Under Pressure

Under Pressure

I came across this post from a worried mum on Mumsnet recently.  She believed that her child (5.2 years old) was the least able writer in her class and wanted advice as to what to do about it?

mumsnet writing post

Thankfully teachers, along with other parents who responded, put the mum at ease and explained that her child was at the expected level of development, for writing, at the end of reception. Fortunately the responses to the post were all very supportive and the mum was reassured.

To my mind, this post highlights how government policy is increasingly affecting the stress levels of us all – teachers, parents and children.   Early years practitioners in schools are under pressure, through targets and performance related pay, to ensure that attainment rises year on year, despite the needs of differing cohorts, funding and staffing issues.   In some schools this pressure reduces the time spent learning through play and increases the likelihood of a formalised curriculum where reading, writing and maths take precedence over everything else.  With the reception baseline assessment now looming in the distance, concerns are being raised that this pressure will be filtered down to nursery practitioners and children.

Unfortunately, once testing measures are put in place in any year group, the pressure to achieve better scores starts earlier and earlier – the year one, Phonics Screening Check is a good example of this. What was originally intended as a light touch assessment has instead taken us down the same high stakes assessment path as the SATs.

The review of the phonics screening check in 2015 discussed some of the issues facing schools, such as the top-down pressure felt by teachers. It 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.’

It appears that there were no lessons learnt from this as another, more recent report on the phonics screening check (Newman University 2012-2017) shines a light on just how purposeless the screening is.   180 headteachers, 1,108 teachers and approximately 300 parents were interviewed and their responses analysed.  Preliminary findings have shown that, despite all the preparation and focus on the check, it provides schools with no additional information other than that already gleaned from their own assessments, has no bearing on attainment or progress on the wider literacy curriculum, has increased anxiety levels in children taking the test and has negatively affected teaching and learning, as time is spent training children to decode pseudo (nonsense) words!

The current debate around the introduction of baseline assessment in reception could lead to pressure being brought to bear by headteachers (belonging to the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL),  as they are in favour of the test, whilst teachers are not.

During her defence of the baseline assessment, ASCL’s interim director of policy, Julie McCulloch said: “…. we therefore support a light-touch assessment near the beginning of Reception which will provide an earlier starting point for measuring progress.”  This is exactly how the phonics screening test was introduced, several years ago, and look where we are with it now!

It doesn’t stop there however, as there is yet another new test  being piloted in 2018, this one aimed at 5 year olds! How much more pressure can the government bring to bear on such young children and for what purpose?  Particularly given the fact that the tests wont tell teachers any more than they already know about the children they teach!

It was heartening to read A Baseline Without Basis  particularly as the panel of experts agreed with the consensus of those within the early years sector, finding it not fit for purpose and inherently unreliable. The report stated that  ‘the proposed baseline assessment will not lead to accurate comparisons being made between schools, as policymakers assume. Perhaps most importantly, they will not work in the best interests of children and their parents.’ 

The introduction of yet more tests just increases the pressure on school leadership to show progress and may lead to some schools ensuring their baseline is low.   After all, it is not unheard of for heads to succumb to pressure and doctor their KS2 data –  I should know as this happened at my granddaughters school!

The following comment, from the Mumsnet discussion, caught my eye.

My youngest is 5 years and 2 months….  He can write his name and ‘mum’, that’s it. I’m an English teacher. I’m not bothered in the slightest. Your daughter’s writing looks perfectly acceptable.

This was written by an English teacher, in Scotland, whose child is due to start P1 shortly, which is equivalent to a reception class in England.  This parent/teacher recognises that there are many more important things than being able to write a sentence at just turned 5 years old.

We need to hold onto this and remember that in many countries around the world children start school later, attain better but more importantly have better mental health and wellbeing than our children, as they are allowed to learn in the way that children have learnt for thousands of year, through play.

The government would do well to look carefully at the findings of the recent reports and really listen to early years practitioners, experts and academics in order for policy to be underpinned by child development and good early years practice.  The estimated £10 million spent on the reception baseline assessment could then be re-invested and put  into early years funding, training, recruitment and retention of early years staff.

Learning with Bri

Learning with Bri

My granddaughter, Bri,  called me into the garden, a few days ago, to show me her latest creation. After finding her brother’s bouncy egg, she created a birds nest with natural materials, on top of the rabbit run. She often uses natural materials to create homes for mini beasts or as props when playing with small world resources.

Birdsnest                  IMG_6102


Bri has a real fascination for using different materials in ingenious ways, loves to paint, dance and makes up her own songs, rhymes and stories.  At her recent parents evening, I wasn’t surprised to be told she was exceeding in Expressive Arts and Design (Exploring and Using Media and Materials and Being Imaginative).

Lunchtime….the least considered part of the school day!

Lunchtime….the least considered part of the school day!


Interesting debate on MUMSNET recently about play restrictions at lunchtime. Unfortunately there is truth in most of the comments, particularly the predominance of football, which banishes girls to the playground periphery and also the sad demise of many a playground game.  Of course health and safety issues need to be addressed but nothing is solved by an outright ban of children’s play.

Resources for play – the cardboard box

image0 2

Resources for play – the cardboard box

With the reduction in school budgets, early years practitioners need to be much more resourceful and look for FREE resources.  Fortunately, one of the easiest to access is the cardboard box.  Is it any wonder when this simple resource is so open-ended?  You can pick them up for free and in as many shapes and sizes as you like!  They are ideal for small world and role play as well as construction and when in use, tend to attract groups of children who then learn to collaborate and share ideas.

Have fun doing maths in the sun!

Have fun doing maths in the sun!

At our yearly family gathering, last weekend, my lovely cousin Pru brought with her a number of garden games for us all to play. The children, in particular, loved playing them and were really engaged, so I thought why not adapt some of these ideas for children to play at school?



hungry hippo


Skateboards, plastic containers, plastic balls plus score-board or clipboard and pens (if keeping score).

The object of the game  –  The team who collect the most balls (or have the highest score) wins.

Promotes –  Collaboration, turn-taking, physical development (hand/eye coordination, balance and core strength) and problem-solving.

How to play

  • One person lays on the skateboard whilst their partner holds their legs, in order to push them backwards and forwards.
  • The person on the skateboard has to capture as many balls as possible, from the pile in the middle, using a box or container.

Maths Learning objectives:  Quantity/Number – counting the balls to find who has most / least.

Addition – Balls can be numbered; e.g. white balls – 0 points, yellow balls – 1 point, blue balls – 2 points and orange balls – 3 points. (This can be differentiated up or down to meet the needs of all ability levels).

This game could also be adapted to practice multiplication and division facts –

  • Write multiplication/division questions on the balls.
  • Children to collect as many balls as they can,  in a short period of time,  then work out the answers to the questions, either individually or as a pair.

This activity will also support learning about FORCES.



Such a simple concept, yet it provided the children with hours of fun as they tried to knock one another off the balance boards. Pru made her own, as we were on grass, but you can find instructions for a similar board here, alternatively, you can buy them very cheaply online.


Lengths of foam, a wobble board,  stopwatch, clipboards and pens, if recording times.

The object of the game  –  The last person left standing wins.

Promotes –  Physical development – balance and coordination, as well as strength in the core, knees and ankles.  This is a great activity for children who require occupational therapy.

How to play

  • For younger children, the objective is just to stay on the board and knock their opponent off.  Adults can introduce a timer, if desired, to find out who remained on the board the longest and compare the longest/shortest period of time.
  • Older children can play the game in teams of 3 – taking turns in playing and recording the length of time taken.

Maths Learning objectives:  Time – Measuring length of time (minutes, seconds)  Compare (and sequence) intervals of time.  Data could be analysed to find out whether there was a difference in the performance between boys or girls.

This activity will also support learning about FORCES.



Kerplunk is a bit like Jenga in that it takes a certain amount of skill and dexterity to remove the sticks without letting the balls fall through.


Length of chicken wire, shaped into a cylinder, a receptacle for the balls to fall into (Pru used an adapted wooden crate),  long sticks and coloured plastic balls and clipboards and pens (if recording).

The object of the game  –  To have the least amount of balls at the end of the game.

Promotes – Problem-solving, hand/eye coordination, and spatial awareness.

How to play

  • Place all sticks through the wire (in different directions and angles) then place the balls on top.
  • Children take turns in pulling out a stick. If any balls drop through they remove them and add them to their pile.
  • The winner is the person with the least balls.

Maths Learning objectives:  

Quantity/Number – counting to find who has most / least balls.

Addition – Balls can be numbered; e.g. white balls – 0 point, yellow balls – 1 point, blue balls – 2 points and orange balls – 3 points.   The number of coloured balls can be increased or decreased, dependent on the age/ability of the children).  Children can work together in pairs to find the total number of points scored to find the winner.

Set the children a Challenge – After playing the basic game, encourage children to create and write their own rules then play the game with one another.

This activity will also support learning about FORCES.



Battleships is a real-life, practical example of how to use, and plot, coordinates.  This is a game for two players (or teams of 2/3 children) and can easily be adapted for different age groups by changing the size of the grid (and boats), as the more squares there are – the harder it is to play.    This is a great way to teach co-ordinates in a fun and exciting way. The placement of the boats (photos 1 and 2) along with the accompanying grid sheet (photo 3) help children to understand how to find and plot coordinates.


Grids can be created on a hundred square or made, on the playground, using chalk or sticks. Alternatively grids can be created on 2 large sheets.  A free-standing or hanging divider is needed to stop players from seeing their opponents grid.   You also need coloured pieces of card (or wood) of different lengths, to create the ships, clipboards, pens and score sheets.

The object of the game  –  To sink your opponent’s battleships.

Promotes – Critical thinking skills – logical, strategical and analytical thinking.

How to play

  • Each player places their own ships on their grid (vertically or horizontally NOT diagonally). See Photos 1 and 2 
  • Each player marks the placement of their ships in the MY SHIPS section of the score sheet.  See Photo 3
  • Players take turns calling out coordinates e.g. E7.
  • Players call out either ‘Miss’ or ‘Hit’ after each given coordinate. Each player fills in the OPPONENTS SHIPS section of the grid sheet. See photo 3
  • The winner is the first to identify and ‘sink’ all their opponents battleships.


  • Players/teams can take turns firing salvo’s – 5 shots at a time. Hits and misses are marked on the grid as before.
  • As each ship is sunk the number of rounds in the salvo decreases. After the first ship is sunk the rounds in the salvo decreases to 4, after the next is sunk – to 3 and so on.

Maths Learning objectives: Co-ordinates – Identify positions on a 2d grid as co-ordinates. Describe positions on a 2d grid as co-ordinates. Mark positions on a 2d grid.

IMG_7151     IMG_7150

                    Photo 1                                                                        Photo 2

Battleship sheet

                 Photo 3


Getting out of the classroom, particularly to play games that are engaging and fun, makes teaching, and learning, easier and more enjoyable which leads to higher levels of involvement and engagement. Another good reason is that children are leading sedentary lives, fuelled by technology, and have less opportunity, than those of previous generations, to play freely outside of school.

School’s who have harnessed the power of play have been impressed with the benefits for both pupils and teachers.

The Natural Connections Demonstration Project (2012-2016), commissioned by Natural England, provided fantastic evidence on the positive benefits of learning outside the classroom, for children, teachers and schools as a whole. It was overwhelmingly positive with the vast majority of teachers saying that it improved curriculum delivery,  improved behaviour and the health and well-being of everyone involved!

Never done this before? Here are a few ways to get you started!

Start with a group of children say, who are struggling with coordinates. Take them outside to play battleships.  The practical nature of the game would ensure that they are better able to understand and achieve the learning objective whilst the competitive aspect, along with the novelty of playing outside, would ensure that they remember the experience thereby retaining key information for longer.

Many schools still have GOLDEN TIME on a Friday afternoon. Why not set up some of these games for the children to play?  You could start with one activity such as Hungry Hippos. You can just imagine the children all clamouring to have a turn! They get to have a great time whilst having key concepts reinforced.

Get parents involved and let them know about the benefits of learning outside.  Arrange a maths workshop and set up some of the games for them to play with their children?  I can guarantee that they will all have great fun and will better understand how key concepts can be delivered through through play.

Have a think about other games that are normally played inside and how you can adapt them for outdoors.

Above all HAVE FUN!