HMCIs Early Years Annual Report 2015 and the Ofsted survey Teaching and play in the early yearsa balancing act?

HMCIs second annual report on its work in the early years sector received a significant amount of publicityalthough it was not reported in the Times Educational Supplement. Much of the comments focused on HMCIs view that the middle classes have colonised the best provision when taking up funded places for three and four year olds. In saying this Sir Michael Wilshaw drew attention to the yawning gap in school readiness between children from disadvantaged families and those from more advantaged backgrounds, with a disproportionate number from better off families using two year old places. The attainment gap has remained the same since it was first considered in 2007. In promoting access to two year old funded places, health visitors are seen as crucial, especially as public health comes under the local authority control from September 2015. This is hardly a new ideaback in 1981 when I reported to the Department for Education and Science on the coordination of services for under fives, I noted that health visitors were potentially the only group of people who saw virtually every child, but at the time some came under hospitals and others under GPs. However the picture may still not improve as Ofsted notes, there is a 36% point difference between local authorities in the proportion of children entitled to free school meals who reach a good level of development.

The report is generally very positive, showing a rise in the proportion of settings which are outstanding or good from 63% in 2009 to 85% in 2015. Leadership is seen as crucial in this and I shall be blogging about Ofsteds new inspection judgements under the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) which comes into effect from September. The new judgements show a far greater focus on leadership as well as teaching, learning and assessment.

The report is most encouraging in its acknowledgement that the practitioners we observed did not subscribe to a rigid distinction between teaching and play, noting that the adults role and the extent to which they interact with children could shift during the course of an activity. Most importantly from our Montessori viewpoint, Ofsted does not have a preferred style or approach to teaching or play. It is those who work in schools and settings, not inspectors, who are best placed to make the important decisions about how children learn.

Then take up of funded places for two year olds shows a shortfall with only 58% of eligible children actually using a place. Eligibility depends on their familys financial circumstances along with other criteria such as being a looked-after child, having SEN, being adopted or a child of asylum seekers. Childrens Centres are seen as important here, but Ofsted has excluded these from its discussions about the new inspection regime and there seem to be major issues about the hugely variable performance in developing partnerships with other providers.

Some of the most interesting statistics are at the end of the report. In particular the judgements on independent schools with early years provision between September 2014 and March 2015 show:

Number of inspections% Outstanding% Good% Requires improvement% Inadequate


By contrast the figures for maintained school inspections for the same period are:

Number of inspections% Outstanding% Good% Requires improvement% Inadequate
109 Nursery603911
2,222 Primary1372141


The chart for childcare on non-domestic premisesi.e. most of MSAs membersis based on different statistics, simply showing the most recent judgements as of 31 March 2015:

Number of inspections% Outstanding% Good% Requires Improvement% Inadequate


Clearly the different numbers of inspections of different types of provider affect the outcomes slightly, and the proposed Common Inspection Framework will need careful monitoring if it is not to exaggerate issues such as whether the provider has to clear away every day in their church hall, potentially affecting what apparatus and equipment is used and displays put up. I find it interesting that the PVI sector is doing better than primary schools at being outstandingand remember that HMCI has said that schools are the best place for two year olds!

When I asked the panel presenting the report (Sir Michael Wilshaw HMCI, Nick Hudson Head of Early Years and Gill Jones Deputy Head of Early Years) about the truly dreadful outcomes for independent schools, with 43% requiring improvement or being inadequate, they had no clear answer and indeed did not appear to have identified the issue. Their only comment was that it needed investigation and that the sample was small. Whilst this is true, it is a very significant figure especially bearing in mind that these are often small schools owner-run and who do not belong to one of the independent school associations whose member are inspected not by Ofsted but by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. Most of our Montessori primary schools fall into the Ofsted inspected category although none were in the group reported on here as far as we know. It also suggests that perhaps the middle class parents are not just colonising higher quality provision as HMCI said, but that they are simply accessing provision not necessarily taking much regard to its qualityafter all, if there is limited choice, parents go for what is there.

I wonder if the poor showing of the independent schools might be down to their not being sufficiently closely linked to other providers and the local authority network, suggesting that they may not be sufficiently up to date with matters such as safeguarding requirements. If so, this could be a warning for PVI providers as local authority support becomes weakened due to financial cuts. It will be interesting to see if Ofsted does follow up on what in my view is amongst the worst ever inspection outcome figures for many years.

The Annual Report draws upon the HMI survey of good practice, Teaching and play in the early yearsa balancing act, which was led by Lee Owston, who spoke at our recent MEAB conference. It echoes the Annual Report in noting that 20% of children lack essential skills to reach a good level of development by the age of five. It emphasises that the 49 successful providers surveyed did not distinguish between teaching and play or had a fixed idea of how things should be done. The focus was on good provision in disadvantaged areas and too few two year olds were accessing provision, often in small numbers in any one establishment. The report provides many useful examples of good provision. Its headline findings are:

  • Teaching and play are not separate endeavours
  • There is no one way of approaching teaching and play
  • Teaching includes all the ways adults help children to learn
  • The cornerstone of working with disadvantaged children is speech, language and communication
  • Disadvantaged children made most rapid progress when spending a higher proportion of their day with adults rather than with their better-off peers
  • Disadvantaged children learned best when they played alongside older early years childrenin my terms vertical grouping works!
  • Disadvantaged children made the strongest progress when they continued as three year olds in the same settingpresumably this is part of HMCVIs argument about two year olds entering and staying in schools
  • Approaches to early reading were the most formal approach to learning
  • Many leaders prioritise mathematics for improvement to ensure that learning experiences were challenging children to meet their full potential
  • Accurate assessment of childrens starting points was based on constant reflection on what was typical for a child of their chronological age in monthsan obvious influence of the way the EYFS has approached child development.
  • Collaboration between providers was key to higher quality teaching and playthe importance of local networks (and again back to a possible reason for the independent schools poor rating in HMCIs report).

The report is very readable and well worth reading. It could also form a useful staff development tool.