To boldly go where we think is best.

Autumn term is busy in schools. Very busy. In Early Years this is no exception as we are continually observing, planning for and assessing our youngest children; getting to know them well, their interests, how they learn. Then before you know it there is the build up to Christmas with a Nativity, experiences and all that glistens. Despite best attempts there will be the mad rush to finish Christmas cards, salt-dough and the always-made-never-used calendar. Staff will find glitter in their socks and invariably be dosed up on night nurse. Doing what we do.

It was no surprise to me therefore when I realised I hadn’t blogged for a whole 3 months. I had considered it a few times over the term, but was enjoying my craft so much that time whizzed by. Then along came OFSTED with a shiny new document about Early Years. I had been impressed by the recent experience of inspection I’d had. A real interest in Early Years, keen to observe the role-play and purposeful learning the children were doing. Robust in their scrutiny of our EY data, interested in what I had to say and, in my experience, genuine. I had also attended one of the OFSTED EY myth-busting sessions headed up by Gill Jones HMI. Again I was pleased to see the moves being made to engage the sector and dispel some of the somewhat silly myths which were still being raised in some corners, and that clear messages were being sent to both practitioners and school leaders. Then there was the encouraging reaching out to teachers on Twitter by Sean Harford who would answer questions, clarify and assure that OFSTED had ‘no preference’ when it came to ‘how’ children reached the best outcomes.

I read the recommendations of Bold Beginnings first, as you tend to do, and my immediate reaction was of concern. This didn’t seem reflective of the experience of OFSTED I had just begun to enjoy. It seemed to have gone back to the unwanted image of being prescriptive regarding its inspection process. Those dreadful phrases of ‘OFSTED want…’ and ‘OFSTED are looking for…’ sprung to mind. I tweeted the recommendations and my feelings about this straight away. Even before actually reading the whole report. Because the thing that had disturbed me the most personally, while the rest of the sector was in uproar about Early Childhood Education, was the nature of the report. The fact that OFSTED was now undoing all they had tried so hard to do purveying an image of ‘not wanting to interfere’ with practice or pedagogy.

The document clearly dovetails with the DFE’s consultation about the Reception year outlined in the primary assessment paper which aims to ‘improve the early years foundation stage profile (EYFSP)– a check on a child’s school readiness at the end of their early years education’. The opening statement of Bold Beginnings announces that, ‘This report examines the provision in their Reception Year and the extent to which it was preparing four and five-year-olds for their years of schooling and life ahead’. It then goes on to say ‘The strongest performing schools… had found ways to improve their assessment processes and support transition. Checks of children’s phonics knowledge, standardised tests (for reading, for example) and scrutinies of children’s work provided the essential information that Year 1 teachers needed. Such information was quick to collect and more useful for them’. This is because, according to Bold Beginnings, ‘smooth transition from the foundation stage to Year 1 was difficult because the early learning goals were not aligned with the now-increased expectations of the national curriculum’.

Clearly the DFE and OFSTED are in collaboration regarding EYFSP. The DFE want to change it, and now OFSTED have given them the necessary ‘research’ to do so, and then inspect upon practices they recommend, despite their statement that ‘We report directly to Parliament and we are independent and impartial’. Indeed the report states in its methodology that it will be used to ‘ advise policy makers, such as those within the Department for Education’. 

This was partly the reason I was so concerned about Bold Beginnings. Note we have not even touched on its content yet.

Another reason for my concern with the document is that its ‘research’ findings are based on 41 schools. Out of a potential of over 16000 primary schools, this seems a ridiculously small sample size on which to base recommendations for policy making. ‘Ofsted had judged each school to be good or outstanding for both the EYFS and the school’s overall effectiveness at its most recent inspection’. 

So, onto the content and why many EY teachers feel it flies in the face of EYFS framework and what is currently and widely regarded as good Early Years practice. There have been several posts regarding this which I would direct you to read rather than reinvent the wheel. There is a response from TACTYC – Bald Beginnings which states that ‘It has been acknowledged since its advent that the EYFS represents a distinct curriculum and pedagogy that supports all that is known about children’s early learning and development’ and examines the work of researchers supporting this. Teacher and consultant Helen Williams looks at particularly the maths element here. Early Excellence compare findings to their own study, The Hundred Review, stating that ‘The range of ‘approaches’ to learning and teaching in YR needs to be varied and appropriate’.

My view on the content? Also varied. After reading the initial outpouring of condemnation from within the sector on social media, I first thought long and hard about what was MISSING. This seems to be key to the concerns. The most important parts of a 5-year-old’s school life should revolve around the Prime Areas of Communication and Language, PSED and Physical Development. That much I am sure. And a lot of the grief caused by Bold Beginnings is that these are not the priority, core or centre of what it recommends. Without these embedded, there would be no ability to achieve in any of the other 4 ‘Specific Areas’, including Literacy and Maths.

Then, I moved on to what was INCLUDED in the recommendations and what I disagree with. Regarding recommendations for schools, not a lot actually. These are things that already happen as far as I’m concerned, certainly in the settings I work in. Yes children sitting at tables has been controversial, but as part of an adult-led writing activity we do this. Whilst supporting children with good pencil grip. In fact Nursery do a daily dough gym and finger gym in preparation for the necessary muscular requirements before they reach that stage. We understand the importance of pencil grip so much so that we are preparing them for it up to 18 months in advance of the Reception year. However, in the continuous provision, where we want children (particularly boys, ever mindful of the gender gap in writing) to be interested to write independently, we have removed chairs from the writing area where children were not choosing to access it, and replaced with gym mats, where children (particularly the boys) sit or lie with clipboards and write or draw away. We place a big emphasis on purposeful writing, linked to children’s interests in their role play. We feed them a ‘need to write’. In our recent OFSTED report, the only comment made by inspectors regarding writing in Reception was their approval that ‘in the Reception class a small group of boys were making collages relating to computer games and, as a result of encouragement from an adult, were keen to write about their work’. Similarly they commented that ‘adults took every opportunity to effectively support the development of phonics skills. For example, as part of the ‘people who help us project’, pupils in the role of doctors were writing the names of their patients’. They fed back that the strong continuous provision allowed the application of the skills they had learned under direct instruction. And so the two go hand in hand.

What I do disagree with, is that in the recommendations to DFE and OFSTED, there is a focus on simply these specific things and a narrowing of EYFSP and nothing else. Nothing to recommend that they ensure a balance. And although balance is mentioned in the document, to then state that play is ‘used primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills’ is deeply worrying. Play should be at the heart of how a 5-year-old learns, supported by strong direct instruction. Not the other way aorund. Otherwise there is a huge risk of a 5 year old becoming disengaged through a lack of purpose, interest and thrive.

So in summary, in the Annual Report 2017,  OFSTED stated that ‘In August 2012, 74% of providers were judged good or outstanding. By August 2017, this had increased to 94%’. That, by the way, coincides perfectly with the revised EYFS framework being implemented. Since moving to a school in Special Measures and applying all the knowledge of early childhood education I had accrued from my previous Outstanding setting in a school, my own school has seen a year on year increase in the percentage of children gaining a good level of development; now close to the national level despite being in an area of disadvantage. And is now also an Outstanding setting.

So the question is, did 94% of EY settings get it right? Or did OFSTED get it wrong? One thing I know for sure is I will continue to provide what children in my schools NEED and what works best for them. That might or might not be the same as the 41 schools in the research. But it will be what helps those children to be the best that they can be.

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Knowing me knowing you: Baselines & EYFS

Like many others in the sector, today has seen me doing a bit of soul-searching (again) about baseline assessments. Twitter has been alive with opinions about yesterday’s announcements from the DFE that from 2020 baseline assessments will be completed at the start of the Reception year, along with also continuing with the EYFSP at the end of said year. To those outside the sector, this may not seem a big deal; is that not what we do anyway?

Well, yes. We do. In the EYFS settings in the schools I have taught in, we baseline children at the start of Nursery and again at the start of Reception, to take account of those new entrants to the cohort who may well have come in from pre-school settings other than the one in school. This forms part of the assessment process in Early Years which is all about getting to know the Unique Child, (first formally introduced to us by the DFE themselves in the Statutory Requirements for the Early Years Foundation Stage) inside out and upside down.

To get to know the Unique Child, baseline assessments have to be done by undertaking a combination of rigorous observation (as outlined in OFTED’s set of assessment videos ‘Right from the Start’), parent partnership (again a very important Overarching Principle of the EYFS from the DFE: Positive Relationships), and liaison with any previous settings. For me personally, the baseline assessment process for Nursery starts with the very important first home visits, before a child even starts in Nursery, with discussion with parents and observing the child in their own environment to get a true picture of the Unique Child. All of this is done within the first few weeks of a child entering Nursery to capture ‘where they are at’ when the start at age 3-4.

Throughout the year the cycle of ‘ongoing and formative’ (DFE terminology) assessment through observe, plan and assess continues until the child is ready to start Reception.

Cue the much-discussed Reception baseline.

Widely accepted good practice generally shows that the Reception teacher will trust the blood, sweat and tears that the Nursery teacher (often literally!) has put into providing them with a fully knowledgeable account of precisely where a child is at on entry to  Reception in regards to Early Years Outcomes and also to their health, welfare and Characteristics of Effective Learning, first brought to us via the Tickell Review.

However, in 2015 the DFE announced that formal baseline assessments for Reception would be introduced. Of the approved providers (yes, there were several, non-comparable ‘tests’) only one fit the model of good practice the sector had a general consensus on, that being Early Excellence . In fact, almost 70% of the sector voted with their feet against tablet or paper-based tests requiring zero knowledge of the child.

Unsurprisingly the DEF announced in a comparability paper of baseline assessment results in April 2016 that, ‘ The study concludes that the 3 different assessments are not sufficiently comparable to create a fair starting point from which to measure pupils’ progress.’

Cost? Also likely immeasurable.

Hoorah! Baselines are scrapped and we all go back to work in earnest observing, assessing and ensuring the good progress of our young charges.

So despite the previous failings and unpopularity of ‘teacher mediated’ baseline assessments, and despite claims in the new paper of understanding of previous failings of the assessment, it does state that ‘We do not intend this to be an observational assessment which is carried out over time, like the EYFSP’.  Also that ‘The prime focus of the new assessment will be on skills which can be reliably assessed and which correlate with attainment in English and mathematics at the end of key stage 2, most notably early literacy and numeracy’.

This is after the findings noticed that ‘Although we did not specifically ask a question about the form of assessment, some respondents said they thought that the new assessment should be observational and based on teacher assessment’.

The baseline in question is not about the Unique Child. It is about the accountability of a school.

So as the sector holds it’s breath as to the format of the ‘non-test’ test, and the nations’ current guinea pigs attempt the art of walking, there are understandably many questions as to why trusting deep practitioner knowledge of where a child is ‘at’ is yet again coming second place to a ‘commercial partner’ bought in by the DFE.untitled (40)

Freedom to thrive – child initiated learning. 

The best piece of advice I was given when I started blogging was ‘Write often, and write freely’ (Andrew Morrish).

The feeling of being able to blog freely is empowering and liberating; especially so when it’s regarding something your soul is on fire with. Imagine not having the freedom to run with your purpose!

My current blaze is regarding child initiated learning. I may even be so bold as to call it play. Or discovery. Regardless of what you call it, the reason it sets children onto the road to a love of learning is because it’s purposeful. A skilled teacher who steps in at the right time to challenge and deepen learning can have revolutionary impact.

I rather naively assumed this was viewed as more than ideology. Having been teaching in EYFS both prior to and since the framework was first introduced in 2008 I have seen first hand how better children thrive, and achieve, especially with the importance placed on characteristics of effective learning. I was gutted to learn that there are professionals in education who actually don’t see the point of child initiated learning. 

Children under the age of five should be given greater scope to experiment and manage their own risks – particularly outdoors – according to teaching academics at Nottingham Trent University.”

Teaching academics. Not OFSTED. Not DFE. Although the rhetoric is the same. The research goes on to say, ““It is about creating opportunities for what inspires children, not planning according to a narrow curriculum. We are trying to encourage flexibility so clever and effective teachers are attuned to what interests youngsters’ – In a new book from Routledge published next month. 

Narrow and flexibility – key words. Although the (non-statutory) learning and development aspect of EYFS (Early Years Outcomes) is broad and well received by EYFS professionals, the many outcomes cannot be achieved by narrow adult instruction. They require children to display characteristics of effective learning requiring them to take risks, explore and think critically. To enable them to do this requires flexibility. 

Flexibility requires a growth mindset – both on the part of the child and the adult. The child to pursue and take the risk, the adult to abandon all else and support. If we don’t allow young children to make choices and lead, how will we encourage a growth mindset in KS1, KS2, secondary and beyond? How children learn in EYFS has enormous impact on the kind of learners they will become. For the record, prior to EYFS, I taught A-Level, GCSE, KS3 and KS1. I loved A-Level and GCSE, but the difficulties in trying to engage students in choice, independent learning and resilience at 16 is HUGELY more difficult than at 4! It had been, for them, a lost set of skills. Skills which to then go on to university  without, from a tough working class area would do little to help them thrive. 

Luckily education has changed greatly since I taught A-Level. There is a big focus on growth mindset. Building Learning Power (for my school in the form of Learning PowerTools) has been successful in giving  pupils the tools to be resilient, independent learners. Schools which have this approach will be more closely dovetailed with EYFS and the transition smoother as their independence and choices continue to be actively encouraged and celebrated. 

So bringing the learning back to that 4 year old, who I want to be that independent learner at 18, what are the choices? Impose on them my planned outcomes through a rigid, top down, didactic approach to their learning which will have no purpose to their life or experiences? Or let them achieve those outcomes, plus many many more by following their lead and making their learning purposeful, exciting  and meaningful? 

I choose freedom. For both them and for me. 

Promoting girls in EYFS: Being Bold for Change

So much time and effort has been put into closing gender gaps recently, and rightly so. This is the same in EYFS as anywhere else in the education system. In 2016 girls performed better than boys in the Early Learning Goals in ALL 17 areas of learning. And the gender gap has increased since 2013 in the areas of Maths, The World, and Technology, with girls doing better than boys year on year.

My own Action Plan for EYFS and my current Action Research for  marginal gains (Improving the outcomes of boys writing through expressive art and creativity) are both focused on reducing the gender gap. Increasingly important in a current cohort where I have 17 boys and 9 girls!

However after recently becoming involved in the wonderful world of WomenEd I have had to stop and think about how I am helping to promote girls in EYFS.

A first Google, (yes the word ‘glance’ has now been replaced in our home), the very first link that comes up when you search ‘promoting girls in EYFS’ is the really good, but totally irrelevant National Strategies document ‘Confident Capable Boys…’. Directly followed by the similarly sourced ‘Gateway to Writing: Boys and Writing’ .

Hmmm.

It appears there is room for some current discussion, writing and debate about how we promote GIRLS in EYFS. This absolutely sits with the #BeBoldForChange value that WomedEd & International Women’s Day 2017 holds so close. My pledge was to ‘Forge Women’s Education’. So starting in my own area of expertise, the girls appear to be doing very well already. What needs to change?

Move on to end of KS2, and this  – from 2016: ‘When looking at individual subjects, girls outperform boys at the expected standard in all subjects except mathematics. The gap is largest in writing (13 percentage points). Girls also outperform boys on the high score in all subjects except from mathematics.’

In maths, boys are achieving deeper learning by 11. Not a comparable cohort, but boys certainly seem to be closing the gender gap in Maths; and in higher standards, over taking them.

So what can we do in EYFS to  promote girls who already seem to be doing well at 5?

It think the answer lies in expectation. Especially regarding maths and STEM. We need to be involving and using women & girls as role models with maths and STEM with our EYFS children (both the boys and the girls!). We need to promote equality, both in the setting and at home. I have encountered several dropped jaws at the end of a session when Mum or Dad come to pick up little Jimmy, dressed in a princess dress. Or little Elsie covered in muddy marks over her pink shoes. We have an important role in breaking down stereo type with role-play. I recently overheard one child, on noticing something broken, shout ‘We’ll have to get a man to come and fix it!’.

The Pre-School Learning Alliance has some excellent suggestions on supporting girls. I did have a little wobble about the word pink. I love pink! But the children regularly observe me holding worms and spiders, up to my ankles in mud and reading stories where the superhero is a girl. Or the boy is afraid.

Promoting girls in EYFS is not necessarily about doggedly tracking their academic attainment. It’s about supporting them to take risks, giving them problems to solve, opportunities to reason. It’s by being bold and turning gender expectations on their heads.

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Learning is not a noun…resist the dark side!

As somebody very probably involved in education to be reading this in the first place, I apologise for the tongue in cheek title of this post.

But! Have we not all been guilty of making this mistake at some point? Have we not all at some point, if we’re REALLY honest, put our hearts and souls into a whole day (even a week!) for an outcome? A picture, a piece of writing, a model, a (dare I say it) display?

I often fall into that fatal trap of having my planning sheet open on one page and Pinterest open on another. As creative souls we can’t help admiring an outcome. A noun. A junk model of Buckingham Palace. The thought of a child running up to Momma with perfectly excecuted Mother’s Day card pulls like a magnet and magically appears cut and pasted on your planning sheet before you’ve blinked. And in EYFS trust me the force is strong; the pull to the dark side is just around the corner! 

What I’m learning to do is give myself a little slap. It’s a little jolt back to reality. Because learning is not a noun, an outcome or product. Learning is a process. It’s a whole set of skills. And the danger of focussing on an outcome in early years is that you miss out on the real stuff. The process. The learning! 

This was discussed in a far more comical way than I am capable of by Alistair Bryce Clegg at a recent conference. The focus has to be on the process and skills involved in getting to an outcome. This is your opportunity as a skilled practitioner to observe, assess, support self-evaluation and generally engage children in as much chatter as possible whilst encouraging their creativity and independent thinking skills. 26 matching Diva lamps will have undoubtedly stifled this. 

Sure, you need to give the children experiences. But even as adults, often lacking in the awe and wonder of a child, having the same experiences will rarely lead to the same outcomes. So why would we expect to give a child lots of amazing experiences (great practice we agreed  James @ nurserynook!) and then homogenize how that experience is expressed? Instead, focus on their voice. Give them a safe platform to learn how important it is to be able to express opinion. Make decisions. Evaluate. Critique. Fail! Nursery is an awesome place to start this kind of learning. 4 year olds are largely not yet bound by etiquette. They have an openness of being able it say it as it is. Sure we may have to guide a little on empathy (I still smart at being likened to a hippo). But this is learning. Imagine if we can sow the seeds for that kind of learning in EYFS how their mindset will be by year 6! 

As teachers we are all likely to have been exposed to this in our own practice among each other. With umpteen years experience in teaching of trying to get it right for, ahem, others, I remember the discomfort of my first ‘peer review’ among my own people was just  plain frightening. And that was merely through years of being told ‘this is the right way’ or ‘that is the right way’, and being desperate to perform. Terrified of failing! What it does however is open your eyes to what you’ve been missing right behind those closed doors across the corridor. Firstly, you can learn so much from others. Secondly, others can learn from you!

So imagine how powerful it is to be able to help children to learn this from an early age. They’re not all the same, and therefore neither should their Diva lamps be! I want to asses how well they manipulate materials, whether they can talk about what they’re doing, whether they can have their own ideas and think critically. And if they can’t then I have to support that skill. I have to model it, use that language of ‘learnish’ (learned from Andrew Morrish) in every day talk, praise it and make it normal. They must be allowed (encouraged!) to fail. They must be skilled with perseverance, collaboration, empathy, reflection. They will not thrive on knowledge! It matters not that the Diva lamp becomes Spider-Man. 

The picture shows a nursery child critiquing and supporting another child’s picture and helping them to see what could be added (a leg maybe?). 

This is how children learn. This is the Force.

Teacher I am. 



Bottom up!

Having read a really good piece by Julie Price Grimshaw  about what the rest of the school can learn from EYFS practitioners I felt a new blog burn.

So often in previous schools, as an EYFS teacher,  I had felt isolated. Having rarely shown an active interest or opportunity to find myself in the staffroom, (why would you when you can swallow food on a 16 inch chair surrounded by glue sticks?)  staff meetings and briefings were the only usual outing to the ‘rest of the world’. I would often be (jokingly?) asked if I had my passport.

I belonged to a different world, and likely a different species. Us EYFS practitioners were a special breed. At interviews I would often feel I was being heard, but not understood. Largely because I was being interviewed by leaders who rarely stepped foot in Nursery. I always got the job, but I often think that was down to the passion I usually overflow with rather than anyone’s ability to challenge what I said I could do. 

Which brings me onto my first point about how teachers in EYFS roll. We survive pretty much daily on passion. “I don’t know how you do it every day”… With heart and mind and soul. We give, give, give. It’s like being a parent. To 30. All with snotty noses. This is not saying other year groups in school do not have passion. My school literally thrives on the stuff like a grow bag. But to encourage independent thinking with a child wiping their nose on your skirt while another tries to paint your face takes a whole new strength of passion. If you’ve ever been to a conference by Alistair Bryce-Clegg full of EYFS practitioners and leaders, or any EYFS training, the passion is literally in your face. People who work with under 5’s have a no-holds-barred passionate approach to learning. It’s real, relevant, often child initiated and purposeful.  And very, very messy. What a breath of fresh air Year 5 in some schools would find this?  

And all that independent learning! We get that SO right! We encourage self-confidence, nurture ‘have-a-go’ learners and get super excited about critical thinking.  It is FUNDAMENTAL that these key skills continue to be pursued and enhanced throughout school. They can quickly be forgotten. 

Finally back to that place. The Staffroom. Previously a place where EYFS staff would cry ‘This is not relevant to ‘us’. But relevant it is. If we are in the business of educating the whole child, then what we do in EYFS needs to be relevant to the rest of the school, and vice versa. If the ‘outcome’ in primary school is the year 6 pupil, then the WALT needs to start in Nursery and Reception. The Learning Journey does not start in Nursery and end in Reception. It ecompasses a child’s entire time in school. If the rest of the school don’t embrace the characteristics of effective learning then the point is…? Staff meetings or as we prefer to call them, Professional Development Meetings, should be fully inclusive of all phases. 

My current school Rowley Park Primary Academy, as part of Victoria Academies Trust, focusses on the whole child from EYFS to Year 6. We implement the thinking skills strategies and independent learning which follow them in the same format through to year 6, and hopefully therefore beyond as life skills. The NICER curriculum harnesses all this. 

So embrace the breed in your school! Include EYFS in everything where possible. Learn from them. Bottom up! 

On lighting fires…

Welcome to my first blog post. Well for this site anyway. I dabbled with a blog a couple of years ago but never quite started to spark let alone burn.

I thought I was on fire. But I wasn’t. I was simmering. My love of EYFS and children kept me hot. And hot is better than not, but I knew deep down something was missing.

Children light fires in me and I would hope everyone that works with them. I love this, and this is what I thought kept me in teaching and made me a good teacher. It kept me self-motivated. It was actually quite a narrow perspective, and a bit the wrong way round.

I was fortunate enough at this time to become part of a Multi Academy Trust (http://victoriaacademiestrust.org/) I’d never heard of. The school I had joined only a while earlier had been put into special measures. It spent 12 months floundering at a significant pace. Luckily the Trust sponsored it. The first time I listened to what the MAT leaders, Andrew Morrish and Kate Fowler, had to say about schools and education, and did my research, I knew immediately what had been missing. Continually trying to self-motivate can be quite exhausting. For once, something else other than children motivated me. I began to recognize the importance of lighting fires in others. And it forced me to rethink everything.

I questioned how I lit fires myself and allowed the oxygen of great pedagogy to fan the flames. How to make the learning experiences of the children real, immersive and purposeful. How to empower children to become truly independent learners, embracing their interests giving them a real voice. I found lighting fires in others becoming a passion and a purpose.
I was at the time (and still am) a middle leader and realised how important it was in this role to light fires in not only the children, but in colleagues too. Core values of leadership for all at  Rowley Park Academy meant switching my focus from managing to leading. This is not something you master overnight and I continue to use my Imitation Learning Power Tool to help me develop leadership skills.

My focus has slowly but surely morphed from being content with having my fire lit, to lighting fires in others, and this is the path I’m taking this blog down. My next blog will solely focus on Early Years, my passion, and where fire starting is my daily purpose.

Follow me on Twitter @nickyclements71