Not Quite Bold Enough Beginnings

This is going to be just a blog post in preparation for the discussion I’m going to have with the Brookes 3-7 Pathway PGCE students this week. I think it’s important we read Bold Beginnings together and take a close look not only at its implications but at some of the voices raised against it. Here are some, for reference:

Kym Scott in Nursery World, is here, suggesting that “a very clear political agenda for introducing more formal learning” is at the heart of Bold Beginnings. There is that: the storm crows are gathering, maybe. TACTYC talk of how adherence to recommendations in Bold Beginnings will [sic] have detrimental effects on children’s confidence, motivation and disposition to learn.

Jan Dubiel from Early Excellence – again in Nursery World – expresses concern that EYFS’ “clear set of expectations and outcomes in order to ensure that YR provides the most effective and significant learning opportunities” are narrowed by Bold Beginnings  which “creates a very real danger of misinterpretation and the limiting of effective practice to achieving outcomes in three Specific Areas of Learning and Development at the expense of the importance of the wider YR curriculum.”  Jan cites his organisation’s Hundred Review and its findingshere he is in video format reporting on the massive sample size and other methodological issues.  He is right, I believe,  to talk about how “Reception almost lives between two worlds.” Here is the tension. It was the same issue that exercised me as a Head, in the last days that many free-standing nursery schools had five year olds, and I’m not sure that, even with Forest School and everything else we worked with, it was quite right. I understand this remains a contentious area of education.

CREC  likewise gave Bold Beginnings a Paddington-like long, hard stare, as I read it; in their response the Centre there is a clear key message:

Emerging developmental evidence reveals that an ‘earlier is better’, more formal, didactic approach may be misguided and will not make a difference in the long term. In contrast to the focus on early, didactic instruction, current research into early emotional and cognitive development suggests that long-term well-being and success at school may be more dependent on children developing executive functioning and self-regulation abilities, and exercising autonomy in their learning. The evidence sharply indicates that play and participatory approaches should be seen as key vehicles for learning throughout the early years.

That long-standing bastion of quality in the Early Years, the British Association for Early Childhood Education (founded by the great Margaret McMillan in 1923) calls Bold Beginnings a “hit and miss affair,” and I suppose that’s my view. A curate’s egg. – but remember that the joke there is the luckless curate is desperate to find something good in the face of someone in power. Here the situation is somewhat different, and  ITT and our trainees need to read, to ponder, to see direction of travel, isthat we are aware not just of policy but of its practical implications. There are good thing here – transition, the mention of play in a number of contexts, the highlighting of confusion (dispowerment?) about time allocations. And we have to take voices that raise concern seriously.

So on to OfSTED’s report. It is drawn from their analysis of practice in the schools OfSTED has deemed of high quality, visiting 41 schools. While we might be a little nervy about a self-justifying methodology here, I suspect readers will understand this is their way of working: an internal piece of review not an EdD.

It is clear the authors see that “Reading was at the heart of the curriculum in the most successful classes. Listening to stories, poems and rhymes fed children’s imagination, enhanced their vocabulary and developed their comprehension.”  There is, maybe, a lack of clarity further down the summary where the authors state (time for a long quotation):

 “The schools visited understood that teaching had different purposes. Play, for example, was used primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills. They learned to investigate the world around them, both physically and imaginatively. However, around two thirds of the staff inspectors spoke to confused what they were teaching (the curriculum) with how they thought they were supposed to teach it.

To pick some holes for starters. We might look at “play was used” and the broader issues about quite what play is. I suspect the authors think “fun activities” set up by the teacher equates to the classic Tina Bruce Free-Flow Play model, or that play is primarily a space to hang out with your friends: a “playtime”or “break” model of play. This is where it gets tricky, because I begin to worry that what we have in Bold Beginnings is a battle zone, where Teaching and Play a Balancing Act is in a struggle with a more formal model, and where ‘no one way’ (here is a compilation video but I note it has been archived) is set aside for a more authoritarian involvement. I have written about this before.  This shift in itself seems to contradict a recent TES Blog. Again, here is the message on YouTube. How we think about play- and how we prepare for an OfSTED inspection when we value it highly – was one of the tensions that worried me most in 2000 in my own last inspection as a Head: I had a sympathetic Lead Inspector who instructed me very firmly not to dress up for them. We might also note the confusion between curriculum, used here to denote the intentions of the adult, and complexities around ethos, approach, professional judgments around what is developmentally appropriate…

But let’s not. There are some great things here: singing, reading for pleasure and loving stories, CPD, extra support for SENDI… But for me, Bold Beginnings simply isn’t bold enough: in wanting to divide Reception from the rest of the Foundation Stage, it doesn’t bring Early Childhood Education (Birth to Eight) together: it highlights some good practice, but is in danger of plonking four and five year olds on the other side of a Primary/EY watershed.

It is undoubtedly important, in Jan Dubiel’s words, that we should all be about the business of finding “a broad consensus on what the priorities and practices in YR should be,” and Gill Jones from OfSTED (30th Nov, again in Nursery World) is equally passionate about how important this experience is. However, she is not above taking the “not good enough” line that educators have heard so often from OfSTED, from Ministers (in all parties, I think):

But too often it is a false start for young children and leaves them exposed to all the painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers…

Primary schools should be introducing an element of formal teaching in Reception. It should not just be an extension of pre-school…

Gill Jones stresses “we are not criticising pre-schools, nurseries and childminders.” Just Reception teachers, then. Bit of a faux pas that one, I’m afraid, but let’s move on, because this lays bare for me the problem with the whole debate. We are back with (I think it was) Ken Clarke saying that it was “time to set aside the happy chaos of sandpit and water tray.” She is echoing the key, revelatory speech of Amanda Spielman of the same date.

So we come to what I am posting this for: the glancing blow from Headteachers that NQTs are ill-prepared for key parts of their task. Read, mark and inwardly digest.

I do like the recommendation that all Primary trainees should

have sufficient knowledge of Reception, so that they understand progression from the early years foundation stage onwards

In other words that “they know nothing when they come to me” should be a phrase that dies the death.

I am less sure of the emphasis in the next point, that ITT should:

devote a greater proportion of their training programme to the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics as the route to decoding words, and the composition of numbers, so that all newly qualified teachers are competent and confident to teach early literacy and mathematics.

(OfSTED emphasis). If we think back, we were told earlier this year EY didn’t do enough nursery rhymes. We can do both, I know, and maybe the are intimately linked –  and this one will run and run, and really here we need to look at the messages far more than my opinion. I just don’t like the the, I suppose.

But to end on a (sort of) positive note from Bold Beginnings:

Play was an important part of the curriculum in all of the schools visited. The headteachers knew which aspects of learning needed to be taught directly and which could be learned through play. However, except for literacy and mathematics, the schools were not clear about the time they devoted in a typical week to the different areas of learning.

Clarity and self-reflection: the key to an effective profession.

And this is the challenge for us as we prepare more people for the key work at the disputed end of the Foundation Stage. Language development, including reading and writing, is key, absolutely key to my work, and has been since I first went into my Reception class in the late 80s: it continues to be. I agree that we all together need to “raise the profile of early mathematics teaching” although I am less sure about adopting a formalised one-size-fits-all approach. I also agree that school A may limit play to Golden Time (aka “leave me alone: it’s your reward for being compliant” whereas school B may have the space, staff and expertise to organise for much more exploration by children and with them. This is the challenge for Heads, for Phase Leaders, for Governors, for ITE – and ultimately, my PGCE students for you: if OfSTED are right (and they most assuredly are) that the wellbeing and progress of the children is at the heart of a quality curriculum, that’s the baton we are all passing on to you. Learn to enunciate your support, your objections, your insights in all sorts of directions in such a way that you do not lose sight of the child you joined the profession to teach.

 

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