Head teacher gives shocking view of play-based learning in EYFS: check this video out.

I recommend this for all KS3 and KS2 teachers who wonder why so many children haven’t secured the basics in reading and writing, or who wonder why the proportion of SEN pupils seems to be so high. For the first time, a head teacher of a primary school talks some sense about getting the youngest children off to the best start. I was hooked when, a few minutes in, this amazing woman shared her thoughts on children playing all day long.

Video link of interview with Janet Hilary here

For those who don’t have the time to view the video, here is a brief summary in handy bullet point form:

  • School is one-form entry and based in one of the most deprived areas of Britain.
  • Originally 76% of pupils designated SEN, but HT has reduced this down to just 2 children in the whole school. The SENCO is now able to devote time to helping children by teaching them what they need, rather than spending time drowning in paperwork.
  • All school leaders are classroom based, rather than in ‘ivory towers’.
  • All teachers, including nursery teachers, are held to account in the same way that the year 6 teacher is usually held to account during pupil progress meetings.
  • Rather than playing all day long, a good portion of the day is dedicated to formal, direct instruction…..even for nursery children. This strategy has produced excellent results, with pretty much all exceeding ELG at end of reception year (and the children still get plenty of time to play and be social).
  • This structured learning consists of teachers explicitly, directly teaching children the basics right from the start. This includes the correct pencil hold (hallelujah!), correct systematic synthetic phonics teaching, correct letter formation and even elocution lessons. As a consequence, the triangulation of direct instruction of reading, writing and speaking, combined with their high expectations that all children speak in full sentences, has resulted in all children being able to read, write and speak English in excess of the government’s floor standards.
  • One of the reasons for their success is that there is no expectation that children should discover the basics. The direct, formal instruction ensures that no child is left behind.
  • All the children love the structured learning.
  • Boys have flourished under this system and can write just as well as the girls.
  • There is a calm, focused atmosphere of learning in the school.

It has given me immense joy to watch this video because pretty much everything I have thought about how EYFS education should be has actually been done in a primary school….and resulted in great success for all children, regardless of their background. Also, it is good to know that a HT is willing to go against the grain and use common sense. I have always thought that elocution lessons should be on the EYFS curriculum. So many children rock up to school unable to speak properly, partly because repeat ear infections (that antibiotics are now possibly ineffective against) can affect hearing and partly because of lack of conversation at home; it makes sense for them to be taught how to speak properly and to build up vocabulary from an early age.

It is also worth noting that at no point in the interview (or by writing a blog or a really bad poem) did the HT say that her staff were ‘natural teachers’ with children magically flocking around them. She had invested in good training to ensure that teachers were teaching the basics very well. Additionally, at no point during the interview did the HT say that all the children achieve well because the teachers make all lessons ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’.

Bring on the EYFS revolution!

Who’s with me?

Update December 2016: I’m now starting to think that an EYFS revolution should include some direct instruction of number bonds and other basic elements of mathematics knowledge that perhaps could be tested in the same way as is proposed for future times tables tests for older children (online/computer).


19 thoughts on “Head teacher gives shocking view of play-based learning in EYFS: check this video out.

  1. A few comments.

    I find it difficult to believe that this is really ‘the first time a head teacher of a primary school talks some sense about getting the youngest children off to the best start.’

    School might be in one of the most deprived areas but have you seen their admissions policy?

    It wasn’t clear what Janet Hilary meant by ‘SEN’. SEN is a relative term defined with reference to the majority of other children and the facilities generally provided in schools. If a school provides good, appropriate support a child with special educational needs should make progress, but that doesn’t stop them having special educational needs.

    In a one form entry school it would be difficult for school leaders not to be in a classroom.

    “If we can do it, anyone can” betrays a misunderstanding of how random distribution works. The proportion of children with SEN varies across schools, localities and time. Teachers and governors, resources, understanding and events also vary, so the success of one school doesn’t mean that any school that mimics it will achieve the same outcomes.

    Are there any schools where children ‘play all day long’? Or any that use unstructured play only? I’ve never even come across any playgroups, nurseries or even parent-run baby and toddler groups that do that.

    Ear infections are common in young children because they have immature immune systems. On what evidence are you basing your claim about antibiotics?

    Also, what do you mean by an ‘erroneous’ pencil grip being practically ‘hard coded’?


    • 1. I chose to mimic certain phrases that are common in the media in order to garner interest. As you would’ve gathered from the title, the ‘clickbait’ strategy was a bit tongue-in-cheek.

      2. I’m not really able to go into masses of detail over what constitutes ‘SEN’, but I think Janet was referring to children being labelled as ‘SEN’ when what they needed was structured, focused learning opportunities that avoided their falling behind. Regardless of the arguments on twitter over the true proportion of SEN children in the school, there is no doubt that their teaching and learning ethos/strategy has had incredible outcomes and has reduced the number of children on the SEN register. Janet was right about the numbers of SEN children increasing over time…..you can end up with a third of your class labelled ‘SEN’ by the time they get to year 6. Whichever way you look at it, 76% of children labelled ‘SEN’ is just too much.

      3. Their admissions policy seems pretty standard; I don’t understand why people seem to think it is somehow evidence that they select by academic criteria?

      4. “If we can do it, anyone can!” I read as a way of encouraging those school leaders who are tasked with changing the lives of children who come from deprived backgrounds. Janet was being very positive about the life chances of all children; why have you turned this into something to be negative about?

      5. As for ‘playing all day long’, I suggest you read the EYFS curriculum yourself and understand the ideology behind children being expected to acquire the basics in English and maths by play-based learning (discovery). Nobody said that schools were using unstructured play only.

      6. I thought that the reduced effectiveness of antibiotics was pretty much known by all parents these days! Anyway, here are a few links for your perusal:





      7. Poor pencil grip technique that I have observed in older children is so utterly difficult to change because, after a few years, it seems their body position, muscle memory and writing technique has sort of co-evolved over time and become an entrenched habit. I have tried to help older children to hold a pencil properly and everybody just ends up despairing of the futility of the situation. Have you not experienced this as a teacher yourself? Do you not agree that it is more difficult to change the habit of a lifetime than to make sure that the habit is not formed in the first place?

      Hope this helps


      Liked by 1 person

    • “Are there any schools where children ‘play all day long’? Or any that use unstructured play only? I’ve never even come across any playgroups, nurseries or even parent-run baby and toddler groups that do that.”

      Oh yes there are! There really are. There is no structured learning in my private school in either the nursery years or Reception. And teachers get told told off by the leadership if they suggest this is ludicrous.


      • Glad it’s not just me then!

        Where children do seem to quickly ‘learn’ to read, write, speak and add up, it turns out their parents are teaching them at home. I taught my own children before they started school.

        I see it like this: how would you prefer to learn Russian? Just go to the country and hope for the best? Stumble and fumble around in a busy, noisy bus station trying to work everything out? I would far prefer to learn the sounds that were represented by the letters, so that I could sound out the Russian. I’d like to learn what the words mean and how to order the words in a sentence. I’d need to practise reading, writing and speaking Russian A LOT in order to become proficient at it.

        Another good analogy is that of cake-baking (oh much loved EYFS activity). Do we ‘discover’ which ingredients go together to make a cake, and perhaps ‘trial and error’ our way to using an oven? No. Somebody shows us exactly what to do and use, and then we copy it. Bingo.

        And still there are many influential educationalists mandating that children learn those essential basics through the medium of discovery, play-based learning.


  2. 2. It’s not OK for teachers or Ofsted or the government to go round making up their own definitions of SEN when there’s one set out in the Code of Practice for legal purposes. If the school isn’t clear about the CoP definition of SEN, then it’s not safe to trust their judgement about the proportion of children with SEN. Whether that proportion is 75% or 0.75% will depend on the children and the level of support they need. It’s possible that good early support might reduce the proportion, but since Ms Hilary seemed a bit hazy about her definition, it’s unclear what the situation actually is.

    3. They don’t select by academic criteria. But half the places are allocated to regular worshippers in Christian Churches and there are only 30 places so it’s not exactly first come first served.

    4. ‘If we can do it anyone can’ is simply misleading.

    5. I’m familiar with play-based education. Why refer to it as ‘playing all day long’?

    6. I’m also aware of the reduced effectiveness of antibiotics. The medical guidelines you cite do not support your suggestion that antibiotics are now possibly ineffective against ear infections.

    7. Poor pencil grip in older children might indeed be difficult to change. I wasn’t clear what you meant by ‘hard coded’. However, the grip is only ‘erroneous’ if it disadvantages the child in some way. Just because there’s an optimum way to hold a pencil doesn’t mean everyone will be able to hold the pencil in that way, nor that their writing will suffer if they don’t.


    • 2. I think you might have confused IEPs with EHCs/Statemented children. One of the functions of an IEP is to put in place extra strategies (tbh, all teachers do this for all children, all the time, regardless of who says what about whether said children are SEN) so that gaps are closed. Once any particular problem is overcome (say, issues with reading due to gaps in phonics knowledge), then the child can be taken off the IEP register. No one said anything about making definitions up or of flouting established code of practice. The head teacher clearly cares about each and every one of the children in her school and will, by virtue of having many years of experience, be aware of the correct procedures and legalities with regards to the treatment of SEN children. I find your insinuation that the HT is not following correct procedure tantamount to slander.

      3. I don’t see the problem with a CofE school wishing to cater for the CofE children in its local area, and it’s great that they have a huge 50% of places available to non-church goers.

      4. It’s not misleading; your inference was wrong because you jumped to the wrong conclusion.

      5. You are confusing play-based learning with free-play.

      6. They do. Read them again.

      7. Are you seriously saying that we should just not bother with directly teaching good pencil grip and risk some children not being able to write properly or get an RSI down the line? I am quite amazed you are choosing this line of enquiry.


      • On point 2, QT, you seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding. Given that 50% of students are from a ‘must be church goers’ subset you immediately remove any people that don’t care enough about their children’s education to put in hours of pretending to be Christian (I worked in a church school, we all know how it goes). So 50% of the cohort each year is a highly selective subgroup. An excellent mathematician such as yourself would understand the implications of that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, you know, I am sort of sticking my fingers and my ears and going ‘La la la’ over this. You are right that there will be some pushy parents who work the church system in a white, middle class areas, but I also find that most church goers in London are in fact just regular, genuine church goers. The school is based in Battersea and has a high ethnic mix who come from countries where church going is the norm. So, I’m afraid your assumption here about the ‘highly selective subgroup’ is probably wrong.

        Thanks for saying I’m an excellent mathematician; I certainly don’t feel like an excellent mathematician right now because my knowledge of calculus is so rusty these days!


  3. 2. I am familiar with how IEPs, Statements and ECHPs work. If a child is deemed to fit the definition of SEN according to the Code of Practice, they are registered as having special educational needs. This isn’t just a matter of say-so.

    I said the HT was hazy about her definition of SEN. Which she was. I didn’t comment on her procedures – that’s not mentioned in the interview. All you need is for her predecessor to have used a different criterion for SEN and that could account for some of the discrepancy.

    3. I don’t see a problem with church schools either, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a small, demographically skewed intake.

    4. It’s misleading if not anyone can do it.

    5. So by ‘playing all day long’ you meant play-based learning?

    6. They don’t.

    7. I’m suggesting there isn’t a one-size-fits-all pencil grip. What proportion of pupils get RSI from a non-standard pencil grip? People with RSI sometimes need specially designed writing instruments, but that’s different.


  4. Janet does make some interesting points. She did seem to take great delight in appearing to be super fierce with her staff though.

    Scanning blogs, twitter etc it seems that the debate on how children learn best and how to teach is becoming more polarised. In the ‘outstanding’ mainstream primary school I work in, with 14 teachers and 9 support staff, I am the only person who is trying to keep up with research, opinion and best practice. I have had the luxury though of demoting myself from a class teacher to a special needs assistant because i felt the hours needed in term time just weren’t compatible with teaching full time and raising a family. Keeping up to date with professional knowledge and sharing experiences seems to be incompatible for many others too.

    I wonder what Janet thinks about some statistics which show that the poorest white British children are now the most struggling children, rather than those of other backgrounds. With 34 languages being spoken at St George’s it might be that the most struggling aren’t their intake.

    These 2 links give some balance to the Reading Reform synthetic phonics mantra that Janet seems to be endorsing wholesale.

    Anne Glennie’s analysis of why reading is such a struggle for some children is on a tab alongside Janet’s interview- well worth a watch.


    • I didn’t get a sense of that ‘great delight’ you describe, more a sense of personal relief that, as an UKS2 teacher, if I worked at her school I wouldn’t be having to face, “Right, they need to be at this level, and you need to close ALL those years of gaps before May.”

      Thank you for the links. I do support the RRF standpoint though, particularly from personal experience of having seen older children (c. 10 yo) flourish when they have had phonics interventions in my class, their reading suddenly takes off and their confidence in writing and speaking seems to take off too. This is particularly so for boys.


  5. Quirky Teacher, refreshing thoughts.
    Janet Hilary is rather stern but I fully endorse what she’s doing . It’s about time we stopped trying to emulate our early years education on a particular Scandinavian country. We can’t just cherry pick parts of their educational system out without looking at the whole . Has anyone researched attachment in the under twos in the country I’m indirectly referring to? Has anyone looked at why their social model does not fit into the English social model? Has anyone looked at the impact on behaviour and high suicide rates in teens in that country? This particular country has a culture of corporate and organisational cooperation which our country does not. Rather than creating more forest schools we need to be looking at our own culture and our lack of resilience and parental accountability. I don’t believe it’s healthy in our culture to follow the child’s lead and tell them that they can do or be anything when they grow up. We are producing children who can’t accept constructive criticism who have been weaned on a diet of continuous specific praise. Research Carol Dweck regarding motivation and resilience. Bring back direct teaching and teach the parents about the power of resilience. The problem with many Early Years specialists is that they don’t understand the wider social and cultural context of different countries and how this impacts on that particular educational system. Rant over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the problem with many Early Years specialists is that they seem to live in a fantasy world and absolutely refuse to see their integral part in the process of primary and secondary education. Instead, we get continuous spiel about how wonderful childhood is, and how children should be free to play without any worries or expectations. Every single teacher in the ensuing years then has to pay the price.

      If we all just had a happy time, then children would leave education completely selfish and without knowing anything of any importance.


  6. I agree. Early years ‘specialists’ seem to operate in a silo that does not flow seamlessly into Ks1 and ks2. I also know that many early years researchers often use relatives or friend’s children as research material. The research is thus invariably flawed because their subjects are nearly always White middle class children, which is not a true representation of a class of children from different socio economic groups. There are some consultants out there that deliver training on early years environments ………you could easily be mistaken that the photos on their websites are for interior design promotions or some TV show. Are these environments really going to turn on parents from the lower income brackets that can’t afford to buy matching bed linen for their kids let alone a nice piece of muslin to hang from some ‘deconstructed’ object. Lots of these children come from chaotic families that need direction, routine, consistency, boundaries and clear expectations from school. Advising some parents to follow a child’s lead is asking for trouble. This is why we have so many dissolusioned teenagers that are amazed that the big wide world wont follow their lead when they say that they want to be a famous footballer or a celebrity. We have created a generation of cosseted children some of whom are unemployable.


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