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.