Yesterday I have the honour and privilege of presenting at the NAHT Primary and Early Years conference. It’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with heads and senior leaders. I started my senior leadership journey 23 years ago now and although a lot has changed in that time, there are still some issues which remain.

My workshop yesterday was entitled “Sustaining principled pedagogy in a time of change”, and afterwards I reflected on the fact that I can’t remember a time in the 30 years I’ve been involved in education, when we haven’t been experiencing change! This year has been by far the most challenging any of us have ever known. For those working in and leading schools and settings, the process of adaptation and change has been phenomenal. In the midst of a global pandemic, I find it awe inspiring that leaders and teachers still find time to reflect on their own practice and pedagogy and are already planning for the changes coming in the EYFS in 2021.

 Recently I was asked  what I felt the greatest challenges are in the Reception year at the moment. I think they’re pretty numerous. Here’s what I said:

 One of the challenges faced by schools in YR is the increasing number of pupils coming into school without additional support due to funding cuts and sometimes delayed  identification of additional needs due to cuts in services. Needs which may previously have been picked up by Health visitors, or in Sure Start and Children’s centres before a child starts school are not always picked up now that these services are diminished. In my experience, Heads and teachers want to be inclusive, but the cuts in specialist support and cuts to additional funding are having an impact on their ability to manage this. This is something my friend Simon Smith wrote about at length here funding for support doesn’t come until children are in year one or later, and so teachers and leaders have to support as best they can in Reception and this leaves them feeling frustrated that they can’t do the best for the children in their care.

 The most commonly identified special need in EYFS is speech and language issues. Children often require support with communication and language and auditory processing, but there is a feeling  that communication and language is not valued enough, and teachers and leaders feel under pressure to start teaching blending and segmenting before children have the prerequisite skills. The perception of Ofsted expecting formal phonics lessons to start from day one in Reception can mean that the important processes of developing auditory discrimination can sometimes be rushed or sidelined and this can have  a detrimental impact on children’s development.

Teachers in YR have always faced top down pressure, but this seems to have increased lately. This can sometimes come from subject leads and senior leads who might not always have experience of teaching Reception or an understanding of early years pedagogy. There is pressure to provide evidence so that they can demonstrate a sequential curriculum. The perception (or misconception) of what external advisors or Ofsted want to see can be a key driving factor in this. This can lead to many hours spent taking photographs and sticking them in children’s books, annotating against particular goals in the curriculum. All of which takes a significant amount of time and has no impact whatsoever on children’s learning.  Leaders don’t ask for this because they’re being deliberately difficult, but because they feel that evidence of learning is necessary for external validation purposes.  

 In my experience there are fewer senior leaders with EYFS experience than with key stage one and two experience. As a result, sometimes understanding of the importance of characteristics of effective learning and the prime areas is not always universal and there is pressure to have evidence of every are of learning for every child with next steps in many schools. This leads to a very heavy workload. Despite the latest changes to EYFS, some leadership teams are reluctant to let these approaches go and want to see evidence and tracking of all areas.

 I run a course called “I think it’s good but…” because this is what subject leaders often say to me about EYFS. They tell me that they don’t have enough understanding of what effective pedagogy in EY looks like and often get conflicting messages.  This  can lead to one of three things, they either stay out of early years and don’t challenge or support because they don’t know how, or they try to encourage staff to  turn EY into something which they do understand better but which doesn’t always meet the children’s needs. I recall one teacher having a conversation with the maths lead, who was coming to observe teaching in Reception, who was told. “ I know you don’t usually do a three-part lesson, but if you could when I come to visit, that would really help, because I need to see…”

 The third, and in my opinion the best outcome here is that leaders realise that in order to be able to challenge others, they need to have a sound understanding of effective pedagogy and the research behind it, and then seek support from people who are experienced and research informed. We can’t all be experts in everything. Before I became a headteacher I made a point of teaching in Key Stage 2 and I made it my business to learn everything I could about Key stage 2 practice and pedagogy. I feel it’s important to be able to “walk the walk” you’re asking of others. This definitely gave me a better understanding of the expectations and challenges faced by those working with older primary children and I think it would be really helpful if all leaders had the opportunity to spend time in Early Years to gain a better understanding of the key stage.  I’m delighted to say that this is often something I’m asked to support with in schools. As a result, regardless of their teaching experience, leaders feel empowered to start conversations about early years pedagogy and have a professional discussion without anxiety or fear of the unknown. It would be amazing if every ITT route had a module on basic child development and every teacher, regardless of key stage was expected to have at least one teaching placement in EY. I really think there would be a lot more respect and understanding if this were to happen.

 At the moment there seem to be mixed messages around EYFS. On the one hand the narrative around the new ELGs and the new development matters seems to be “stop tracking and stop collecting evidence and data, and GLD is not a high stakes measure” but on the other there are messages around Ofsted expectations that “most” children will achieve GLD. I am aware of schools which have been graded RI in EYFS because their data is “stagnant and only just at national” despite showing excellent progress from low starting points.  The DFE has set itself the target or reducing the number of children who don’t achieve the ELGs in English and Maths by 50%  by 2028, yet is also insistent that GLD is not a high stakes measure.  I know that some heads and LA EY leaders are regularly interviewed about their GLD outcomes because they are below the national average, and it definitely feels that the stakes are very high for them. This can lead to a lot of pressure to perform to the assessment, which, as any year 2 or year 6 teacher will tell you, isn’t always the best for children. 

Many teachers have their performance defined by the number of children who achieve GLD and are expected to give details of how children are progressing to their line managers throughout the year, but the message from the DFE is not to track against the new development matters. This is obviously causing some anxiety as the tension between the two positions develops. It has also been quite problematic for children with SEND because some services base interventions on the fact that children are 18-24 months behind their chronological age, and the Birth – 3 age band in the new version of development matters can mean that the focus isn’t sharp enough for these purposes. My advice to those I work with is that both documents are non statutory guidance, and they should be used in a way which supports practice. But the confusion and anxiety for teachers and leaders is real at the moment. Whilst the idea behind it is commendable and I support the move away from tracking every area against age bands,  the lack of training for leaders and teachers around this has left some confused.

Which brings me to training. It’s pleasing to see that the DFE have acknowledged the importance of training to ensure that staff are focussing on the things which make a difference, but budgets are extremely tight and it’s almost impossible to release staff to access training at the moment. Many support staff only work for the hours that the children are in school and budgets are so tight at the moment that schools can not afford to pay for them to be part of staff development after school.  So, this presents a very significant challenge for leaders, teachers and support staff.

 When I’d finished listing the major challenges, I reflected on what I had written. Some of these I could have written when I took my first senior leadership role in 1997, and some of them are new. The educational landscape has changed, but children are mostly the same as they were back then. The world around them has changed beyond recognition, particularly in light of events this year. But what is heartening is that leaders and teachers are still heavily focussed on ensuring they give children the best experience possible in the  Reception year. It’s heartening that in the middle of a pandemic, more than 60 leaders took time out of their day to come and talk about principled pedagogy in EYFS and why I think it’s important to remain as positive as possible about the future.

One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic has been the way leaders have collaborated and supported each other on a larger scale than ever before. Networks of leaders are finding new solutions to the problems they face and the rise of the use of technology could be a key driver in supporting those working in and with Reception at this time of great change.

If I had to suggest 3 things which I think all teachers and leaders could do which would have a positive impact in Reception they would be the following :

  1. Value the Reception year, not just as preparation for year one, but as an important time in its own right. The language you use around it matters – don’t make jokes about “just playing” and “the ankle biters” or talk about “going down” to EYFS, it is a key stage in its own right and is the foundation of all other learning. Get it right and you set children up for a great education. Value it. Invest in training so all leaders understand what good practice looks like in Reception. Understand that just because it isn’t the same as KS 1 it doesn’t mean it isn’t as intellectually challenging. Recognise that there is a real skill to working in EY and show respect for the Key Stage. Spend time there and talk to practitioners about why they do things the way they do, so that you understand.
  1. Ask yourself why you want certain things to happen and what the impact will be on children and learning. So for example if you expect annotated photographs of children’s work in books every single day ask what the impact is on the child’s learning and whether it is worth the hours it will take the member of staff to do it every night, and the interruption to the interactions that taking all the photographs will have, or whether the teacher’s time would be better spent interacting with the children and planning exciting lessons and provision instead of writing, cutting and sticking. Always ask “why?”
  1. Ask the team in Reception what you can do to support them, there is a lot of change in this year group at the moment and they are working really hard to make it work, so a quick chat every now and again about what needs to be done and what is desirable, but not totally necessary can make all the difference. Keep the lines of communication open. Talk, share, listen, collaborate!




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