use (for instance, see this from TACTYC). A number of meetings have been arranged between those responsible for the report, and those in the sector who are unhappy with its recommendations. I agreed to attend a meeting, although unfortunately I was told that I had to keep the discussion confidential. Since the report was published, there has been plenty of effort from all parties to try and resolve the situation, but to little avail. If Ofsted were hoping that the anger would settle down and go away over Christmas, the opposite seems to be the case. To my mind it is probably going to be impossible to reconcile some parts of the report with the values and beliefs of those of us who work in early years, and probably colleagues in other phases as well. The statement that “the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception Year” is hugely problematic for a start (see the responses to the tweet below if you’re unsure about why).
It is useful to note that the early years sector is a very different beast to the schools sector, particularly in the way that it reacts to government dictates and how it operates on social media. While Gove and the DfE seem to have been able to drive a wedge between those teachers and academics described as ‘the Blob’ and those who identify as ‘traditionalists’, there is no such divide between those of us who work on the ground in the early years. While the Reception year is the point at which the EYFS moves entirely into the schools sector, the mix of provision between schools and PVI settings for the 0-4 age group means that this phase is much harder for policy makers to control. Our parents pay fees, as well as taking up funded places, which can make us feel like a curious mix between state and private education. The sector was united in its opposition to reduced staff/child ratios, during Liz Truss’s tenure at the DfE, and it ran a #rewindratios campaign until the idea was quietly dropped. When there were previous concerns about Ofsted, the sector initiated the #ofstedbigconversation and meetings with Ofsted were held around the country.
The sector also has a very clear vision of what developmentally appropriate assessment in the early years looks like, and is pretty much united in its opposition to a baseline test. The huge percentage of settings that chose the Early Excellence observation based assessment in the previous round of tenders simply serves to underline the strength of feeling. The refusal of Early Excellence to even apply for the £10 million tender for a non observation based assessment (most likely a test done on a tablet) and the news that CEM are unlikely to tender either, seems to indicate that government policy on the early years is fatally flawed. One of the key factors to remember when discussing anything to do with the early years foundation stage, is that this is a non statutory phase of education. That we advocate not only for ourselves, but for small children who cannot advocate for themselves, and who don’t even have to be in our settings. While the majority of parents choose to use the provision that is on offer, there is absolutely no compulsion for them to do so. The DfE is caught in a bind when it comes to pressing their reforms downwards into the early years, because we’re not going to stop expressing how we view those reforms any time soon. And we do not plan to let the EYFS become a “preparation” for “now-increased expectations”. Because it is a unique and important phase, in and of itself.