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.