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June O'Sullivan, LEYF CEO

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What is teaching and who are the teachers in Early Years?

Recently, the Chief Inspector for Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw launched the Annual Report on Early Years 2012-13 with a fairly controversial speech.  He threw down the gauntlet to the sector announcing that we were failing our poorest children because we were not teaching them to be school ready. This raised quite a few hackles and many a blog was written challenging his views but at the heart of his challenge lay the question what is teaching and who are the teachers?


There is no doubt, that Sir Michael is not too keen on the PVI sector.  Despite Ofsted noting our improvements year on year he remains convinced that we are not as good as schools even for two year olds! He has conveniently ignored the fact that children aged three have been given places in schools for over twelve years and they have not thrived and succeeded as he would like, otherwise he would not be quite so cross about the number of children who are not school ready. The “readiness for school” model is a powerful one brought from the US it promises politicians that all children entering primary school can read and write and conform to normal classroom procedures.

Sir Michael describes school readiness as:

  • learn new vocabulary and begin to use it in a meaningful way
  • recognise and sing nursery rhymes and familiar songs 
  • enjoy listening to stories and looking at picture books 
  • build small towers while counting play bricks 
  • make shapes from modelling dough and begin to make marks on paper 
  • climb stairs and begin to play with a ball 
  • start to get dressed and undressed.

He argued that children as young as two can learn and be taught and inspectors must look for evidence of settings

  • teaching children to listen to instructions and be attentive 
  • teaching children to socialise 
  • motivating children to try things for themselves 
  • supporting children to manage their personal needs 
  • challenging children to think and find out more 
  • encouraging children to speculate and test ideas through trial and error 
  • providing good models of language 
  • developing children’s ability to express their ideas and use their imagination 
  • extending children’s vocabulary and teach them to use new words 
  • teaching children the early stages of mathematics and reading.

Well I don’t disagree with Sir Michael.  We know from research that the brain sensitivity to language, numeracy, social skills and emotional control all peak before the age of four, which suggests that how we support children in nursery matters greatly for children’s development of key skills and abilities. However, the issue is that children have little time for us to get it wrong and so we cannot make our children the platform for egos or politicking. We therefore need to be clear about our role as teachers and how and what we teach children. The Ofsted report 2012 -13 stated that  “Teaching for small children is not blackboards and desks, it is counting bricks when building a tower, learning nursery rhymes and familiar songs, or gently coaching a child to put their own arms into their coat. The most successful early years providers, whoever they are, are focused on helping children to learn.

But to really consider what we mean by teaching we need to answer some other questions:

  • Do we understand how children learn?
  • What are the characteristics of effective learning?
  • What is our pedagogical framework within which we teach?

Let’s begin at the beginning because to understand how best to teach small children we need to understand how they develop and learn; quite different things!  Set this in a context that children develop at their own pace so there is no point in teaching them to hold a pencil if they have not developed the physical grasp and coordination skills needed to do so competently. We have to be able to recognise the stages needed to get a child to be able to move from learning how to use his hands and fingers to learning to mark make and eventually learn to write. We also need to understand how the learning is being processed so we can recognise the characteristics of effective learning in the children. Are the children willing to explore and have a go? Can they get involved and concentrate on an activity? Do they have their own ideas and the ability to pursue those ideas?  This may be a little toddler finding their favourite posting box and continuing to practice getting the right shapes into the right holes or a brave three year old getting on their scooter over and over until they can keep it upright and eventually scoot with aplomb. We then have to work within a pedagogical framework which articulates the art and science of teaching that we believe will lead a child to learning. That means taking account of every element of what we do from home to nursery and within the wider community.  Recently, the UK Education Minister went to Shanghai to admire their success at teaching Maths.  However, the parents of Shanghai were much more circumspect about their success noting in an article in the Telegraph that education is cultural and not easily translated. This is worth noting when considering how pedagogy is interpreted through a programme or a curriculum. In the UK the EYFS is the statutory curriculum which shapes the pedagogy .


There are others such as Te Whariki which influenced the LEYF approach because of its integrated care and education central core with a great emphasis on social context and communities and how early years practice can weave thoughtful action into social justice. The pedagogical principles are designed so as to ensure services that are individually, developmentally, educationally culturally and locally appropriate. A common framework also helps parents understand an approach and how we teach children. It is more likely to ensure a stronger home learning environment by more explicit information sharing about what we do in nursery.

The LEYF approach automatically encompasses the learning requirements of the EYFS but is very influenced by theories of Froebel, Pestalozzi, Vygotsky, Bruner McMillan, Montessori, Gardner, Putnam and the emerging research on neuroscience. So for example one aspect of Montessori’s influence is evident in how we support children’s Independence by teaching them to dress themselves, help tidy up, use real tools and understand their role in the local neighbourhood. Bruner comes alive in the way we give the children opportunities to explore their communities and connect with their sense of place, McMillan influenced our urban outdoors approach while Vygostky guides our emphasis on social interaction, conversations and the importance of understanding their role within the nursery.

When asked how children learn we will more than likely say “ through play”. This simple statement is often misunderstood.  Play is a complex process and necessary for children to become adults.  Play-based, as opposed to “drill-and-practice”, curricula designed with the developmental needs of children in mind can be more effective in fostering the development of academic and attention skills in ways that are engaging and fun (Brooks-Gunn, 2007). However, in a healthy nursery, play does not mean “anything goes”  but neither be so tightly structured that children are denied opportunities to learn through their own initiative and exploration. Faster is not better so children need time to repeat and practise and staff need to be sensitive in how much the repetition is planned. For example a child needs to hear a word 20 times before it become part of their vocabulary.

In practice teaching in the Early Years means adults who can weave together child led first hand, sensory and fun experiences through play in a suitable environment  balanced with adult initiated planned activities where we can challenge, extend and scaffold the children and their interests in a way that takes account their learning styles and their developmental stages. Children learn from adults who create a space where together they float on a sea of rich conversations, positive modelling, repetition, extension and corroboration and where adults use a range of carefully selected teaching strategies including listening, observing, modelling, questioning, negotiating, demonstrating, extending and acknowledging and valuing children learning.

I’d be interested to hear your views – What is teaching and who are the teachers in Early Years?


  • Glynis Mates

    Hi June

    Sorry for the delay in replying but I wanted to read Sir
    Michael Wilshaw,s full speech, which having done so has raised a few reponses
    & questions for me.

    Sir Wilshaw at least recognises that London is one of the
    few areas in the country where the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged
    children is closing. This is interesting and perhapes leyf has played a part in
    this as the number of their nurseries increases bringing with them their
    ethos,values and dedicated high quality workforce.

    He raises the point that many low income families do not
    know how to find a childcare setting or where they are in the local area.I dont
    think this is necessarily true, the problem is there are too few nurseries
    offering funded places for the number of children that would be eligable. On
    top of this are the families that are just above the threshold for the funded
    place but whose children would also benefit from a nursery place.

    Of course there are families that are not accessing their
    entitlement and hopefully the Children,s Centre would be able to support them
    with this,however this will become increasingly difficult with Out Reach teams
    having their hours and staff cut.

    I agree that health & education dont talk to each other
    and this is a constant challenge for the Children Centre as well, time after
    time HV teams do not pass on vital information or link up with the CC even
    though this would benefit the family.

    Sir Wilshaw seems to have the opinion that the
    majority of early years practitioners do not know how to teach but once trained
    as teachers they do. It goes back to how the early years work force are viewed
    by politicans and the public that Teachers are superior to practitioners. I
    agree that we need to have qualified staff but being a teacher wont magically
    mean you will be able to work/teach very young children. During my 18 years in
    the main stream schools settings this was often made clear by newly qualified
    teachers who were trained for the early years but had little understanding of
    young children’s development and needs.I know that the EYPS and the now Early
    Years Teachers has gone some way to change this but very few of them work in
    schools or wish to do so.

    There still seems to be a bit of a stigma that unless you
    are a teacher in a school then you are not a proper teacher. If this was to
    change than perhapes Sir Wilshaw wouldnt be so desperate to see our youngest
    children in school settings.

    I also object to his notion that low income families should
    take priority over local families, to me this will create problems within the
    local enviroment where school places are already limited and parents struggle
    to find suitable schools.Instead goverment should be funding nurseries that
    have shown to make a difference to secure more properties or build new

    My other concern is that especially in areas like central
    London and other cities exsiting schools and even those being built do not have
    the space that two year olds need. If these children are placed in these
    settings I envisage their days to be following a strict timetable with no
    flexibility, and access to outdoor space limited or sharing with 3,4 and 5 olds
    whose needs are different.

    Finally looking at his and Frank Fields views on school
    readiness arent they exactly what all good practitioners and nurseries
    especially leyf aim to ‘teach’ the children in their care as well as supporting
    parents to ‘teach’ their child in the home setting.

    So Sir Wilshaw why not look again at nurseries and
    appreciate the many passionate staff that work within the settings and let us
    continue to Teach the youngest children and equip them with all the skills they
    will need in school but most importantly let the youngest children benefit from
    a nursery setting thats gives them the security, care and love they need at
    this wonderous age.

    Best Wishes

    Glynis – Early Years Professional

  • Hilda Miller

    Hi June

    Your blog is very interesting and insightful, for me teaching is
    scaffolding and this needs to take place in nurseries where children are given
    the opportunity to explore, imagine, develop their emotional wellbeing and most
    of all play. Early years practitioners are the right people to teach but also
    care, as we are caring and teaching very young and vulnerable children,
    nurturing them to become confident and emotionally stable young people.

    LEYF has some fantastic initiatives that promote all of this.
    have excellent facilities and resources and most importantly standards. If we
    are discussing school readiness then we need to look no further than the
    children within our nurseries. When I read the list that Sir Michael has
    mentioned all of our children that are physically able to, can complete all the
    tasks on the list prior to leaving and attending school.

    Is it not more important to focus on the children’s wellbeing
    rather than a task/activity list. Are the children attending school emotional
    equipped to adapt to school, are they confident to try new and exciting
    activities, can they socialise, take turns, cope appropriately with their
    emotions, are they willing to have a go, take risks.

    We make the most significant difference to our 2 year olds that
    are from the most deprived back grounds. Most arrive with very little language
    and quite often challenging behaviour. The nurseries work very hard with
    parents and the child to introduce structure and expectations. Our home
    learning activities really support the parents. We have to remember that the
    parents are the first and primary teacher. The staff are sensitive on how to
    support and the Each one Teach one project will support this further.

    The social impact that the 2 year old funding scheme has had,
    cannot have been measured yet, it’s too soon, however I am sure that supporting
    and teaching our most vulnerable children and parents early, will have a
    measurable impact.

    I do not believe that 2 year olds should be taught in school, as
    at two love and care, again their emotional wellbeing is paramount and they
    will naturally learn when they feel really secure. Our cohort tracking
    evidences this, and our parents comment on how much their children have
    developed since they started attending the nursery.

    I am a little confused how the PVI sector can be described as
    failing our most deprived children and measured against school nurseries.
    School nurseries are not inspected separately, how many schools are on special
    measures, there is no indication as to whether their nurseries are doing well.
    Even schools that are rated good, how much time is spent in the nursery
    provision or is the school just measured on the children’s achievements and the
    teaching in reception.

    Teaching isn’t just making sure that we can tick a box within
    development matters, its more than that. It’s about providing the children with
    new and exciting experiences, making them feel really valued and building their
    self- esteem and confidence. It’s also about providing our parents with the
    tools to promote their learning at home and helping them to feel confident to
    really be their child’s first educator/teacher.


  • Etain Ferdenzi

    Fab blog! Well put! Good teachers in Early Years operate in a different environment to the mainstream classroom. I know experienced KS1 and 2 teachers who are scared of going ‘down’ there to teach. Observational skills, being able to engage with children in ‘play’, whilst still observing and scaffolding is a developing art which these teachers practise, some seemingly with ease. They do not have the marking to do, but have a great deal of continual formative assessment. It is exhausting.
    I teach primary music from Reception upwards as well as make music with young families and their babies and toddlers. It is an absolute joy for me to work with these little ones. Note the term ‘work with’- teaching for me suggests a more adult-directed approach. I am further privileged to work with the adults, who, through the sessions, learn about themselves and become enabled through music to do the best for their child.

  • Jeanne Barczewska

    This is great June – my question to Sir Michael is what does he propose teachers do when, for example, two year old children are reluctant to listen, be attentive and follow instructions? What he is describing are some of the characteristics of effective learning and we know that we hope children will achieve those skills – but they way they express their desires loses sight of the processes (play? relationship building? emotional well-being?) during that stage…
    it is easy to want those outcomes but the ‘teaching’ requires the stages of getting them there!!!

    • June O’Sullivan

      Thanks Jeanne. The issue is as you say, meeting the developmental needs of the children and using teaching that is relevant and leads a child to learning.

  • Penny Webb

    Well said June – and you have described my practice in your last paragraph – and I would think the practice of many other early years practitioners – and parents. Not all of course – but many of them. Do I teach – yes without a doubt. Am I a teacher as in the formal sense of a qualified teacher – no I am not.

    The word teacher and teaching cause so much confusion when people try to apply them to the early years sector – because of the historic association with those words

    • June O’Sullivan

      Absolutely Penny which is why we need to reclaim the term and make it clear to the world what it means for us.

  • Jo Verrill

    Brilliant blog June and just the question that was raised in our recent #Ofstedbigconversation meeting in the North East, notes to follow soon

    • June O’Sullivan

      Good stuff, great to keep engaging with #obc

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