25/07/2014

MSA Chairmans update May 2014

Early years and primary work continues to attract attention from policy makersnot always for the right reasons. The most recent examples have been a letter from the Chief Inspector of Ofsted (HMCI) to Early Years inspectors and his first Annual Report on the early years. The report has a preface by Nick Hudson, National Director of Early Education at Ofsted and, significantly, it regards itself as being one of a series about raising standards, with not enough being done to support and encourage parents or to address differences between children from different economic backgrounds.

We have posted a commentary on these papers on the website, but it forms part of a general view that children should be in school-based provision ever earliertwo years of age being the currently advocated starting age. Apart from it being better if children are toilet trained before starting in such provision, there seem to be several unconsidered issues which are reminiscent of the debate around free school meals for children in reception classes and key stage 1.

The reasons HMCI gives for advocating starting at two are linked to the governments aims for affordable high quality childcarehelping to improve outcomes for children, enabling parents to work, and getting children into provision at an early age so as to intervene earlier in potential problems. It follows research such as the EPPE project which found that for 3 and 4 year olds nursery schools and classes provided most benefits, with Montessori classes also having a very positive impact on achievement. Yet to move from that to saying that 2 year olds should be in school is a major jump which ignores several realities. Not all parents wish their child to start in a formal situation at age twoit seems likely that a majority do not so wish. There is very little clear evidence that such early interventions have an impact without other factors such as staff training, facilities, length of daily care provision, ratios, wider family support and particularly how to target intervention towards the most needy. When we factor in the availability of facilities in schools to provide for 2 year oldsnot just rooms to base the care in, but toilets, secure outdoor play areas, issues of accessany provision which is not backed up by a major capital building programme is bound to be patchy to say the least. Alternatives, such as linking other provision to schoolssay the local pre-school setting being somehow administratively connected to the school, as well as having some sort of curriculum linksthe picture becomes even more hazy. Schools and their staff just do not have the skills, knowledge and experience of dealing with 2 and 3 year olds in most cases. Many have limited experience of children below Reception class age. Teachers would be amongst the first to acknowledge such limitations, and the EPPE research emphasised the need for well-qualified and appropriately experienced staff if standards were to be raised.

Soà ¢Ã¢ €š ¬ ¦ if space is by no means universally available and well qualified and experienced staff are at a premium, how can the system work? I suspect that this is to miss the underlying agenda. The Ofsted report notes that early years settings are inspected to a different framework to schools, making direct comparisons between the two impossible. It also notes that schools in its view are important providers of early education and childcare (my emphasis). It would be interesting to see what evidence Ofsted has for this dual role other than as a sort of general acknowledgement that the two go together and that education and childcare is a sort of slogan covering a range of activities provided in schools and other settings. The distinction between the two has become lost in the last twenty years.

In another move Ofsted recently consulted about the grades to be allocated to pre-schools, changing satisfactory to requires improvement and so on. The change has already begun so that early years provision can be compared to that of primary schools. We have some concerns that Ofsted inspection judgements are inflating grades in some cases, whilst being more critical where a complaint has been madesaying that improvement is required despite things like premises not having been changed since the previous good inspection. Such a changed judgement suggests that the previous good judgement was inaccurate and that inspectors missed significant points.

The Chief Inspector has begun to suggest that childminders do not provide the same levels of support for learning as schools, so continuing a line which Ofsted has followed since the introduction of nursery vouchers in the mid-1990s. This has argued that all providers should be following the same set of guidelinesthat is, as currently set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage. Such a view ignores different emphases given by different types of provision. The effects of this argument on childcare provision needs much more clarity. For example, the high quality noted in nursery schools and classes reflects provision which has two and a half to three hour sessions, with many children attending either for the morning or the afternoon. To try to say that the same outcomes can or should be achieved when a child stays from, say, 8.00 in the morning to 6.00 in the early evening (so meeting the Governments ideas about supporting working parents) ignores issues about the organisation of the day and its rhythms and activities. The sort of stimulation which can be provided for a three hour session would be inappropriate if maintained for 10 hours. It also ignores the difference between provision which can have a much stronger learning focus over a shorter period as opposed to that which is open for a longer day and which requires a clearly identified balance between care and education. When the agenda includes a desire to get mothers back into the workforce, such considerations can easily fall by the wayside.

In addition many of the complexities of the present situation arise from the government and Ofsteds own organisation. There are six frameworks for inspecting the different forms of provision and the Report rightly notes that a school with a childrens centre for childcare for under threes will have one building, one governing body, one set of children and staff, and yet have three inspections to three different frameworks. Even Montessori independent primary schools are inspected against two frameworks if they have two year olds and so have to register not only with the Department for Education (DfE) as a school, but with Ofsted as an early years setting for two year olds. The situation becomes almost farcical when Ofsted choose to register such provision a being on the Early Years register for two to 5 year olds and yet DfE registers it as a school for three year olds upwards. The significance of the overlap for 3 to 5 year olds is that the EYFS standards are not exactly the same as those for independent schools. Inspectors, especially from non-Ofsted inspectorates, are getting used to trying to match the two sets of requirements and adopt a common sense approach where they require different things. But the fault lies with the government for not addressing the issue of comparability.

Besides such factors, the introduction of the two year old progress check and a baseline test on entry into statutory school at age 5 can be seen as further evidence of developing more formal learning at an early age. It also seeks to make judgements about children whose pattern of growth, learning and development change rapidly during the early years. Care will be needed to avoid labelling summer born childrenand especially boysas requiring additional support from 2 years upwards when the issue is not one of capabilities but one of development andsimplylife experiences being fewer than those of older children in the same year group.

The overall approach seems likely to involve squeezing the private and voluntary sector by promoting school-based services. It also suggests that the government may find it easier to lower the age when provision for children can be inspected in the same way as provision for older children in school from the current age of 3 to age 2. That will sort out some current anomalies, but there will still be issues affecting provision for children under 2 years where this operates alongside school services, as well as the major issue of how far school inspectionsand inspectorshave the knowledge and skills to inspect provision for children under 3 years.

Lest this sound too much doom and gloom, we must continue to recognise the strengths of Montessori provision. Our workforce is better qualified than many non-Montessori settings, especially in MEAB accredited settings. We have a clear and highly respected training programme co-ordinated and led by MCI. Their work is moving into exciting distance-learning fields and also with more IT-based programmes. We have a name for high quality provision, despite this being abused at times by people who do not offer truly Montessori experiences for children. We are respected by politicians and government officials as professionals who understand what constitutes quality in early education and care. Above all, parents recognise that to send your child to a Montessori setting significantly increases their chance of gaining positive skills and attitudes which will stay with them in later years and which will enable them to be effective learners. We will continue to promote awareness of the quality of your work and your commitment as well as ensuring that Montessoris voice is heard as policies develop.

Have a great summer.

Best wishes,

Dr Martin Bradley

National Chairman

Montessori Schools Association