Last reviewed 22 January 2018

In 2017, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) commissioned an Ofsted-wide review of the curriculum. As part of the review, Ofsted looked at the Reception year and the extent to which a school’s curriculum for four- and five-year-olds prepares children for the rest of their education and beyond. Bold Beginnings: The Reception Curriculum in a Sample of Good and Outstanding Primary Schools, was subsequently published by Ofsted at the end of 2017. What does the report say and what are the implications for early years and primary schools? Martin Hodgson investigates.

Background — the Reception year

The report states that Reception is often referred to as the “first year” of school. However, unlike other school years, Ofsted explains that it is not actually compulsory and in England formal schooling does not start until the school term following a child’s fifth birthday, Year 1.

Despite this, Ofsted states that most parents decide to send their child to Reception and most teachers view nursery and/or Reception as representing “the beginning” of school and the start of a child’s school journey.

In their report, Ofsted recognises that a good early education is the foundation for a child’s later success at school. In this respect, Ofsted states that the Reception year holds a “unique and important” position, marking a significant milestone in a child’s life between the end of early education and care, either at home or in early years settings, and the start of school.

However, Ofsted states that for too many children their Reception year is “a missed opportunity” with just 72% of pupils achieving a “good level of development” in their Reception year in 2016, a figure that falls to 54% among disadvantaged pupils. The current report was therefore commissioned to “shine a spotlight” on the extent to which the Reception year prepares children for success at school and how it can be improved.

The Ofsted study — key findings

In order to look into the effectiveness of the Reception year, the decision was made to conduct a survey of successful primary schools in which children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, achieved well. During the 2017 summer term, inspectors subsequently visited 41 schools and surveyed school leaders, teachers and parents. Their intention was to identify best practice and successful approaches.

The inspectors noted that in successful primary schools Heads and school leaders recognised that a successful Reception year was fundamental to their school’s success. The transitional nature of the Reception year was recognised by the schools who tended to see the year as a “crucial bridge” between the early years foundation stage (EYFS) and, for most schools, the start of the national curriculum.

There was also an acknowledgment that little guidance is available about what four- and five-year-olds should be taught. Heads in successful schools therefore developed their own curriculum, mostly prioritising language and literacy and making them the cornerstone of the curriculum. Reading was prioritised. Inspectors reported that in effective schools children read out loud frequently from carefully selected books that closely matched their phonic knowledge. Story time was a valued part of the daily routine.

In schools visited where writing was of a high standard, the children were able to write simple sentences and more by the end of Reception. They were mastering the spelling of phonically regular words and common exception words.

However, Ofsted noted that Heads were clearer about their expectations for children’s literacy than for mathematics which generally received less priority in the schools surveyed. The report states that most of the schools visited had designed their own mathematics curriculum based on the Year 1 national curriculum programme of study.

The study found that many Reception and Year 1 teachers believed that the vital, smooth transition from the foundation stage to Year 1 is difficult because the early learning goals are not aligned with the increased expectations of the national curriculum. Progression and continuity in mathematics were seen as particularly problematic.

The strongest performing schools, Ofsted states, found ways to improve their assessment processes and support transition. The report states that these successful schools made sure that they gave reading, writing and mathematics in their Reception classes sufficient direct teaching time every day, with frequent opportunities for children to practise and consolidate their growing knowledge.

Other key findings included:

  • many of the schools visited found the processes of the EYFS profile burdensome

  • the schools were clear that Reception children needed more than a repeat of their preschool experiences in nursery or earlier

  • play was seen as an important part of the curriculum

  • Heads took the continuing professional development (CPD) of staff seriously — many of the schools that were using a specific reading and/or writing programme were seen to bring in regular training to ensure that all staff taught the programme effectively

  • most school leaders felt that newly qualified teachers (NQTs) were not well prepared to teach mathematics, reading and writing in Reception — they often had little experience of teaching Reception during their initial teacher training.

Recommendations

The report recommends that primary schools should:

  • make sure that the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception year

  • attach greater importance to the teaching of numbers in building children’s fluency in counting

  • ensure that when children are learning to write, resources are suitable for their stage of development

  • devote sufficient time each day to the direct teaching of reading, writing and mathematics

  • use the EYFS profile as a guide to end of Reception expectations rather than to define what should be taught.

It recommends that the Department for Education should:

  • review the scope and breadth of the EYFS Statutory Framework to ensure that schools better understand the nature and purpose of the Reception year and what should be taught, including clarity on the teaching of reading, writing and numbers

  • review the content of the EYFS profile so that there is greater alignment between the early learning goals (ELGs) at the end of the Reception year and the national curriculum for Year 1

  • streamline the EYFS profile and associated moderation processes so that they reduce teachers’ workload around assessment and become more useful for benchmarking the knowledge and understanding children’s need for the rest of their formal education

  • raise the profile of early mathematics teaching, similar to the investment made in early reading.

The report also has recommendations for Ofsted itself. It says that the regulator should review and update the guidance for inspectors about evaluating the quality of early years provision in the Reception year and use the findings of the report to help shape a new education inspection framework from September 2019.

Last, Ofsted is urged to report regularly on reading in primary schools, aggregating the data from routine inspections. The report authors believe that this will help to identify good practice and highlight the importance of this subject as the gatekeeper to a broad and balanced curriculum.

Reaction to the report

The report was welcomed by Ofsted. HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said:

“Reading should be at the heart of the Reception year. It is important that in the Reception classroom young children hear new vocabulary and have the opportunity to practise new words and phrases.

“The best schools know how to design their curriculum so that children’s learning and development sets them up well for the rest of their schooling.”

However, concerns were raised in the early years sector. The Pre-school Learning Alliance Chief Executive Neil Leitch said that it was “disappointing” that the report had focused on aligning the Reception year with Key Stage 1 and literacy and mathematics.

In a statement on the Alliance website he said:

“While both skills are of course vital for early development, research has shown that a focus on them over and above broader skills such as physical development and personal, social and emotional development, is likely to be detrimental to children’s early learning experiences.

“We urge both the government and Ofsted to work with early years experts to ensure that the Reception year is focused on all the skills that children will need during their primary years, and throughout their longer educational journeys.”

The report can be downloaded from the GOV.UK website.