The speculation over the most suitable provision for our six year olds (Y1) is accelerating as early years advisers encourage headteachers and teachers to take the ‘learning through play’ philosophy of the Foundation Stage (FS) upwards into at least Year 1.
Ofsted intentionally contributed to the national debate about early education in England through its report ‘The education of six year olds in England , Denmark and Finland ’ (July 2003). In the main findings, it was noted that whilst “The curriculum is much more centralised and closely defined in England than the other two countries” nevertheless several teachers commented (and I do believe that this is a reflection of the reality) that “they were caught between the expectations of the Foundation Stage on the one hand and the impact of the National Curriculum testing system in Year 2 on the other.” This is far from a satisfactory situation.
It raises the question of whether the demanding subject-based National Curriculum for Key Stage 1 (KS1) in England is really appropriate. If curriculum and practice have been identified as no longer recommended for six year olds, and teachers are increasingly expressing insecurity about what to provide, when is anyone going to do anything about Key Stage 1 expectations on a statutory level – or consider removing the statutory nature of the National Curriculum itself?
Very relevant to the English early years debate and described in Ofsted’s main findings was the fact that whilst English classrooms in the sample were well-resourced they were “cramped” with “excessively complex layouts” whereas in Finland “the quality of design, furniture, equipment was exceptional, as was the amount of space.” But according to Ofsted, “More challenging in their teaching implications than class size [number of pupils], however, were the classes in the small and medium-sized English schools where six year olds were mixed with other year groups, especially when these crossed the Foundation/Key Stage 1 boundary.”
We are all aware that the ‘good practice’ which is required to be passed on often reflects the political face of the latest DfES initiative or Ofsted report. And yet, the ‘Excellence and Enjoyment’ authors speak of ‘diversity’ and they purport to promote and respect it. This is certainly not my experience; for example, I have seen the requirement for cross-phase classes to be underpinned by two types of planning according to different national guidance documents without any compassion for the people who find this double expectation unreasonable or stressful. I have seen the teacher of a cross-phase class made up of three year-bands under immense pressure to reach national levels and above for the Year 2 children as a paper Panda (national comparative data) exercise whilst the LEA, Ofsted and HMI failed to follow the national warning, printed in Panda reports, that small cohorts cannot be judged by the same criteria as large cohorts. The hypocrisy in our profession never ceases to disappoint me.
Since I wrote my first version of this article, Ofsted has published yet another report contributing to the FS/KS1 debacle entitled, ‘Transition from the Reception Year to Year 1, An evaluation by HMI’, (HMI 221, May 2004). I was pleased to learn of this new report being, in the process myself of identifying the growing problems and witnessing worries amongst colleagues – worries also evident in professional discussion forums. Ofsted’s ‘Points for action’ are reproduced here in full:
Extract from ‘Transition from the Reception Year to Year 1: An evaluation by HMI’
Points for action
Those with national responsibility for the Foundation Stage and the Foundation Stage Profile should:
- give detailed consideration to the links between the areas of learning in the Foundation Stage curriculum and the subjects of the National Curriculum
- clarify the purposes of the Foundation Stage Profile and how information is to be recorded.
Those with responsibilities at LEA level should:
- review the number and range of assessments teachers undertake during Year R
- clarify the functions of any pupil profiles they devise and the Foundation Stage Profile, especially where the former have been modified to include the latter.
Schools which admit pupils to the Foundation Stage should:
- ensure that learning experiences in Year 1 build upon the practical approaches and structured play in Year R
- review the number and range of assessments required during Year R, considering the use made of information subsequently in Year 1
- involve subject co-ordinators and co-ordinators for special educational needs in planning for curricular continuity from the Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1.
So, what are the powers-that-be going to do about this situation regarding educational philosophy, curriculum content, assessment and recording? We clearly have a very complex set of educational and resourcing issues to deal with in early years education. Urgent, open and informed debate is imperative. Teachers and children continue to suffer whilst advisers and inspectors acknowledge the dichotomies; in fact, I would suggest that as officials contribute their two-penny-worth, they are fuelling the problems. In reality, those in authority fail to give sufficient, realistic and practical guidance and support: rather they keep ‘reminding’ us that there is far more choice and autonomy for the teaching profession than the teachers themselves perceive. Is that the case? There is constant reference to the DfES publication, ‘Excellence and Enjoyment’, as if this booklet alone provides all the answers and exonerates those in authority from their responsibility for the confused and overworked state of the English teaching profession!
Contradictory guidance – much of which is actually statutory (although all initiatives might as well be, such is the pressure from those who promote them) – is exacerbating teachers’ fears: fear of inspection, fear of doing the ‘wrong thing’, fear of lacking material to evidence accountability, fear of not reaching targets, fear of inadequate or unacceptable styles of planning and lesson structure, fear of short-changing the children themselves….the list is endless and I would argue that this is a true sign of the times. (A quick visit to the Early Years page on the online TES staffroom forum, http://www.tes.co.uk/staffroom/, will soon illustrate the insecurities and difficulties of early years practitioners). Quite simply, it seems to me as always that the responsibility is passed back to those with the least authority whereas surely it is incumbent upon those at the top to sort out this continuing mess – not to perpetuate it or ignore it!
For example, the Foundation Stage Profile was condemned by many from the outset and Ofsted has now added an authoritative voice to the commonsense brigade. But as usual the DfES has stood firm in its determination to persist with a flawed concept and document rather than listen to the voice of reason and acknowledge the evidence. In the Times Educational Supplement feature, “Tickbox culture condemned”, ( 21 May 2004 ), a DfES spokeswoman stated, “This report covers the first year of implementation and the first year is always more challenging. The profile is the right mechanism to record children’s progress at the end of the reception year.” Says who? Is anyone from the DfES prepared to put his/her name to this statement or, like the vast majority of DfES and QCA publications, is it going to be another nameless statement about an authorless document with the usual total lack of accountability?
And whilst the DfES fails to withdraw the Foundation Stage Profile, the teachers and pre-school practitioners are expected to struggle along spending a huge amount of time and energy on an exercise recognised as futile (pre-school practitioners often being paid only a few pounds an hour for the hours a week that they are with the children)? The Ofsted report stated, “In general, completing the Profile (but not written comments) seemed to require between 60 and 90 minutes, once teachers became accustomed to it”. And this is acceptable? A colleague of mine returned from a recent LEA Foundation Stage Profile training session in disbelief. She worked out that the 13 areas outlined in the Profile multiplied by the 8 early learning goals in each area needing at least one detailed observation/comment amounted to 104 written comments per child. Multiply this by 20 children and you would need at least 2,080 comments. Some Foundation Stage settings have much higher numbers of children than 20 and very often they are in the private/community sector where there are no salaried professionals to take on such an arduous task. I am incredulous! Despite this clear criticism from Ofsted, will the LEAs choose to support the DfES in its persistence, or the teachers in their resistance? This fiasco is so typical of the type of demands placed on teachers nowadays is it any wonder that they are leaving full-time employment in significant numbers and instances of absence from stress grow daily? The job is increasingly unmanageable and practitioners are placed on automatic failure mode through the sheer impossibility of fulfilling current bureaucratic demands.
Starting ages, summer birthdays, maturity and ability levels, gender issues
Where is the discussion about flexibility of transition to the next class or the possibility of repeating years, or the flexibility of age of starting formal schooling if ‘developmental readiness’ is the order of the day? Where is the consideration for the wishes of individual parents and the needs of the individual child? How does this apparent consideration for educating young children square with getting mothers out to work and providing state education at ever younger ages?
Who is examining the entire National Curriculum for Key Stage 1 with a view to making it compatible with transition from the Foundation Stage? When will anything be done about it? How are ordinary teachers to find out what progress is being made in discussions about such issues at the highest levels whilst they struggle to reconcile the latest pushes from the early years ‘specialists’ with hints of approval from Ofsted? How can ordinary practitioners truly participate and be heard in the early years debate? How can parents be heard?
Formal vs informal teaching
There is increasingly a climate of ‘bashing’ any activities traditionally associated with ‘formal’ education, including sitting down at tables, providing a table space for all children to be able to sit simultaneously, rehearsing handwriting with regular pencils, using worksheets, learning basic literacy skills such as phonics, copy-writing and recording. Advisers are displaying a clear neurosis about ‘outdoor learning’ and nowadays Foundation Stage children have to be out as much as (or more than) in, with scant regard, it would seem, for the British climate and the cold blowing in through the constantly open doors! I think all children would benefit from more outdoor learning and activities but within reason.
David Bell, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, said on BBC breakfast television ( 19 May 2004 ) that some children in Year 1 were not developmentally ready for formal teaching whilst he noted that some Foundation Stage children were. He linked ‘formal teaching’ with ‘reading and writing’ which is particularly worrying. Is he proposing that teachers should assess which children they believe to be developmentally immature and then refrain from teaching them to read and write until they appear to be ready? Whilst Ofsted’s observations and recommendations in their official reports are a step in the right direction, I would suggest that David Bell’s casual comments are not. We need to define what we mean by ‘formal’ and we need to clarify that early literacy and numeracy learning largely require direct instruction, but that this can be as fun and child-friendly as the individual teacher makes it. To select by maturity or developmental levels whether children should be taught to read and write is the thin end of the wedge of creating and exacerbating special educational needs for the future, especially with no flexibility in the length of time children can remain in the Foundation Stage or Key Stage 1.
Who is representing those teachers, early years practitioners and parents with a different point of view and challenging statements such as those akin to David Bell’s and the following statement expressed by researcher Mary Jane Drummond in her article ‘Blighting Early Growth’ (Report, ATL, April 2004)?
“And this is where the bad news begins. We saw educators with other priorities than the quality of children’s learning. For example, we saw an exaggerated emphasis on the very smallest building blocks of literacy and numeracy: initial letter sounds, keywords, counting, number recognition. We saw much less emphasis on children learning to act as experienced readers and writers, relishing books of every kind, responding to texts in a variety of ways, with empathy, understanding and imagination.”
If ever there was a whole language bias, this seems to be it. What qualifies Drummond to denigrate educators who provide basic skills activities with a value judgement that they have “other priorities than the quality of children’s learning”? Has Drummond considered the possible consequences of an over-emphasis on ‘learning to act as experienced readers and writers’ before the children have been taught basic skills? Is she truly knowledgeable about the research on reading and the consequences when children end up guessing their way through books and picking up bad reading habits and reflexes from trying to emulate the behaviour of ‘experienced readers and writers’ without sufficient tuition in the alphabetic principle? How much easier it is to respond to texts with ‘empathy and understanding’ if the children learn to decode them properly for themselves.
Professor Greg Brooks’s report on the DfES phonics seminar (2003) touches upon the issue of the age of starting formal/compulsory education. He spends time referring to studies which imply that earlier starting ages ultimately result in lower levels of reading ability and may well create or exacerbate the gender gap, before he mentions that various synthetic phonics studies have actually reduced, eradicated or reversed the gender gap despite (or because of?) starting synthetic phonics literacy teaching at the age of four (pp. 9-10, ‘Sound Sense: the phonics element of the National Literacy Strategy. A report to the Department for Education and Skills,’ July 2003). Many argue that such systematic phonics teaching is ‘formal’ (therefore not in keeping with current thinking for the Foundation Stage) no matter how others try to describe its appropriateness for younger children as evidenced by the very success levels themselves. Should practitioners and headteachers have to justify whether such basic skills activities are formal or otherwise? Who has properly defined what ‘formal’ teaching is and where is the specific evidence that this is necessarily detrimental to children?
Strange that in an earlier report Brooks immediately follows his comment “Recent discussion in Britain, sparked off by a Channel Four Television Despatches programme in January 1998, has focused on the early start to formal education, and the possibility that this is unsuited to a minority of children” with the comment “It may also be that initial teaching methods in Britain and New Zealand fail to unlock the mystery of the written code for some children. It has been said, for instance, that New Zealand schools predominantly use a ‘whole language’ approach in which attention to the phonological aspect of language, and therefore to phonics, receives less emphasis than the meaning of texts by which children are learning to read.” (‘Analysis of the Reading Literacy study carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement cited on p.36, Comparing Standards: The Report of the Politeia Education Commission, 2000.) This description of whole language teaching in New Zealand sounds worryingly similar to the type of practice preferred by Drummond in the Foundation Stage. How influential are people like Drummond and will such opinions undermine the gains made in direct-instruction phonics teaching? Sadly, there are indications in some quarters that this is the case.
And why is it that at no time did Brooks use the terminology of ‘whole language’ or ‘mixed methods’ in his 2003 phonics seminar report for the DfES, neither did he urge scrutiny of the NLS training materials and training programmes to define the true nature of the National Literacy Strategy reading instruction as requested by the Reading Reform Foundation? This was despite the criticism of creditable researchers and others. In other words, even where events are arranged ostensibly to facilitate educational debate, I would suggest that there is no true voice for people other than those in authority such as the DfES, Ofsted and QCA and various people who have made a name for themselves, presumably such as Mary Jane Drummond. What chances have ordinary teachers of expressing their opinions with any influence? And how can we trust experts who appear to be selective in their comments according to the circumstances, or who promote only their own belief systems without regard to either research or different points of view, or who appear to shield the official position from criticism?
Personally, I DO think that the infant curriculum should be less formal – or perhaps less onerous is more to the point. The timetable is overloaded with different subjects. Expectations of work standards and behaviour should be high but work content needs to be addressed to encourage teachers to bring their own creativity and imagination into their teaching, which in turn should lead to greater creativity for the children. The National Curriculum needs to be more flexible and less burdensome – perhaps its statutory status needs to be removed. Many children are flagging in the afternoons and the curriculum needs to take this practical fact into account. I would also suggest that the appropriateness of teaching RE to infants be reassessed and the demands of focusing on ICT need to be relaxed.
Teachers do need more time to read books aloud and foster that love of books to which so many educationalists refer, developing children’s social skills, speaking and listening skills and enriching vocabulary as a priority. If we could guarantee that this would not be confused with children receiving a whole language or mixed methods approach to reading and writing, then phonics would arguably not need to be started as early as four although many children thrive on phonics at this age. Synthetic phonics teachers are not pushing for an ever earlier start to ‘formal’ education, just for evidence-based teaching. Teachers need to be very clear about the best methods for teaching early literacy when it comes to the children’s own basic skills and no children should be left to flounder because of an educational philosophy. But children are being denied the best education: as I have argued, in Newsletter 51, even the authors of the NLS and members of the DfES are in denial about the conclusions of research on reading. And they are certainly blustering this way and that, making a dog’s dinner of who should teach what, how, when, to whom and to what effect.
We could do with a clean slate, a much simpler approach to early years teaching and assessment, a strong voice for teachers and parents, and more of that transparency and accountability that is sorely lacking in high places.