Open letter to HMCI Amanda Spielman regarding the Early Years Curriculum Review

The open letter below was sent to Ofsted in November 2023. Download Ofsted’s response

We the undersigned are writing to you about the recently published Ofsted document Best start in life part 1: setting the scene.

While we welcome Ofsted’s recognition of the vital role of the early years, we are concerned that as a scene-setting document for this strand of research, the review has a number of concerning deficiencies and does not position Ofsted as an expert voice on early years pedagogy and curriculum.

The report reads as if it relied solely on a small and incomplete review of the literature, not the rich and extensive peer-reviewed research evidence available. It also fails to reflect the wealth of excellent practice in the sector which inspectors must be regularly encountering. As individuals and organisations we would welcome the opportunity to work with you to ensure that the reviews of the Areas of Learning are a better reflection of the extensive research on early years pedagogy and curriculum which provide a sound basis for Ofsted’s judgements on quality, supporting both inspectors and practitioners.

Given the potential influence of the review, we urge you to review the current document and ensure future parts of the review are better balanced and grounded in the evidence. While the report states that “the principles do not specify what must be taught or how”, the implicit threat of being downgraded for not complying with what is set out in the report will inevitably influence what and how settings and schools teach. It would be worrying if the principles in the report were to be applied by either practitioners or inspectors in a narrow or simplistic way. We set out below concerns about some of the specifics of the report.

  1. Coverage of all EYFS provision Your decision to state that this document is focused on birth to 4, and to include the reception year in its school research reviews is concerning as the EYFS principles cover the full birth to 5 age range, including the Reception year (and any children in year 1 who need ongoing EYFS provision to reach the Early Learning Goals). This perhaps reflects the split between Ofsted’s schools and EY framework, which is itself problematic in potentially applying different criteria to children who should be experiencing the same quality of provision. This was a missed opportunity for Ofsted to state a unifying approach to early years across all types of provision, for all children in the early years foundation stage.
  2. Underpinning principles The principles underpinning the review need to reflect the underpinning principles of the EYFS itself: the Unique Child, Positive Relationships, Enabling Environments and Learning & Development. The review does not sufficiently reflect the vision of every child as a unique child who is constantly learning and who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured. Instead, the continued problematic use of the term cultural capital perpetuates a deficit model.
  3. Limited engagement with research evidence While the report sets out the filters used for selecting research reviewed, these do not seem to explain the selection of research references included. It is not enough to assert that “This is not a systematic literature review. When selecting literature, we draw on research that aligns with the criteria for high-quality education, published in our education inspection framework (EIF) and summarised in our ‘Education inspection framework: overview of research”. For instance, although the context section references the importance of staff-child relationships, this does not appear to be referenced in the principles section and there is no reference to the significant research on the role of the adult for example on Sustained Shared Thinking (Siraj et al), Professional Love (Page), the role of the key person (Elfer et al) or the adult-child interactions (Fisher). These are significant omissions for any research review which claims to set out principles for high quality pedagogy, although by no means a comprehensive list of the omissions.
  4. Definition of curriculum The problematic nature of the Ofsted definition of curriculum has been much written about. Even if we accept that Ofsted is intentionally choosing a narrow definition of curriculum rather than the all-embracing one, it is still unsatisfactory. Trying to stretch a single definition across all phases of education simply puts it under too much strain, and when applied to children under 5 – especially babies and toddlers – it is not up to the task. The review includes statements that: “What matters is that leaders and practitioners have considered what knowledge they want children to learn and the order in which to teach it, as well as which methods are most effective for teaching.” and “Progress in curricular terms means knowing more and remembering more”. Neither of these definitions is a good fit for the early years. There is a good reason why the EYFS uses the concepts of development and learning, which are not simply about remembering or knowing what – or even knowing how. Children in the early years are also developing their capabilities – as is recognised in the cognitive science research Ofsted quotes in the review. The non-linear nature of learning and development in the early years is also at odds with the Ofsted focus on progression. It does not mean that there is no sequence at all, but it does mean that Ofsted’s language needs to recognise the fluid and flexible processes of learning and development and how practitioners develop curricula accordingly.
  5. Definition of teaching We are concerned by the removal of the first sentence of Ofsted’s long-established and well-constructed definition of teaching in the early years in the review and in the latest version of the inspection handbook: “Teaching in the early years should not be taken to imply a “top down” or formal way of working.” This is an important aspect of the definition, and in no way rules out direct teaching as an important and appropriate strategy in certain contexts in the early years. It might be helpful for the section on early years teaching to address pedagogical issues in more depth.
  6. How children learn and cognitive science It is a major omission that in the section on “How children learn and cognitive science” and the section on Executive Function, the review makes no mention of the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning, which are core to the EYFS Statutory Framework and underpin practitioners’ understanding of early years pedagogy. Instead, it references only breakthroughs in cognitive science. While cognitive science often confirms and potentially adds to what we know to be good pedagogical practice in the early years, it is only one of many fields which supports our understanding of teaching and learning in the early years. Moreover, cognitive science research is sometimes misapplied: cognitive scientists have advised caution that the research results are often from lab conditions not real life, and cannot be assumed to apply to other contexts – for instance to a younger age range than those in the original research. While the importance of Executive Function is recognised in the early years, by failing to connect this section with the Characteristics of Learning or the concept of Self-Regulation as recently added to the EYFS Statutory Framework, the review risks adding further confusion to a complex concept. It also needs to take care that the concepts and research it cites are relevant to this age group: a study conducted with undergraduates does not provide evidence for how children aged 4 and under learn.
  7. Following children’s interests The review’s suggestion that practitioners would limit children to their existing interests and not give opportunities to develop new ones is bizarre. Such a misinterpretation of what it means to “follow children’s interests” casts into question whether the authors have real-life experience of the early years sector. Does Ofsted really encounter settings which are restricting children only to those areas of interests that they initially exhibit? The concept of using children’s interests is about gaining engagement to widen and deepen children’s knowledge. The interconnectedness of learning in the early years means that almost anything can be a starting point for all the areas of learning, and the characteristics of effective learning too. Engaging one child’s interest as a starting point is also an opportunity to spread that enthusiasm to other children whose own interests are different. If this is an attempt to encourage widening the breadth of children’s experiences, it is not well-directed, important as that point may be.
  8. Play While we welcome the review’s recognition of the importance of play, this section is also a poor reflection of the complex and nuanced literature on the topic. It fails to recognise the importance of play in its own right, as well as its role in children’s learning and development.
  9. Reflecting the realities of early years practice It is unfortunate that the review’s examples of practice are not well chosen or explained. Take: “For example, learning about kings, castles and knights from traditional story books, together with language such as ’a long time ago’, helps children to develop foundational knowledge for learning history later on.” This is a very simplistic and inadequate reference to the complex process by which children might come to develop an understanding of history. Amongst other things, this requires the concept of time which as we know develops from the very immediate and experiential (how many sleeps), through understanding time through the experience of family members (parents, grandparents) and their surroundings and community – and yes, also through books and stories. Such a brief and inadequate example is not helpful. The examples about teaching children to throw and catch, or theming activities around the “Bear Hunt” have been similarly critiqued on social media.

On the basis of this review, before Ofsted publishes its reviews of the seven areas of learning, we urge you to trial them with knowledgeable and experienced practitioners and researchers and engage with sector representative bodies. We would be delighted to help ensure that future documents make a more effective contribution to the debate about quality than the current review manages to do. Many of us were involved with the production of the ‘Getting it right in the early years foundation stage: a review of the evidence’ (which we are pleased to see you reference) and Birth to 5 Matters, which has been enthusiastically adopted across the early years sector because of the principled and evidence-based nature of its content. We hope you will take us up on this offer to ensure that Ofsted’s future curriculum review documents receive an equally warm welcome from the sector.

Yours sincerely

Beatrice Merrick, Chief Executive, Early Education

Michael Freeston, Director of Quality Improvement, Early Years Alliance

Stella Ziolkowski, Director of Quality and Workforce Development, National Day Nurseries Association

Liz Bayram, Chief Executive, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY)

Dr Sacha Powell, Chief Executive Officer, The Froebel Trust

Karen Chetwynd, Chief Operating Officer, Montessori Group

Professor Christine Pascal, Research Director, Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) ; British Early Childhood Education Research Association (BECERA) Association

Professor Tony Bertram, Research Director, Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) ; British Early Childhood Education Research Association (BECERA) Association

Karen Boardman, Chair, TACTYC and Head of Early Years Education, Edge Hill University

Paulette Luff, President OMEP UK, OMEP (World Organisation for Early Childhood Education) UK

Dominique Powell, Chair of national organisation SEFDEY and Award Leader Foundation Degree Education with Early Years pathway, Sector Endorsed Foundation Degrees in the Early Years (SEFDEY)/ Staffordshire University

Philippa Thompson, Principal Lecturer Early Childhood Studies and Co-Chair ECSDN, Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network (ECSDN)

Elaine Bennett, Early Years Specialist, Keeping Early Years Unique

Anna Ephgrave, Early Years Consultant and author , Creative Cascade UK Ltd & Keeping Early Years Unique

Sam Greshoff, Early Childhood Coordinator, Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF)

Professor Cathy Nutbrown, President, Early Education

Tina Bruce, Honorary Professor University of Roehampton, Vice President, BAECE:Early Education

Nancy Stewart, Vice President, Early Education

Helen Moylett, Independent consultant , Early Education (Vice President)

Laura Henry-Allain MBE, Storyteller, Producer, Consultant and Educationalist , N/A

Dr Julie Fisher, Early Years Adviser and Visiting Professor of early childhood education, Independent

Kathryn Solly, Specialist Early Childhood Consultant, Trainer and Author , KSC

Professor Jan White, Consultant in learning outdoors in the early years, Early Childhood Outdoors

Dr Nikki Fairchild, Associate Head (Research and Innovation), University of Portsmouth

Aaron Bradbury , Principal Lecturer Early Childhood , Nottingham Trent University

Robin Duckett, Director, Sightlines Initiative

Pikler UK Association , Advocates for respectful provision from 0-3, Pikler UK Association

Carolyn Silberfeld, Chair Emerita, ECSDN

Valeria Scacchi , Research Officer , The Froebel Trust

Alison Tate, Senior Lecturer (Education), Nottingham Trent University

Felicity Thomas, Froebel Travelling Tutor, Froebel Trust

Krishan Sood, Senior lecturer, NTU

Dr Jane Read, Emeritus Fellow, University of Roehampton

Julie Kent, Senior Lecturer (Childhood), Nottingham Trent University

Stephanie Harding, Travelling Tutor , Froebel Trust

Dr Helen J Williams , Early Years Educator and consultant , Freelance

Di Chilvers, Advisory consultant in early childhood education, author, researcher and Early Education Associate , WatchMeGrow

Rebekah Gear, Nottingham Trent University

Kerry Murphy , Lecturer in Early Years & SEND , Goldsmiths University

Glenda Wyn Tinney, Senior Lecturer, UWTSD

Sue Robson, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Roehampton

meredith rose, Senior lecturer in Early Childhood Studies, Nottingham Trent University

Dr Sue Allingham, Independent Consultant , Early Years Out of the Box

Simon Davies, Senior Lecturer, BCU

Debi Keyte-Hartland, Early years consultant, trainer, lecturer, Independent

Julie Cigman, Early Years Consultant and author, Julie Cigman Early Years consultancy

Pete Moorhouse, EYFS consultant, Irresistible Learning

Fran Paffard, Chair of Governors , Comet Nursery School and Childrens Centre

Tamsin Grimmer, Early Years Consultant,  lecturer and author, N/A

Julia Manning-Morton, Early Years Lecturer, author and consultant, Early Education, Froebel Trust, Pikler (UK) Association

Dr Nathan Archer, Director – International Montessori Institute , Leeds Beckett University

Professor Graham F Welch, Chair of Governors, Old Oak Primary School

Jo Gilks, Senior Early Years Educator, N/A

Sue Cowley, Chair of Preschool Committee , Stanton Drew and Pensford Preschool

Ruth Swailes, School Improvement and Early Years Improvement Advisor, Assure Education Limited

Liz Chesworth, Lecturer in early childhood education, University of Sheffield

Penny Borkett, Retired Senior Lecturer and author, Sheffield Hallam University

Chris Rolph, Director, Nottingham Institute of Education, Nottingham Trent University

Rishi Chauhan, Data Manager, NTU – NIoE

Dr Verity Campbell-Barr, Director of Plymouth Institute of Education , University of Plymouth

Dr Pam Jarvis , Chartered Psychologist , Retired

Thelma Miller, Retired  Nursery School Headteacher,  Froebel Travelling Tutor, The Froebel Trust

Debby Hunter MA, Principal, Annan School

Caroline Victoria Hutchin, Early Years Consultant and Associate for Early education, Early Education

Nicola Burke, Early Childhood Music Consultant, Independent

Beth Devereux , Early Education Consultant , Roots for Learning

John Siraj-Blatchford, Executive Member, OMEP UK

Ruth Pollington , Reception Class Teacher , Copford CofE  Primary School

Ruth Mercer, Early Education Associate, Early Education

Gillian Reece-Jones , Early Years Consultant , Pikler UK Association and Sightlines Initiative

Dr Ian Cushing, Senior Lecturer in Education, Edge Hill University

Dr Helen Simmons , Senior Lecturer , University of Northampton

Sigrid Brogaard Clausen, Senior Lecturer , University of Roehampton

Leslie Patterson, Education Consultant, Finding the Magic in the Early Years

Rachel Tapping , Parent-child class leader and early years staff mentor, Balanced Beings

Sarah Dixon-Jones, Head Teacher, Federation of Houghton Community Nursery and Mill Hill Nursery School

Joan Heasman , Childcare Development Officer , Local Authority

Sue Greenfield , Emeritus Fellow, University of Roehampton

Dr Sharon Colilles, Senior Lecturer, Bath Spa University

Jackie Musgrave, Associate Head of School: Learning and Teaching, Early Childhood at the Open University

Dr Ulrike Hohmann, Associate Professor in Early Childhood Studies, University of Plymouth

Tim Hopkins, Trustee, Early Education

Sian Maddocks, EYFS Lead, Durham LA

Rebecca Carter Dillon, Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies and Education, University of Plymouth

Sasha Tregenza , Doctoral Teaching and Research Assistant , University of Plymouth

Elizabeth Wood, Professor of Education, University of Sheffield

Rosie Flewitt, Professor of Early Communication, Education and Social Research Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University

Joann Parsonage , Manager Owner , Karetakers Day nursery

Dr Louise Webber, BA Hons Early Childhood Studies Lecturer , University of Plymouth

Heather Lomas, Director, Little Explorers Nurseries LTD

Jan Holmes, Headteacher, Walton Lane Nursery School

Kevin Courtney & Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretaries , National Education Union

Peter Elfer, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Roehampton

Victoria Bamsey, Lecturer Early Years, University of Plymouth

Dr Catherine Gripton, Assistant Professor, University of Nottingham

Alice Bradbury, Professor of Education, University College London

Steve Grocott, Early Years Musician, Freelance

Helen Tovey, Nursery School Governor, Retired

Glen Hughes, Design and Marketing, Orangebox Training

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