Bold Beginnings: how NOT to write an Ofsted report

The battle for the soul of reception continues, especially on social media, writes Colin Richards

It is clear that Ofsted has mismanaged both the writing and the reception of its report, ‘Bold Beginnings‘. There has been needless, counterproductive recrimination both by inspectors and critics. It is time that rational discussion replaced rhetoric and injured self-justification.

Let’s be clear. There is a case for re-examining policy and practice in the reception year, but there’s equally a case for re-examining policy and practice in year one, and for that matter every year of primary education. The report critiques reception but assumes provision is appropriate from thereon in.

A major part of the controversy rests with the wording of the report, especially its recommendations. The predictable fury from early-years specialists is understandable given the insensitive drafting of Ofsted’s recommendations – note, not just for “the schools inspected” but for “all schools”.

It is time that rational discussion replaced rhetoric and injured self-justification

Take the very first one: “All primary schools should make sure that the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the reception year.”

Note its tone: not a recommendation to consider, but one to act upon. Note the readership: every school in England without exception, whatever its circumstances. Note “the core purpose”, not “a core purpose”: i.e. one among others. Note “the teaching of reading, not “the learning and teaching of reading”. Note the paramountcy of “systematic synthetic phonics”, with no acknowledgement of the relevance of other approaches to reading.

Would there have been such a violent outcry if it had been rephrased more carefully and with better sense of audience? Perhaps it should have said something along the lines of “primary schools should consider whether the learning and teaching of reading is being given sufficient attention as one of a number of purposes of reception class education”?

Take the second recommendation: “All primary schools should attach greater importance to the teaching of numbers in building children’s fluency in counting, recognising small numbers of items, comparing numbers and solving problems.”

It would have been more appropriate and sensitive to context if it had been phrased thus: “Primary schools should consider whether adequate attention is being paid to the learning and teaching of number in the context of other demands on the reception year curriculum.”

The fourth point is as follows: “All primary schools should devote sufficient time each day to the direct teaching of reading, writing and mathematics, including frequent opportunities for children to practise and consolidate their skills.”

More adroit phrasing might promote a more considered reaction from many readers.

As an inspector I always trod carefully when visiting reception classes

For instance: “Primary schools should consider the place of direct teaching, as well as informal learning, in early language, reading writing and mathematics, and should provide opportunities for children to consolidate their understanding and skills through a range of activities and contexts.”

It would have helped too if Ofsted had added an extra recommendation linked to its last main finding, along the lines of: “Primary schools should acknowledge the importance of play in reception class settings and keep under review its role in furthering children’s understanding in the different areas of learning.”

Such rephrased recommendations would have been an invitation to deliberate on current policy and practice in reception class education – not a set of injunctions to follow because of the need to prepare young children for a not-to-be questioned Y1 curriculum assumed to have no shortcomings.

Of course, given the values, sensitivities and experience of many early-years specialists, there would have been debate and controversy but not one as virulent or impassioned as we have witnessed in recent weeks.

As an inspector I always trod carefully when visiting reception classes, and not just because of paint splashes on my suit! Ofsted needed, and still needs, to do the same. But has it learnt a lesson from its “bold beginning”? Time and the early years community will tell, and tell it vociferously.

Colin Richards is a former professor and HMI

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