Where do I Begin? A personal opinion on Bold Beginnings

It would be difficult NOT to have an opinion on Bold Beginnings, the report published by Ofsted on 30th November 2017. Indeed, as if things weren’t bad enough, Gill Jones, Ofsted deputy director, early education, writing a response to criticism of the Ofsted report compounded rather than diffused the controversial ‘research based’ report. In her Nursery World article in December she raises the question …. ‘Is the Reception year a time to learn or play?’ She goes on to add, however, that ‘Ofsted isn’t against play in the reception class’ but ‘schools should also make sure that children sit at tables and hold a pencil correctly when they learn to write’. Let’s remember Reception is still a key part of the Early Years Foundation Stage, these children are 4 and 5 years old. It is not as Justine Greening, former Secretary of State for Education, indicated ‘a bridge between early years and key stage one’.

Gill Jones comments follow on from Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted who continues to be surprised at the reaction to the Bold Beginnings report, perhaps, she suggested, it had been misinterpreted. It is difficult to misinterpret ‘evidence’ from the report. In ‘good and outstanding’ schools, for example, the report states that EYFS ‘reception teachers use direct, interactive whole class instruction, particularly for reading, writing and mathematics.

Leaders and staff ignored the perceived tensions between the principles of the EYFS and teaching a whole class directly. They recognised that teaching the whole class was at times the most efficient way of imparting knowledge.’

In other ‘good’ schools, ‘some headteachers did not believe in the notion of ‘free play’. They viewed playing without boundaries as too rosy and unrealistic a view of childhood…. some did not endorse providing free-flow provision’.

The report concludes that ‘all primary schools should make sure that the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception Year’.

Already social media is awash with reception teachers being asked by their Senior Leadership Teams to have regard to the report, putting early years under further pressure to become ever more formal. Indeed, the EYFS is the last remaining outpost of child centred learning and all that is at the heart of our Froebelian beliefs. The report will feed into next year’s EYFS and Inspection Framework review, continuing the top-down move of the key stage 1 curriculum into reception, rather than a child centred, play based EYFS feeding upwards into Years 1 and 2. Less than 10 years ago this seemed a real possibility, but the Bold Beginnings report shows that the direction of thinking is moving, at an alarming rate, in the opposite direction.

My concern is that with reports such as Bold Beginnings dominating the discourse, it will become harder and harder for early years practitioners to hold on to long established, sound early years practice. When I trained as a teacher, primary schools were still revelling in a post Plowden ‘discovery learning’ endorsement. Over 30 years later it is difficult to recognise primary school practice of the 1980s in the present day primary classroom. I think it is probably impossible for a Froebelian approach to ever be re-introduced into primary schools, the direction has moved so far away from this approach. We cannot let this happen in the early years.   

Mark Hunter

 Read more: A Collective Open Letter in Response to Bold Beginnings Report coordinated by Keeping Early Years Unique