If we want to improve the lives of poor two year olds, we need to have an intelligent Ofsted conversation

‘More nursery education should be carried out in schools to prepare children better for later education and help bridge the gap between rich and poor’ the Chief Inspector of schools has said.

Sir Michael Wilshaw warned that ‘too many early years education providers are failing to teach youngsters social, emotional and learning skills and get them ready to start primary school.’9739511441_f1f00e4de8_z

‘Pupils from poorer backgrounds are also too often falling behind their more privileged peers by the time they reach school age, but bringing “structured” early years provision into a school setting would help put them on equal footing.’ His comments came ahead of Ofsted’s first Early Years Annual Report, which will call for a radical shake-up of early years education in England.

And so screamed the headlines…blood pressure raised, heads shook, teeth were kissed by many in the Early Years sector as they listened to this while stirring the porridge.

The trouble was that the speech confused many issues into a simplistic message which was a shame because the central tenet that There is nothing inevitable about the link between poverty and failure is something on which Sir Michael and I totally agree. It’s the principle on which we built LEYF.

However, his conclusion that all this would be solved if we put poor children into school earlier is simplistic, arrogant and dismisses the whole Early Years sector as either meddling middle class earth mothers, or useless Early Years practitioners. No doubt, there is some truth in this but it’s a rather Homer Simpson approach. Doh! homer-simpson-doh

Let’s probe some of the assumptions he makes:

  1. Ofsted figures show continual improvement in the standards of quality offered by PVI nurseries, so why is he blaming us for the fact the children age four are not school ready?
  2. Children aged three have been in school for the last 12 years and there is no research that shows that by being in school they have successfully helped children become school ready.
  3. There is no research that says two year olds from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to better success by attending a school environment. It hasn’t worked for three year olds.
  4. My experience of the two year olds on the two year old programme is that they have disproportionately higher levels of speech and communication problems, disorganised attachment, nutrition  issues and parents who are either unable or unwilling to be warm, authoritative parents which is, as we know, the most successful parenting style. How will schools cope with this?
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  5. He says that because teachers are graduates then the quality of teaching will be higher. The research we did  shows quite clearly that the level of qualification could not be proven as key to quality for two year olds but the level of attunement, understanding of child development and the high ratios were the critical factors. Is he and Liz Truss in cahoots to get the ratios reduced?
  6. He wants us to ‘teach’ two year olds and provide more formalised learning. Well, we do teach two year olds using sensory and creative teaching, enabling environments, routine, small groups, outdoor play and continual conversation, language, singing stories and working with their parents. Two year olds are babies at 25 months, toddlers by thirty months and emerging small children by thirty six months.  They come sucking dummies, in nappies and hardly able to separate from their parents and become quite independent by three but the journey means we weave care, order and loving attachment into their learning.  Call that teaching if you want Sir Michael but it needs plenty of adults and home learning activities.
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  7. Sir Michael, no one objects to children being able to know ‘how to hold a pen… the ability to count, to recognise words, to communicate well with each other and their teachers’ but we need to agree what your inspectors look for as we help children become skilled at such tasks.  We need to be able to do this in a paced way so we work in alignment with the child and not in some pressured race.  Perhaps you might rethink why we need to be able to do all this at four and five which is not even statutory school age.
  8. We agree we need to develop a shared baseline screening but the evidence so far is not hopeful that they help children progress. Let’s think of a better way to identify children’s starting points and track their progress.
  9. Sir Michael, we have for many, many years tried to engage with schools and it’s never been a coherent success. It very much depends of factors such as a willing Headteacher, locality, time, cover and Local Authority support.  Why do you think you can force a different course of action?
  10. With so many schools failing and in special measures and no Local Authority support how will deregulation ensure quality is assured in schools and guarantee children the best service.

Sir Michael, we are all on the side of children.  However, to succeed so everyone is life ready we need to have a coherent approach if we are to support children to succeed. You cannot do that by telling one element of the sector that it’s to blame for failing poor children in the face of contradictory evidence.  Why not use Ofsted’s role as an improvement catalyst and engage with the sector?  This is where we can all show real leadership. The issues are more complex than you acknowledge and we need a holistic approach.  Start by setting up a National Advisory Committee to tackle each element of the problem. Let’s begin by having a pedagogical conversation…

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‘We worry so much about what a child will be tomorrow that we forget she is someone today.
Stacia Tauchser