We transformed our curriculum and the school environment and the children became active independent learners, like our under fives, engaging emotionally and physically in their education. We created an environment that makes you long for childhood and a curriculum that engages the children and led to them gaining a genuine love of learning, that converted into greatly improved SATs results and amazing value-added progress. Culminating in Ofsted judging us as outstanding in all their judgement areas
We ignored booster groups and SATs training and simply wanted the children to become life-long learners who loved maths, reading, drama, PE, dance and writing – we wanted them to have a ‘whole’ education.
So this year we decided that we would look at our Early Years practice for that had not seen improvements to the same degree and we looked at the latest research into how children learn. As a Cambridge Primary Review Trust Alliance School we have access to some wonderful research that Robin Alexander’s team publish as a follow up to all the research that took place as part of the Cambridge Review. In February 2015 the Review published Goswami’s ‘Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning’ which really makes you think about your pedagogy and how children learn and made us realise why our curriculum works. The research made us realise why our children learn so well and emphasised to us why schools must use research when developing their pedagogical approach to the curriculum, and so inform how you teach and how the children learn.
If we could improve the learning experiences in the Foundation Stage by looking at what we were doing in years 1 to 6 so successfully there would be a lovely feeling of symmetry in our Fulbridge pedagogical approach. It all begs the question, do we do things in a certain way simply because that’s the way we have always done them?
I spoke to early years pedagogues and early years specialists from Ofsted and the DfE, I read all the early years guidance I could lay my hands and computer mouse on. Some basic vital facts were unearthed. Firstly, an early Years HMI told me that you only have to record ‘landmarks’ in a child’s development, not every little development and secondly that the kind of evidence that you must gather is not prescribed, essentially all you need is to know the children and the curriculum really well and have some evidence that demonstrates what they can do.
This decision to make changes to traditional early years practice comes with a health warning, as what has been accepted good early years practice, has not really changed since the 1960′s and dare I say it, those in early years are probably the most resistant to change in our Education system, having formed an early years pedagogical club that is hard to become a member of if you are an outsider. The early years practitioners appear to promote that they know exclusively what is best and because the rest of us have never taught the tiny ones, we mortals from the older year groups do not and cannot ever really understand the challenges they face in their early years education settings. They are the Masons of the education system and membership of this group is difficult to attain.
Prior to the Cambridge Review the education report that stands out as a landmark in our educational history is the Plowden Report of 1967 which was based on the thinking of Piaget. Research has now shown us that the answer to the standard essay topic of comparing Piaget’s findings to Vygotsky’s is an easy one, Vygotsky’s thinking is the winner, Piaget, despite his undoubted brilliance in his time has lost pole position. For he was undoubtedly the Lewis Hamilton of the education racing track in his time.
We now know that we do not develop in Piaget’s prescribed stages, we know that our brains are virtually fully formed from birth, unlike Piaget’s assertion that they were not and that we were only capable of certain things and that we could not move onto harder concepts until we were a certain age. In reality, Vygotsky was nearer the truth, because we now know for sure that complex thoughts can develop at an early age dependant on input and experience and crucially with the assistance of a more capable person. A child can learn skills that can go way beyond the Piaget stages of development or their level of maturity. Simply put, the rate of our development and learning is dependent upon our previous learning.
That is really significant because our whole education system is built around Piaget’s stages of development. 0-2 years, sensorimotor: preschool; 2 – 7 pre-operational: Foundation, KS1, the Infant School; 7-11 Concrete Operational: the Junior School, Key Stage 2 and 11+; Formal Operational: the Senior School. So for years educational pedagogy dictated that young children must learn through play, which indeed they must, but it also told us that they could not do certain things or learn certain things until they were over 2 years, 7 years or 11 years old and that is wrong. Even today we have not lost the beliefs of Piaget in our practice in schools and no more so that in the Early Years.
We have always believed, at Fulbridge, a geographical area that the powers that be, deem an area of high deprivation, that it is our job is not only to ‘close’ the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ but to ‘fill’ that gap. What many children in areas of deprivation lack is experiences that children from families who are more focussed on their child’s development give them: trips to the zoo, the park, the woods, the swimming pool, the museum and a castle or two! But that is not the only gap to fill, they may have lacked play opportunities in the sea, in the sand, on the grass, with toys, in the back garden or with a book and toy rich home.
They may not have had parents that have taught them the difference between right and wrong, played word and number games with them or taught them songs and nursery rhymes. Did the parent allow them to help them with the shopping or teach them how to go to the toilet? Did they tell their sons that as a boy you should aim for the water and avoid the sides and the seat, then obviously as you get better at aiming you can direct it to the sides so you do not make too much noise!
Filling the gap for young children means we need to offer more than just learning through play we need to teach them in both informal and formal situations – if we can fill the gap, we will close the ‘attainment’ gap between rich and poor. In England, that gap is a disgrace and larger than most civilised countries in the world and in my opinion rooted historically in our ‘class’ ridden and dominated society. Only when we close and fill this gap will the world of education, universities, employment and in many instances the world of sport see children from all backgrounds doing well, because there is no difference in the vast majority of children’s brains other than the effect of the postcode they were born in.
Research tells us that all young children lack is experiences in terms of developing their knowledge and academic ability. Vocabulary development is central and you need the guidance of a more able person. Develop a child in a language rich, experience based environment and they will be able to achieve beyond our former wildest dreams – YouTube is testament to this, with recordings of young children doing the most amazing things.
Talk is vital in a child’s early years, the more they are surrounded by dialogue, by words, by books, by role play and imaginative play opportunities the faster they will develop. The more elaborate the talk is the better, we must avoid ‘yes, no’ answers, we must describe objects in an elaborate way, encourage talk, answer their endless questions, encourage their endless questioning! Do not drum it out of them, for talk is central to their development and will lead them to be better mathematicians, scientists, historians, writers and readers.
However from an early age children will benefit from direct teaching as well. Good parents show their children numbers, words and letters from a very early age, in the home, the city centre and the shop and they talk about them, they are teaching them. Children learn so much from imaginative play and their real as well as their imaginative friends. But they also need child initiated play opportunities, with an unrelenting focus on developing talk. Throw away the TV and the computer whilst they are young, give them companionship and interaction, give them people, give them facial expressions, role model great words and descriptions, intentionally guide them to learn numbers and words, surround them with numbers and words.
Children will not simply learn from random play opportunities and the freedom to choose without guidance, good, appropriate and well thought out role modelling is essential for learning.
My conclusion is that actually, it does not matter what age we are, we all learn in basically the same way, whether we are two or twenty two years old. We need to look at what has been traditionally an Early Years approach of first hand experiences that actively engage the learner emotionally, visually, intellectually and physically and we need direct teaching as well whilst we are continually placing our focus on talk and human interaction.
Learning is not the sole province of the classroom, an inspiring, visually engaging and stimulating environment is an essential ingredient and we must accept that worksheets, desks and textbooks are not the only way to learn as we get older. In addition to all of this the vital ingredient is high expectations of what children can do and research shows that all too often our expectations of our youngest children have been far too low as we have been so indoctrinated by the Piaget belief that our brains are incapable of learning certain concepts.
So what have we done in our Foundation Stage classes this year? Well to start with we got rid of the unrelenting use of post-it and the cameras that had allowed assessment to supersede interaction and talk. Do not get me wrong, assessment is vital but it comes from interaction with the children, it comes from talking and getting to know them and this has to dominate. Observation has a place but it was dominating our provision so that we could satisfy someone’s need for paper evidence, at times, over and above the needs of the children.
As a result of this simple change staff got to know the children better, because they were interacting with them and talking to them more. When it came to our end of year moderation, nobody had to refer to post-it’s and photographs to tell the moderators about the children’s learning, progress and achievements because the staff knew the children so well. The moderators specifically commented on the staff’s excellent knowledge of the children. The moderation gave us only two recommendations and no action points.
This year we also taught all children under the curriculum headings of the Cambridge Review’s 8 curriculum domains, not the Early Years areas of learning, not a significant difference but it meant we could assess, without the need for levels against the same progressive criteria from Nursery to Year 6. All we had to do was fit the early learning goals and the new Primary Curriculum into the 8 domains and then assess against how well they knew things as opposed to striving to moving them up some sort of narrow assessment ladder or along some sort of educational conveyer belt.
Crucially now, having created our own document that has our whole curriculum on it linked to the 8 domains and new primary curriculum, where the teachers plan from, teach from and assess from is the same. When you are assessing against the same criteria you’ve planned from and taught from, it makes everything so much easier.
In addition to this we decided that more direct teaching was needed in our reception classes and that in doing this we could cut the teachers workload as well. We had already done that by getting rid of post its and replacing them with talk. Now staff did not spend hours after school trying to match the post it to the area of the Early Learning Goals that it assessed, hours of trawling through statements was drastically reduced.
But we could further improve on that to the benefit of both children and adults. We would have a daily maths and a daily language, oracy and literacy (LOL) session where there would be some direct teaching as well as child initiated play and play based activities. The difference is that what the children have to choose from is either all mathematically or LOL based. For the children we are filling the gaps the children have in these areas without leaving it to chance and hoping that all 30 children will choose activities that will improve their number and word development. For the adult they know what they are assessing and they only assess against the areas that they are teaching and providing – hours more of work reduced and no more hide and seek games with the assessment grids.
We believe that we have developed our pedagogical approach to the benefit of the children and the adults and we have the evidence. Our children are more confident, socially and physically more able and their reading, writing, art and number work is significantly better than in previous years.
What shall we change now that we are in the mood? Now that we are in our Early Years Club, let’s create some new ideas!
Well next year we will start with PE. Why are Foundation aged children doing formal PE lessons and why are we spending hours getting them changed backwards and forwards? We can cover the need for children to be able to dress themselves in the home corner with dressing up clothes and on a sports day or a Christmas production – this does not have to be a weekly or twice weekly event!
We have first class outdoor play and climbing facilities on our playgrounds and fields, with all weather surfaces where the entire physical development statements can be covered. It will save time and be more appropriate to the children, after all they have 10 to 12 years of PE lessons ahead of them.
So assembly, that’s fairly irrelevant and boring for 4 year olds, a class reflection or worship in their own classroom, if we have to do one, is better than sat in a hall with, in our case, 119 other children on a hard floor listening to that strange Headteacher/person at the front. ‘Well Done’ assembly would be much better in your own class, with your parents sat around rather than watching tens of children from all the other classes go up and down. The children have years of whole school, phase or year group assemblies ahead of them, so again – not much harm done if they do not do them in their first year of school.
Playtimes, are they really necessary? The children in the Foundation Stage are outdoors during the day on a regular basis, on their feet, running, jumping enjoying the outdoors. Why have a formal playtime with all 120 out there? Staff can stagger their own breaks in the morning so that the life-saving cup of tea or coffee can be consumed.