I have over 20 years experience in teaching and leading the Early Years Foundation Stage, as well as supporting other settings through training and school to school support. I have recently set up a training and consultancy service - Early Years Outdoor Learning - to offer support and training on all things early years but with particular emphasis on outdoor learning.
Autumn has well and truly arrived, bringing with it lots of lovely loose materials for children to play and create with. Here are some great ideas for activities and games you can play with the children. The best way to start is to get outside and collect the resources together, as that is an adventure in itself!
If your outside area is more concrete jungle than a green one, why don’t you bring large bags with you to collect leaves and bring them back to your setting? I have done this in the past, much to the delight of the children. It kept them engaged and entertained for hours and provided a starting point for many activities and interests.
Many teachers will know of a child who is well behaved at school but who acts completely different when in the presence of their parents, often screaming, shouting and even hitting them at the beginning and/or end of the day. Many parents face this daily struggle and deal with the dismissive attitudes of teachers who assume that it must be down to lack of parenting skills as they have no problems with the child at school.
THE introduction of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) in 2012 was introduced as a ‘light-touch screening to identify pupils in need of additional support in the classroom’. In reality, it ranks highly in the accountability stakes and brings with it the expectation of an ever increasing pass rate, regardless of the needs of each cohort.
The publication, in December 2017, of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2016) saw England move from 10th (in 2011) to 8th place (in 2016). This led schools minister, Nick Gibb, to praise the government, linking the improvement in the ratings directly to their mandatory policy on synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching reading. He stated that “Today’s results put the success of our increased emphasis on phonics and continued focus on raising education standards on a global scale. Our rise through the global rankings is even more commendable because it has been driven by an increase in the number of low-performing pupils reading well.”
He omitted to mention the fact however, that England still lagged behind the ratings of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both of whom have different literacy policies.
Is it as good as it seems?
In June 2015, the final report from the Evaluation of the Phonics Screening Check(2012-2015) was published. This was undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), and was commissioned by the DfE. It found that, although there was an improvement in attainment in the PSC, over the 3 years, there was no evidence that the test impacted on wider literacy performance or progress.
Over two thirds of literacy co-ordinators felt the check didn’t provide them with any information they hadn’t already gleaned from their own assessments and concerns were raised by some teachers, about the teaching of pseudo words and having to ‘teach to the test.’
The government however appeared to take no notice of these findings and pressures on schools increased. The report stated that ‘…accountability has moved down the school, with Reception teachers more mindful of their role in phonics teaching since the introduction of the check in Year 1; one school also referred to an increased focus on phase 1 phonics in Nursery.’ Unfortunately, I have very recently read posts, on early years Facebook forums, from nursery practitioners stating that they now teach phase 2 phonics, almost from the beginning of the year.
It appears the government doesn’t want to engage in a discussion about the relative merits of the phonics screening check as, during the Primary Assessment Consultation in 2017, there were no questions relating to the impact or future of the PSC, instead there was just a reference to it remaining a statutory assessment.
She states in the report, “I was aware that the lack of evidence of the views of teachers might lead politicians to assume they fully subscribed to the policy and to the statutory check. However, I was also conscious that many teachers were reluctant, even fearful, to speak out in opposition to the policy, even to express their concerns about the effects, intended and unintended, of this “high stakes” assessment of children at six-years-of-age, not only on those who failed, but even on children who passed.”
What do schools say?
Responses were garnered from 180 Head Teachers, 1,108 teachers and 295 parents. They were asked a number of questions in relation to their experience of the implementation and impact of the screening at school, at home and on the children taking the test.
The report revealed the many concerns held by schools. Concerns about the check itself and the effect it is having on teaching, pupils and the wider literacy curriculum. It found that:
89% of head teachers and 94% of teachers felt that the PSC doesn’t provide any additional information than that already gathered from schools’ own assessments
80% of teachers and head teachers felt that pseudo words were not useful. Many responses reported pseudo words causing confusion as children tried to make sense of them e.g. misreading strom for storm. This was also backed up by parents views.
64% of headteachers and 74% of teachers felt it wasn’t useful to re-test those who failed the test in Year 1
Only 16% of head teachers and 12% of teachers thought that the PSC should remain statutory.
Only 6% of headteachers and 10% of teachers agreed with government policy that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach reading in England. There was also a difference in views held, dependent of length of service, with more experienced teachers being more likely to disagree with the PSC remaining statutory. The report states that “Many recently qualified teachers in England may not have been alerted to the controversial nature of some of the evidence cited by the government as Teacher Education programmes may be dominated by a focus on synthetic phonics to enable them to meet Ofsted requirements.”
Many teachers also stated that:
it had negatively affected their teaching practice.
they had concerns about children’s stress levels during the implementation of the PSC – nearly 63% said they had observed some children being affected
Many teachers were vocal in their dislike of test. ‘Better readers try to turn alien words into similar words that they know are real. To prevent this from happening, children have to be ‘trained’ in how the test works. This time would be better spent teaching them actual reading skills.’
Responses from parents were also negative, in fact there were only two that were positive, with the general consensus being:
‘…it had a negative impact [on] reading for enjoyment’.
‘it made her reading slow and stilted for a while because she was told to sound everything out. She did not need to.’
The majority of parents surveyed weren’t in favour of the PSC continuing for all children. 60% said that their children could already read and write words prior to the implementation of the PSC and some parents felt that the use of pseudo words were confusing.
Has the PSC impacted on the wider literacy curriculum?
Responses from parents and teachers indicated that too much time is spent teaching children to read words that make no sense (and serve no purpose other than to pass a test). This, as a result, is limiting time for teaching the wider set of skills needed for children to become well-rounded, confident readers.
As one teacher commented, ‘We teach to the test. It’s depressing and goes against everything most teachers want to deliver. Reading should be for pleasure, for learning and for life. Subjecting 5-year olds to ‘failure’ at reading is just crazy. All any good teacher needs to know is where their children are showing gaps in knowledge or understanding of phonics. Teaching children phonics every day for a year and listening to children read gives teachers far more information than this check could ever produce.’
The PSC is purely an indication of a child’s ability to decode single words. It does not assess their reading ability or their understanding of what is being read. The very fact that there is no transfer of skills across to the wider literacy curriculum just makes a mockery of the governments assertion that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach reading. Were this check to have any real benefit on raising standards then surely the impact would be felt across the board?
Education Secretary Damien Hinds, spoke recently about the number of children starting school unable to‘communicate in full sentences’. He went on to say that ‘This matters, because when you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up. Your peers don’t wait, the gap just widens. This has a huge impact on social mobility.” However, unless the PSC is discontinued, the gap is likely to widen even more as the teaching of literacy is under threat, as explained by one teacher who wrote, ‘Because we have to concentrate so much on ‘phonics’, reading for meaning, language development, vocabulary all suffer.’
In addition, the pressure placed on schools to increase the yearly pass rate, means that many nursery teachers are being told to introduce developmentally inappropriate practices earlier and earlier each year. 58% of Nursery teachers surveyed, even grouped children by ability despite there being no evidence that this improves practice.
Implications for the future
So far the government seem committed to continuing with the PSC and synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching reading. In fact, the report reveals, so committed were they to this endeavour that they even considered extending the check into year 3, for children who failed the test in year 2! Fortunately, Nick Gibb said this will not be implemented but the reasons why are unclear, as the report (of a pilot in 300 schools by NFER) was never published.
Given the amount of information surrounding the implementation and impact of the PSC since it’s conception, Clark (and Glazzard) have advised that government policy should be seriously reconsidered and suggested the following (p 44-45):
either discontinuing the PSC or making it voluntary and more of a formative assessment tool
the removal of pseudo words
reconsidering using the percentage pass mark as a measure of school improvement
implementing a range of strategies for the teaching of reading, rather than rely on just one approach in schools and as referenced in the teachers standards
ensuring that all stakeholders are involved in discussions about the future of the PSC and the use of synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching children to read
I have witnessed the amount of time spent teaching children to decode pseudo words and experienced the frustration and futility felt by teachers doing this. I have seen children, who are independent readers and read for pleasure, being given discrete lessons in decoding nonsense words as they try to make sense of them and so get them wrong.
Surely a better way to assess reading is through reading books? This will provide not only evidence for children’s ability to decode but more importantly, provide information on their level of comprehension and demonstrate their abilities to infer, deduce and predict. Isn’t this what ‘the simple view of reading’ (The Rose Report 2006) was advocating?
We can only hope that the government stops being so intransigent and listens to the views of head teachers, teachers and parents, in order to ensure that children are taught to read effectively but more importantly develop a love of reading that will continue throughout their lives.
We’ve all seen the photos posted on social media, every September, of children ready to start the new academic year, particularly of children who are going to school for the first time!
My children, and grandchildren, all had some sort of settling in period when they first started school and, as an early years practitioner, I have always thought that this period is vitally important in forming positive relationships with children and their families.
This year, I have come across posts, from parents and teachers, on Facebook and Mumsnet arguing about this very subject with many stating that children should stay, full time, from the first day.
There have also been a number of posts stating that, whilst compulsory school age isn’t until the term after a child’s fifth birthday, when children have been offered a place in reception it is mandatory that they are to be in school full-time from the first day. This was backed up with photo of a letter from a local authority. I hadn’t heard of this so checked the School Admissions Code. It states:
‘Admission authorities must provide for the admission of all children in the September following their fourth birthday. The authority must make it clear in their arrangements that, where they have offered a child a place at a school:
a)that child is entitled to a full-time place in the September following their fourth birthday;
b) the child’s parents can defer the date their child is admitted to the school until later in the school year but not beyond the point at which they reach compulsory school age and not beyond the beginning of the final term of the school year for which it was made; and
c) where the parents wish, children may attend part-time until later in the school year but not beyond the point at which they reach compulsory school age. School Admissions Code 2014 p24
Although there is a clear undertaking, in paragraph a, that children are entitled to a full time place in September, it doesn’t state specifically that this should be from the first day of the academic year. However, a ruling by the Schools Adjudicator (August 2013) probably explains the confusion as it found in favour of a Bournemouth parent who challenged a school in not allowing children to attend school full-time from September. The school operated ‘such an extended and part-time induction period’ it didn’t allow for any child to start full-time until the January. The adjudicator stated that “The school has a duty to provide a full-time place from September and it cannot refuse to do so.” Bournemouth, the local authority in this case, then wrote to all schools stating that short days and staggered starts could no longer be enforced. Hopefully the days of such extended settling periods have passed however most schools operate some sort of settling in period which still places pressure on working parents.
Many parents argue that their child will be fine starting full-time straight away, as they are outgoing, very social and have been used to going to nursery or a childminders from a young age. That may well be the case for some children but what about those who are not? What about the children who are more inhibited and who are anxious about this huge change in their young lives? What about children who do not speak any English? What about children with Special Educational Needs? What about children who have never attended any form of pre-school before?
Imagine you are 4
Just imagine that you are 4 years old. You have been at the same nursery since you were a baby and are comfortable, secure and familiar with the adults who care for you and have a good circle of friends but are now faced with the prospect of attending a school where you know no-one. ‘School’ is a reception class with 30 children and 2 adults ( one teacher and one TA) and you are expected to walk into the class on the first day of school and be left there all day. This day not only consists of meeting lots of new children, and adults, in a new environment but also means that you are going to have to eat your lunch in a noisy dining room, then go out to play with lots of other children whom you also don’t know.
This is definitely not going to support many of the children mentioned above and will likely result in children suffering acute distress. It is vitally important that we consider children’s physiological needs first to ensure that they feel safe and secure before we can even think about them beginning to learn.
It is common for children, including those who have previously attended nursery, to be anxious about this change to their daily routine, even if they are looking forward to it. In addition, many parents are also concerned about separation anxiety in the run up to the new school year, particularly if they are trying to juggle working and settling anxious children at the same time.
“In recent years, an extensive body of research has been accumulating, showing that the early care environment has a major role in a child’s development…Central to these effects is the quality of the attachment bonds that a child forms with the persons who provide care, such as parents, other members of the family or community, or professional carers.” (Oates 2007, viii)
Whilst children may have formed secure attachments through their key person at nursery, the ratio of adults to children in reception classes is usually much lower. This would be 1:15 if there is another full-time practitioner however, some schools share support staff between classes so it may only be the class teacher who is available for some parts of the day. This means it takes longer for attachments to be made, particularly if schools operate an all in, all day, from the first day of school, policy. Time needs to be afforded to enable children to settle, form relationships and attachments to be made.
In addition, having unsettled children at the beginning of the year makes completing a baseline assessment difficult as children who are not secure and settled are unlikely to show anything near their true capabilities.
Meeting the needs of children and parents
Whilst I do believe that the needs of children should be prioritised, I also think that schools need to consider how they manage the settling in period in order not to place more pressure than necessary on working parents, particularly in cases where children have attended a school nursery, as transition should look very different for these children (and families) to those of children who are new to the school.
I was affected by this very issue last year when my granddaughter (pictured above), started reception. She went in for an hour on the first day then this was gradually extended, day by day, before she was full time after about two weeks. It wasn’t the settling in period that I was unhappy about, it was the fact that she had been full-time in the school nursery for a year and knew the staff and most of the children entering reception. The school did not differentiate between the children who attended the nursery and those who hadn’t, treating them all as if they were completely new to the setting which posed an unnecessary burden on working parents.
I have worked at schools with a nursery and without and transition was very different in both. In the school with a nursery, as all the nursery children, bar one, were coming into reception we started the transition in the summer term which involved taking the children to the dinner hall and letting them play in the playground with the KS1 children, supported by practitioners. We were very lucky in that we had an open plan setting and so the children, and staff, in both nursery and reception worked together.
This enabled us to start children that attended nursery full-time, on the first day. Part- timers started the following day – some in the morning, some in the afternoon before they all started full-time on the third day. Children that were new to the school had home visits in the summer term and also came in part-time for a few days. Practitioners were able to spend lots of time with them when they arrived as the rest of the cohort were securely settled, already knowing one another and the staff.
Schools need to ensure that they inform parents early in the summer term of the transition arrangements, so that they are given time to sort things out. More importantly, they need to explain why taking time to settle children into school is so important. Flexibility is key here. I have moved children from morning to afternoon to make collections easier, introduced parents and helped to support after school collections and have also had children who didn’t attend the part-time period at all, as their parents preferred them to remain at nursery until they could come in full time.
Although it can be a trying time it is, at the very most, a couple of weeks. This time is invaluable as it enables children to ease into the new setting slowly, finding their feet in their own time and enabling them to form friendships within a smaller group of children, rather than in a class of 30. This time is invaluable to support children in getting to know their new teachers and understand the rules and routines that will be so very different from what they were used to at nursery.
There has been a lot written about baseline recently with the trialling of the new baseline assessment starting in September. But the start to each academic year always provides practitioners with a real dichotomy between the need for an on entry assessment, to plan for next steps and show progress over time, versus the need to support children socially and emotionally at the beginning of this new phase, to ensure that they separate happily from their parents and carers, form good relationships with adults and their peers and are settling comfortably into a new, and often, unfamiliar environment.
I was expected to produce a baseline assessment just two and a half weeks after the children started school and so needed to be as creative as possible so this could be completed, in a short space of time, without compromising what I felt was more important, the settling in process. Ensuring children were settled, had established good relationships and understood the routines and expectations of the setting, I believe, is paramount to any future learning and so I planned for the baseline to be tied into activities, stories, games and role play, inside and out, so practitioners could sit back and observe what children could do without the pressure of constant questioning.