by Katherine Gulliver
Early Education was recently asked to review the special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) provision in the early years within one local authority, and this article picks out some findings which are of national significance in relation to inclusion in the Reception year.
The early years has a rich history of play-based, child-centred practice, which lends itself to an inclusive curriculum that values every child as unique (DfE, 2021). Because the Reception year in England is part of the early years foundation stage (EYFS), it should be accessible to any child. The EYFS uses a strength-based view of children, which can help to position children with SEND away from the traditional deficit model that focusses on what they cannot do in comparison to “typically developing” peers (Gulliver, 2023). Furthermore, the EYFS promotes a relational, pedagogic approach where practitioners are able to watch closely and build a responsive relationship with children, by tuning into children’s own learning paces and priorities (Clark, 2022).
However, top-down pressure from schools can create a culture that priorities formal learning, especially in Reception. Despite the inclusive nature of early years, a recent study from the London School of Economics found that increasing numbers of pupils with SEND were missing some or all of reception and joining school in Year 1 (Martin, 2023).
An inclusive classroom
Inclusive pedagogies that embrace child-centred practice would help support children’s transition between different settings, however, research suggests formal instruction and less developmentally appropriate environments are often found in Reception classes (Bradbury, 2019). This can impact children with SEND in particular, who may have fewer opportunities than their peers to be able to participate and achieve (Georgeson, Adams, Short & Ullman, 2023).
A Reception class teacher we interviewed recently removed all the tables in their classroom. They describe the differences in creating an enabling environment through continuous provision which provides multiple opportunities for children to explore and learn at their own pace.
“We expected children to fit this certain mould and they weren’t going to. And actually, forcing them to fill in a worksheet when they still need to work on their fine motor skills is just stressful for them. That’s not an inclusive classroom. That’s actually putting barriers in the way of their enjoyment of learning. They need to love learning first. And they learn to love learning through their play first.”
– Reception teacher
In contrast to focussing on children being “ready” for school, early years pedagogy recognises children’s own preferences and priorities, meets them at their pace and ensures the school is ready for the child.
“[it is] Important not to be taking children out of class, [but] to be bringing the intervention to them in the spaces that they create for themselves where they choose to learn. You know, if a child’s at a water tray for the majority of the time, there’s a reason why they’re there…”
– Reception teacher
Competing tensions occur from external pressures on early years providers to produce data which evidence progress, echoing the particularly intensive data driven management of teachers and schools in England (Wilkins, 2015). This is particularly troubling for inclusion when schools are measured on academic achievement instead of equitable provision for all children.
The reception baseline assessments influence teachers to use more formal instruction rather than creative, play-based approaches (Early Excellence, 2017). This “schoolification” of the early years is especially worrying as formal schooling approaches similar to Year 1 begins to creep into Reception classes (Bradbury, 2019), and move away from practice centred around children’s individual learning pace.
“The learning was very directed, very planned and sequenced. And children were basically kind of directed to do an activity in a certain set way. For example, completing worksheets and doing writing tasks when perhaps they weren’t ready […] so we really felt we had to do something to meet children where they were rather than for them to fit our own agenda.”
– Reception teacher
The evidence makes a strong case for a play-based, relational pedagogic approach in the reception year as being the most effective for long term attainment and life success for children. It also reveals that this approach may also be highly effective for cognitive as well as non-cognitive aspects of learning, both of which are increasingly acknowledged as being critical for succeeding in life. This approach may be more effective for less advantaged children, who often lack opportunities for such experiences (Pascal et al, 2017).
Where Reception does maintain a “hybrid pedagogy” there are then concerns about the formal nature of education in Year 1. Pascal et al note that:
“a fundamental problem in England is the discontinuity between the EYFS and the Key Stage 1 curriculum and its associated pedagogy. This is something Fisher’s (2009; 2011) two studies recognise, and she urges that there is a need to re-think children’s educational experiences in English early years classrooms because of the identified discontinuity between the play-based and child-initiated EYFS curriculum and the more structured adult-led primary curriculum”. (Pascal et al, 2019:21).
Families and schools looking at including a child with SEND may well be looking ahead and deciding that even if they are able to be inclusive in the EYFS, this could break down in Year 1 and beyond, raising huge concerns over the tensions between inclusion and formal learning.
Settings without the knowledge and experience of supporting children and families with SEND may appear as exclusive or unsupportive, leaving families frustrated and isolated. On the other hand, the EYFS provides the building blocks for a responsive pedagogy focussed on child-centred support that recognises children’s learning priorities and paces in a way which works for them and their development.
Research highlights the importance of creating a supportive learning environment for young children with SEND (Gulliver, 2023). This involves providing resources and materials that cater to diverse learning needs and styles, “to support learners in the multiple ways that they prefer to learn” (Reception teacher). The EYFS is a good opportunity for practitioners to view SEND support as inclusive, child-centred practice that benefits all children. For example, using child-centred principles (see the Child-Centred Competences e-book) such as a strength-based view of a child who is capable and competent, which includes understanding responsive communication rather than behaviour. Following these principles should enable every child to have their needs met in any setting, and this should be even more evident in Reception classes across England. The early years celebrates diversity in a way that values the whole child. How the EYFS is implemented in Reception classes can be pivotal to the successful inclusion and support for children with SEND.
Dr Katherine Gulliver is a Lecturer and researcher at Plymouth Institute of Education.
Bradbury, A. (2019). “Datafied at four: the role of data in the ‘schoolification’ of early childhood education in England” in Learning, Media and Technology, 44 (1), pp. 7-21
Clark, A. (2022). Slow knowledge and the unhurried child: time for slow pedagogies in early childhood education. Taylor & Francis.
Department for Education (2021). Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five.
Georgeson, J., Adams, H., Short, E. and Ullman, K. (2023). Inclusive education for young children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND): Multiple perspectives. In Early Childhood Education Current realities and future priorities. London: Sage, pp. 83–94.
Martin, M. (2023). Send: ‘concern’ as primary late starters double, Tes Magazine. Available at: https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/primary/send-concern-primary-late-starters-double (Accessed: 04 October 2023).
Gulliver, K. (2023) Children with Williams Syndrome: Experiences of mainstream primary schools. Doctoral dissertation, University of Plymouth. https://dx.doi.org/10.24382/5061
Pascal, C., Bertram, T. and Rouse, L. (2019) Getting it right in the Early Years Foundation Stage: a review of the evidence. Centre for Research in Early Childhood. Available at: https://early-education.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Getting-it-right-in-the-EYFS-Literature-Review.pdf