Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted and Early Years Education

To say that we’re aggrieved by Sir Michael’s latest statement that all children should have “structured” learning in school from the age of 2 is an understatement. And to think that he’s insistent that Ofsted is politically independent of the government when similar simultaneous announcements come from Liz Truss – who in her infinite wisdom thinks we should follow an unproven, standardised model from France rather than the proven, educationally successful model from Finland.

Sir Michael Wilshaw is not an Early Years educational specialist. Neither is Liz Truss. In fact she doesn’t even have a qualification in teaching – she’s an accountant! So why do these two think they have the knowledge, understanding and experience to suggest what is best practice for our children when the overwhelming evidence globally suggests that learning through play (and personalising learning) is the key to teaching and learning in Early Years settings?

On BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, Wilshaw said, that a “greater emphasis on structured learning is the answer.” He said that too many of our nurseries “fail” to give adequate learning experiences that “prepare” children for the next stage of their schooling.

“The corollary of not preparing children well for school is that they don’t do well in reception and, if they don’t do well in reception, they don’t get on at key stage one, they find it difficult to read at seven, they fail at the end of primary school and that failure continues into secondary school………When we talk about social mobility, rather than focus at the end of school, we should actually worry about what’s happening at the very start of a child’s life – the rot sets in early.”

Yes, Sir Michael, we most certainly do need to focus on Early Years but there are ways and means of doing so. He says all of this without acknowledging the practice in the most educationally successful country in Europe where “success” in primary and secondary education occurs because of a play-based and individualised learning focus in Early Years.

He continued to complain that,
“More than two-thirds of our poorest children – and in some of our poorest communities that goes up to eight children out of 10 – go to school unprepared……. That means they can’t hold a pen, they have poor language and communication skills, they don’t recognise simple numbers, they can’t use the toilet independently and so on.”

How many nurseries and child minders has Sir Michael actually visited? From our own experience, EYFS staff are constantly providing opportunities for young children to learn how to hold a pen, how to make marks on papers, how to count, how to recognise colours, how to sit, listen and engage with stories, how to hold a pair of scissors or a knife and fork, how to go to the toilet and wash their hands. The list is endless. The learning is vast.

Furthermore, they observe children as they learn, often much better than their counterparts in other phases of education. They record children’s progress and use their knowledge of that progress to encourage them to the next level of their learning. The extent of personalised learning in good EYFS settings is phenomenal. Children are directed, challenged and encouraged to learn in a way that is meaningful to them and provides them with the skills for the sort of learning they are going to experience as they get older.

Not only that but they also consider the personal and social development of the young children simultaneously to their intellectual development – a practice from which all other phases of education could learn as well. Those children who haven’t proficiently acquired key skills such as listening, sharing, collaborating and talking are helped and enabled to do so.

The irony is that Sir Michael Wilshaw did actually mention Finland in his conversation this morning but totally refused to acknowledge that the success of this country lies in the fact that children don’t start “structured” or “formal” education until they are seven years of age. Neither did he acknowledge that Finnish children have the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge at a pace that is relevant to them – encouraged by highly trained (yes, he acknowledged that), highly skilled experts in Early Years, who have had extensive exposure to theories and practices about child development.

What Sir Michael Wilshaw fails to see is that pushing children into a structured lesson before they’re ready widens the educational gap, not narrows it. This is precisely what has happened to many of our children who have been forced into “structured” learning in Reception and Year One as part of a standardised, imposed curriculum that has to be delivered in accordance with government doctrine. These children are made to feel inadequate. They turn off from learning because they can’t achieve and this is where the “rot sets in early” –because of a lack of focus on the needs of the individual, unique child.

If all children, irrespective of their learning experiences at home, are forced into a standardised system of education simultaneously, the gap between the “haves and the have nots” will be marked. Whilst we appreciate his determination to narrow the gap and that the cycle of disadvantage needs to be halted, this does not mean that children who have been fortunate enough to have key skills nurtured at home should be in any way prevented from continuing that learning at their own pace. This is why the personalisation of learning is so vital and such an integral part of good Early Years practice.

Ofsted and Sir Michael Wilshaw are quite right to draw attention to Early Years and its vital role in determining future learning experiences for our children. They’re right that there needs to be consistency, and are right to say that the disparate nature of the system can cause problems (oh the irony – so the disparate nature of having maintained schools, academies and free schools is perfectly satisfactory then?)

However, we don’t think Ofsted is right about starting “structured” learning for all at the age of two, three and four in school or in early years settings. Of course, much of this debate lies with the interpretation of “structured” or “formal” learning. Overwhelming evidence suggests that children learn best through play. They count through using building blocks or sorting animals in a play farm. They find out about language through interaction with one another and the adults around them. They learn about reading and writing and developing their imagination by looking at books. They develop fine motor skills through practice at making, cutting, sticking. They learn that there’s a time for sitting still and a time for physical activity. And each child learns this at their own pace, guided, encouraged and facilitated by good teachers, nursery nurses and other professionals.

For more on the Ofsted report, click on the links below.

The recommendations are on page 30.
• It should be easier for parents to compare the quality of provision for children before the start of Reception
• There should be clear accountability for outcomes and Ofsted should have the means to hold providers to account for their performance, particularly where they are in receipt of public money
• The contribution of children’s centres to outcomes should be made clearer
• Schools should have greater flexibility to support children and parents in their early years and be incentivised to do so through the inspection and regulation system
• More should be done to stop children from low income families from falling behind

Nobody is going to argue against the need for children from low income families to be supported in narrowing the gap. The means – well that is a different matter altogether.

Just a final aside: One of the first recommendations is that,

“The government should introduce a nationally comparable and standardised baseline assessment at the start of Reception, with external marking for both the baseline and Key Stage 1 assessments.”

So there we have it: back to 1992 – sneakily placed in a report on Early Years, Wilshaw wants a return to externally assessed Key Stage One tests. So please Sir Michael, tell us why you commented on the successful Finnish system – the one that has no Ofsted or equivalent, the one that starts formal education at the age of seven , the one that consistently comes top of the global education league tables and the one that only externally assesses children and young people ONCE in their lives.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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