Last November, I finally submitted my doctoral thesis, a study into how early years practitioners defined and articulated their professional role.
At the same time, OfSTED published Bold Beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a selection of good and outstanding primary schools, reporting on good practice in school Reception classes, who deliver the final year of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) before children enter Key Stage 1.
The reflection that follows, based on the structure suggested by Rolfe et al. (2001) for setting out one’s response to a critical incident (illustrated right), considers the links between the Bold Beginnings report, reactions from across the early years sector, and my own doctoral findings.
The Bold Beginnings report draws on data from settings graded as good or outstanding in their practice. Its findings include that:
- settings judged to be outstanding are those where children’s literacy skills are well-developed
- that good practice balances adult-led teaching with child-led play
- mathematics is not well-taught in many Reception classes
- play as a medium for learning is not well-understood by all practitioners, and does not always present children with sufficient challenge to engage and progress their learning
- teachers felt that there was no Reception class curriculum
OfSTED makes it clear that their concern is that children are not doing well enough against the revised Key Stage 1 targets, concluding, therefore, that the current Early Learning Goals in the EYFS are no longer fit for purpose, i.e. to ensure that children leave Reception ready for formal schooling. The recommendations that follow these findings focus more on revising aspects of the EYFS than providing appropriate professional development for Reception staff.
A misconstruction of the EYFS?
The report’s emphasis on formal teaching, and the role of early years provision in servicing the National Curriculum, has attracted much criticism and comment.
As a review of practice in what was developed as a play-based curriculum framework underpinned by key principles that recognise the emotional needs and the individuality of the child (DfE, 2017), the findings and recommendations seem to overlook the original intentions and purpose of the EYFS.
In tracking children’s progress towards the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) by the time they reach 5, the EYFS emphasises the importance of the learning process as much as its outcomes, and acknowledges that young children learn and develop at their own pace and in their own way.
The ELGs are simply that – a series of goals for practitioners to aim for in supporting children’s development, rather than a set of targets that must be achieved. To change this perception, it could be argued, is to change the whole culture of early childhood education and care (ECEC) in England, and highlights the problematic nature of the pedagogical transition children are expected to adjust to as they go into Year 1.
Accountability and the place of the child within practice
The response to the report has, in many ways, been predictable. Academics and educators have taken issue with the findings, the recommendations, and the data from which both these have been drawn.
Duckett (2017) calls attention to the tension it highlights between the desire for practice and outcomes to be accountable, and for practice to offer a meaningful, high quality support for young children’s learning, a tension previously reported on by Roberts-Holmes (2012) and Roberts-Holmes and Bradbury (2016).
The findings reflect concerns (Moss, 2012) that the relationship between ECEC and compulsory schooling once again privileges the requirement for older children to meet set targets over the learning needs of younger ones, a top down approach to educational practice and curriculum development that would appear to position the child and their needs on the periphery of this process. Such a positioning contradicts my own doctoral research findings, that early years practitioners regard as paramount the individual learning needs of the children they work with, their right to play (UNCRC), and the value of play in supporting not only children’s cognitive and linguistic development, but also their social and emotional well-being. This ethical stance not only reflects a ‘pedagogy of listening’ (Dahlberg and Moss, 2005), which values the uniqueness of the child, but that also acknowledges the importance of ECEC provision in supporting early learning for its own sake, rather than simply as preparation for formal schooling.
Finally, the report has been criticised as much for its methodology as its content, since it draws on data from a very specific sample of settings, whose practice has already attracted a high level of approval from their regulator based on its formality and its outcomes. Duckett goes onto cite Chris Merrick (a director of Sightlines Initiative) who argues that in using such evidence to support recommendations to change practice in Reception classes, it is assessment and measurement, rather than the needs of children, which drives practice, leading to increased formality for ever younger age groups, despite research evidence that consistently emphasises the importance of play.
Practitioners speak out – the power of social media
However, the response to the report has also been surprising, and encouraging. Through sector publications such as Nursery World and social media, early years practitioners have been voicing their own responses.
My Twitter feed @maryadyer (which I acknowledge is a limited and subjective sample) has been regularly updated with the tweets and retweets of individuals and groups taking issue with the report’s findings and recommendations, criticising the data from which it was drawn, and offering their own experiences and evaluations of a range of pedagogic strategies for supporting young children’s learning.
Most of all, like the practitioners participating in my own research, they take issue with OfSTED’s contention that the purpose of the final year of EYFS provision is to develop children’s literacy skills, as a reduction, not only of their professional role, but also of the importance of play in supporting children’s understanding of their world, and the development of a positive disposition towards learning.
Professional status and making their voices heard
What is heartening is not that there is so much strong feeling about what has proved to be such a contentious report. Rather, it is that individual practitioners, as well as groups representing the early years sector (for example, Early Education, TACTYC) are now making their voices heard.
My doctoral research investigated what graduate early years practitioners understood their professional identity to be, and how this was shaped and articulated though their engagement in their occupational and social environment. My findings were that the group of practitioners I interviewed defined their professional role in relation to the children, families and colleagues with whom they worked. They acknowledged the social and political context of their work but saw their place within in it as lacking the power to challenge or change policy discourse. Most of all, they lacked networks beyond their own settings and the opportunity to develop a collective voice on matters of practice, a factor that Hordern (2014) argues limits their professional status and autonomy.
The response to the report has already had consequences. OfSTED has entered into discussions with sector groups, and offered some clarification of its position (Gaunt, 2018). They have now characterised the report as a ‘think piece’, making reassurances that since there are no planned changes to the inspection regime at present, no changes should be made to practice. However, this seems a somewhat disingenuous and contradictory response from OfSTED, firstly arguing that their power over practice is exaggerated, then acknowledging that settings may interpret their recommendations as guidance over what they expect to see in good and outstanding provision.
TACTYC and Early Education have been open in their reports of discussions with Ofsted (Early Education, 2017) and their concerns about recommendations for revision to the EYFS rather than the need for more effective professional development in matters of pedagogy for practitioners.
Perhaps an ongoing dialogue between the regulator of practice and the professional organisations of the sector may eventually lead to OfSTED recognition that good practice is more effectively led and supported by practitioners whose knowledge and understanding of young children’s learning and the use of a curriculum framework goes beyond the current NVQ Level 3, finally mandating for graduate practitioners within the EYFS. These are the practitioners who understand and value the qualitative difference between the EYFS and the KS1 child, and the need for play as a foundation for early learning; they understand why and how this difference should be supported, so that “When we were very young” (Milne, 1965) is not overwhelmed by “Now we are 6” (Milne, 1965).
Bold Beginnings may not be a good report about early years practice, but its publication may do a lot of good for the voice of the individual practitioner. My own hope is that, having found a voice and a means of sharing it, early years practitioners continue to make use of social media and sector networking to share their professional knowledge, claiming recognition for their status and expertise.