Here is some educational heresy about schooling. The GCSE and A-level years are the least important years. Primary school is more important than secondary school. Year 2 is more important than Year 3 but not as important as Year 1. Reception is more important than any of the above but not as important as the years that come before it. In other words, our years in education and learning become increasingly less important.

As a head teacher, this was the message I passed on to parents of Year 1 children. The foundations matter most of all. Having spent a large part of my career in comprehensive schools for 11-18-year-olds, I felt I was in a position to give an informed opinion. It had become obvious to me that children’s performance at secondary school was heavily dependent on their primary school education. Sometimes, though, we can all be blind to the obvious.

How refreshing, then, to read that to some extent, at least, Ofsted has come to the same conclusion. Its first in-depth study of Reception schooling, Bold Beginnings, opens with this sentence: ‘A good early education is the foundation for later success.’ Bravo! At last the penny has dropped!

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s new boss, has made a promising start since taking over as Chief Inspector in the teeth of opposition from the Commons Education Select Committee.

The gist of the report is that, for all its importance, Reception is failing too many infants and leaving them poorly prepared for the start of formal schooling:

‘For too many children, the Reception year is far from successful. It is a false start and may predispose them to years of catching up rather than forging ahead. In 2016, around one third of children did not have the essential knowledge and understanding they needed to reach a good level of development by the age of five. The outcomes for disadvantaged children were far worse. Only just over half had the knowledge and understanding needed to secure a positive start to Year 1. The gap of 18 percentage points between disadvantaged children and their better-off counterparts, while narrowing, still remains unacceptably wide.’

Too often, it seems, learning through play (‘play-based pedagogy’) trumps any recognisable teaching. Play, of course, is very important. The report makes clear, however, that it needs to be balanced by some teaching, even at the basic level of how to grip a pencil properly or how to sit at a table. In addition, some of the building blocks of literacy and numeracy need to be put in place in Reception.

Any sensible parent who decides to bypass Reception altogether is likely, for example, to introduce their child to letter sounds and to some words based on them. Stories, nursery rhymes, songs and poems are a prerequisite for bringing up infants. What Ofsted in its latest report describes as ‘child-initiated learning’ has, however, led to these pillars of infancy sometimes being marginalised.

The over-bureaucratic and statutory ‘Early Years Foundation Stage’ is partly to blame. The extent to which it can become an impediment to teaching and learning is exemplified in the Ofsted report. The paperwork has become more important than teaching the children:

‘A Reception teacher felt under constant pressure
to provide evidence for children’s learning. Photographs were taken constantly during day-to-day activities to capture children’s successes. This was said to stop the flow of teaching and
take staff away from working directly with children. It also meant that more time was spent at the end of the day to print the photographs, stick them into individual children’s folders and write a summative statement to explain each of the photos.

‘One “learning journey” included 15 photographs
of a child putting on their coat, at various times across the year and with varying degrees of success. Some staff thought this was necessary to provide evidence of progress. When the teacher was
asked whether they knew themselves, without 15 photographs, whether the child had accomplished this aspect of self-care and independence, they said “yes” immediately. The headteacher believed the requirements of early years assessment and the early years moderation process was driving this unnecessary paper trail.’

Barmy? Indeed! A large part of the problem appears to lie with Reception teachers themselves. This is partly a consequence of their teacher training:

‘Around four-fifths of the headteachers visited believed that teachers who were new to the profession were not prepared sufficiently well for teaching in Reception. They felt that NQTs’ [newly qualified teachers] knowledge and understanding of language, reading, writing and mathematics were particularly weak and led to poor teaching and a lack of understanding about progression.’

The report’s good news for Reception class teachers is that they are much more important than they may have supposed. The bad news is that the country’s education system depends on them and, for the sake of us all, they need to do a lot better.


  1. So when Ofsted forces compulsory mosque visits on schools, and then downgrades their rating if they fail to comply. NOT IN MY NAME.
    So when Ofsted teaches 5 year olds that there are 71 genders and gender is a social construct that you can change based on what side of the bed you got up in the morning. NOT IN MY NAME.
    So when Ofsted teaches the inappropriate facts of the birds and the bees to children not even old enough to do a paper round.NOT IN MY NAME.

    But because they acknowledge the “importance” of reception class education, all is well with the world again.
    What we should be doing is campaigning for the education system, teachers union and Ofsted to get rid of the far left, marxists who are clearly running the show and replace them with some conservative leadership.

  2. My old granny (died aged 101 in 1993) left school at 12 to go to work, having only attended primary school. She was very literate and numerate, could recite enormous chunks of Tennyson even 90 years after learning it, and even had a smattering of Latin. A decent first education is often all you need.

    • My grandmother was much the same. Born in 1862, she went to a church primary school in Liverpool. Out to work at 12, her arithmetic was great. Remember the old grocers where whoever served you jotted down what you had bought and added the prices on a bit of wrapping paper? She could add the money in her head with no problem and woe betide any grocer who overcharged her by even a farthing. As a child, I couldn’t match her!. The daughter of a saddler, she had worked “in service” and along the way acquired a liking for books and clearly had read many of all kinds. As she neared 100, her hand writing was still very good and it could be read with ease and her regular letters showed her wide vocabulary.
      My mother (born 1901), one of 10 children, followed suit, she also left school at 12, and after that was largely self educated. She enjoyed reading, particularly thrillers, and it was a family routine to go with her and my sister to the library each week to change our books.

      How did people manage in those days, whilst today, with more schooling, basic education standards are all falling?

      • My granny was “in service” too, also a linen mill, and a munitions factory in the Great War, then back into service before a late marriage (the generation of girls who lost potential husbands in the war).

        Your Grandmother and Mother sound absolutely wonderful, you must still miss them.

        • They, and my father, wanted to get on in the world. The belief in those days that you aimed to do better than your parents, something that seems to have been lost from the current generation.
          Dad went to night school immediately he was demobbed from the army in 1919 and trained as an accountant, and certainly had his mother’s skill with figures.
          They all managed without all the modern politically correct education and yet did better than their parents, why can’t we manage it these days with schooling until 16?
          I know that I had a good family, although I probably didn’t realise it at the time!

          • Ah, but you don’t understand how poor your education and that of your parents and actually were. After all, I bet you, and your parents, left school without every being taught anything about LGBT issues, gender fluidity and other vital topics!

          • Yes we had none of that. But we had far more General Knowledge than today’s youngsters who rely on looking up everything in Wikipedia. When my son-in law recently interviewed a graduate for a job, he didn’t know that the time was different in Australia than here. He said he hadn’t studied geography, but did think that they played rugby at strange times. But as the job was in the film industry, probably he would have been all right with LGBT issues!

  3. In my first year at school in the harsh winter of 1946/47, with half the pupils from the Guards married quarters, I received a copy of Peter Pan as a prize. I was later told off for reading it and instructed to get on with my work. Almost every child could read and I was regarded as one of the duffers.
    Children were taught by their parents in those days, reading them stories at bedtime and talking to them, not at them.

    • The latter still happens in lots of places. The primary school Nursery class (not long past my summer-born daughter’s 3rd birthday a decade ago) sent them home every night with a reading bag containing a soul-destroying reading scheme book and a diary to record progress.

      Most class parents did that. Most had made a start before their child got to Nursery. We integrated it into the bed-time routine and did the overwhelming majority of teaching daughter to read. Similarly for basic counting, adding, subtracting etc.

      Talking with that knee-high girl was genuinely delightful, but she typically chose to think before speaking (still does as a 14-year-old) which is apparently like striking gold these days.

  4. I’d agree that the basics are essential but why do reception teachers have to teach holding a pencil or sitting properly? Are these not simple tasks for the parents as is reading to your young child every day? My son when very young would request, almost every evening, ”Read it again dad”.
    It’s too easy to conceive a child without taking any responsibility for it in future and so many depend on schools to do EVERYTHING! Is it that the more intelligent parents are breeding less and more and more children are from the ”underclass” so diluting the intelligence and work ethic of the population?
    When my wife and myself ,and even our three children ,were in primary school it was obligatory to learn our spelling and multiplication tables each evening, with parental help, so thankfully we attended ”old fashioned” primary schools which stood us in good stead for later life.

    • Ofsted are driving out all of the good caring teachers that know how to teach. These days it’s all about box ticking and targets. Multiplication tables aren’t allowed to be taught under Ofsted’s new regime, yet they have the audacity to blame the teachers for the failure of their own policies on education.

      • I have never understood why some “educationalists” (i.e. teachers who do not actually teach) imagine that if you do not memorise something you will understand it more easily. Shouldn’t Ofsted be required to produce solid evidence in favour of educational fads before trying to make them mandatory? As for teachers providing evidence that children are learning, isn’t that what exams are for?

        • It was Ofsted policing in-class teaching fads/techniques, but it’s definitely not them now and hasn’t been for a few years.

          The problem appears to be school leadership who rose to their positions during the more insane box-ticking ‘progressive’ period. Sane folk didn’t want the job so headship etc. selected for quite a lot of stupid and/or bullying bureaucratic types, many of whom seem incapable of changing their ways despite some very clear signals.

      • You’re wrong: the new regime, mostly Goves/Gibbs, is unconditionally for time-tables.

        And Amanda Speilman “Ofsted’s new boss” loves maths. Pity she had to endure some tosh around the subject from Lucy Powell at the last Edu. Select Committee meeting.

  5. Yeah.. but.. teaching ‘little people’ a bit of basic counting, alphabet and [$deity help us] phonics is cruel, cruel, cruel.. just like sending ’em up chimneys or down a salt-mine.

    Or so they say. It’s fascinating to see how adept some people are at extracting some tiny part of the whole and pretending that is the entirety in a histrionic response.

  6. Oh god. We blame teachers for the disintegration of the family due to a failed economic model-noone really goes to school in Scandinavia until they are 7 and they have some of the highest literacy rates. This is a political and social and not a pedagogical issue. Real education just seems an excuse for pretending we should all aspire to being public schools but knowing that is impossible. Give people the infrastructure to make money and get jobs, maternity pay and create communities lost with the relentless tramping of individualism over them

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