Core Knowledge for EYFS reception year

This is a sort of antidote to the subject of previous post about how EYFS assessment wrongly labels children according to ability when what is being assessed is mostly the outcome of parental input. The result is that disadvantaged children are at risk of being almost allowed to fall behind under the guise of ‘not ready’, thus setting up every single teacher that follows with a requirement to differentiate massively. Here’s how I think it could all be changed for the better:

  • getting those parents more involved
  • being proactive about giving disadvantaged children the knowledge and skills (and then ensure sufficient practice) that advantaged children bring with them to the EYFS reception year classroom

At the end of the last post, I produced a quick list of some of the home experiences that advantaged children received (that disadvantaged children tend not to):

  1. Hearing and taking part in intellectual conversation which includes subject-specific vocabulary as well as providing general knowledge about our world, culture and history
  2. Hearing interesting music
  3. Singing nursery rhymes
  4. Hearing stories every day
  5. Receiving the undivided attention of an adult who wants them to get ahead in life, who then teaches them their letters and numbers
  6. Being taught that their behaviour affects others and may lead to consequences; learning that it is better to be well-behaved and polite in order to be happy and have good friends
  7. Being taught good manners and social scripts
  8. Being taught the habits of automatic focus and perseverence through daily practice of musical instruments, reading, handwriting, ballet
  9. Being taught work ethic by taking on chores, contributing to the efficient running of a household
  10. Receiving adequate sleep and nutrition

The rhetoric of EYFS is very much about reacting, given that it is child-led. How about a proactive approach that closes gaps in home learning as soon as a child steps foot in that EYFS reception year classroom? Firstly, I would instigate a very specific baseline test that not only gave me an indication of how much vocabulary and general knowledge the child is bringing to the table, but also gives me information about enunciation, hearing, ability to focus and concentrate, even degree of understanding right and wrong; it should be possible to quantify all this by creating a multiple choice questionnaire for the teacher to do with the child as well as an observation checklist. This should also result in a national data set that could be analysed by cohort etc.

The second stage would be to decide on all the knowledge that is needed to be given to children in their first year: anything from nursery rhymes, counting songs and well-known stories (you’d be surprised how much of this has been lost from some communities) to how to hold a knife and fork and conversation scripts for how to interact with strangers (v. important for those children living in single parent households who don’t hear much adult conversation). Although I bang on about not taking on the parents’ role because it leads to more abdication of responsibility, I now think that we have got to the stage where we need to reverse this great towards lost culture, conversation, social niceties and knowledge of the past. You’re probably thinking that many reception classes already do this, but I think it is rather incidental, ‘Oh this would be nice to do for X, Y or Z topic’. I’d also love to see those counting songs help a few more children learn, off-by-heart, their early number facts.

Of course, this would mean more whole class teaching, but this doesn’t mean that everyone needs to sit down and write all day long. There are a variety of high leverage activities that the whole class can do together – the key word is ‘together’. When everyone is doing the same thing, you can see who is trying to opt out. It’s also a very efficient way to impart knowledge and when you think about the sheer numbers of children who have glue ear these days, provides that vital quiet background and a chance for the child to hear a clear adult voice. It always saddens me to hear from early years teachers and professionals ‘Oh it’s so noisy, you just get used to it’ and I wonder how these children are able to take their first steps amidst such a din. How about the Far Eastern approach of having more play breaks interspersed throughout the day and shorter, more frequent lessons that can be really varied: number time (whole class number bonds teaching), slow art, story time which is planned to include stories with good vocabulary and leading to performance off by heart, speaking/enunciation/interesting vocabulary and phrases lessons, handwriting, music appreciation and even ballet to help strengthen children’s bodies so that they can walk tall and sit up straight. How about we go for the Japanese way of teaching humility and kindness through having the children serve each other lunch in class and then clean up afterwards?

Some may argue that actually teaching children all this life knowledge is some kind of indoctrination that must be avoided because it is better for them to discover it for themselves (through carefully planned continuous provision) but what they are really saying is that some children who are taught all of the above at home should be allowed to steam ahead, leaving those disadvantaged children behind, labelled ‘less able’ and ‘not ready’. I think this is unfair and the real reason why certain sections of the young population end up achieving hardly anything at all – think about the habits of not concentrating or not choosing to do the hard challenges (such as writing) that might be inadvertently reinforced in the reception year classroom. Who is more at risk of having these unfortunate habits reinforced?

To get the parents more involved, I would be ready with some cold, hard facts about where their child is in relation to the average. Quantifying vocabulary and general knowledge acquisition and retention, then giving this information to parents would help, as would encouraging reading at home by providing information about how exactly lack of reading practice leads to children falling so far behind.

Core knowledge for EYFS: who’s with me?

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13 thoughts on “Core Knowledge for EYFS reception year

  1. As much as I admire your vision, it’s so far divorced from current realities that it’s hard to know where to start. We now have children coming to school whose grandparents–never mind parents– have been decultured by the EYFS mentality. As you acknowledge, taking yet more responsibility from parents isn’t a solution–when you’re in a hole, the first thing is to stop digging. Alas, this is the last thing ‘the anointed’–our self-proclaimed saviours of mankind–want. And like it or not, these people have an absolute lock on policy. In 2010 I wrote a Centre for Policy Studies report, “Cutting the Children’s Plan”, which advocated the abolition of a range of interventions that grew out of ECM. The Coalition acted on every recommendation–except abolishing the EYFS. That was a red-line issue for the anointed.

    This said, there is little reason why individual schools (or even academy chains) should not be able to buck the trend. The activities you suggest are entirely sensible. But I think your final paragraph about involving parents is too timid–parents should be much more closely involved with the school. When we invited parents to use SRA Spelling programmes with their children at a Norwich comp, we got an excellent response from parents in social housing; they were delighted to find that their own spelling improved at the same time. Pupils were taught in groups, and parents came into the school one period a week while I (or one of our better TAs) taught a lesson; they then took the scripts and workbooks home and used them the other 4 school nights. No one wanted to let the side down, so they all did the lessons.

    As another more global example, Tommy MacKay rejuvenated the 34 primary schools in West Dunbartonshire by working alongside teachers to improve discipline and introduce synthetic phonics, both of which involved parents. Not only did this transform teachers’ lives by putting them in control of their classroom (I’ve never met such a switched-one, confident group of primary teachers), but it transformed parents’ lives when it dawned on them that their children weren’t doomed to lead the shitty lives they endured in their high-rise slums. Another example from Scotland was the Skill Force initiative; former soldiers working with schools were able to get parents involved far more easily than teachers could, simply because they didn’t patronise them.

    I don’t know if you are in a position to move, but I sincerely hope you find a school where you can put all of your ideas into practice. Unfortunately for you, they don’t often get vacancies: once teachers discover how their own lives are transformed by being in control, they generally stay there until they retire! Nearly all the schools where I did training sessions for our Wave 3 synthetic phonics intervention were (almost by definition) on the traditional end of the spectrum, and invariably they had very low staff turnover.

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    • This is the issue – there are literally not enough schools who are openly traditional and then there is the hurdle of getting a job in one. Yet the shift towards progressivism took decades and therefore the shift towards another way of doing things will too.

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      • Too true–the gap from the publication of Emile to the Plowden Report was 205 years. Even then, it took another generation to weed out the remaining traditional teachers.

        Although I’m prepared to make an exception for Nick Gibb–one of the few politicians I’ve met who has been willing to risk his career for what he believes–ministers almost always think in terms of quick fixes. If it won’t show results in the lifetime of one parliament, their eyes mist over.

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  2. I have written three systematic synthetic phonics programmes, now – although you could say the third one is really some core, redeveloped work in hard copy which has been ‘streamlined’ from the first, online one.

    My point, however, is that all these programmes have been totally designed to work in partnership with parents – and of course, this is from Reception age. All the children’s core paper-based work has information on for the supporting adult, and the guidance is that each child’s phonics folder/book should be part and parcel of the book bag routine to inform parents as a minimum, but to enable parents to do a little extra practice with the children as an aspiration, and if the child is falling behind, any supporting adult can readily provide a bit of extra ‘little and often’ practice to avoid the ‘gap’ widening.

    The problem with the notion of ‘pace’ in phonics – pace whereby the teacher introduces around for new letter/s-sound correspondences per week – is that along with superficial learning opportunities and short sessions expecting teachers to pack in a full teaching and learning cycle, the children you describe that you are worried about are more likely to get behind from the get-go because they may have had no home-enriched experiences – and before you know it they have become a ‘special needs’ group needlessly. This then is in danger of becoming ‘inevitable’ – especially if the perception of staff is that they are not capable of more than they do learn and achieve.

    In other words, I am with you – I agree with encouraging parental involvement and that this should be practical and not patronising – and that ‘teaching’ should be very proactive in the early years setting along with children getting the opportunity to do some of their own ‘choosing’ with plenty of that free play that nowadays is a concept that we never hear of – replaced by ‘continuous provision’, ‘free-flow indoors and outdoors’, ‘learning through play’, ‘child-initiated’. Add all that ‘observation and assessment’ and some of the joy is surely sucked out of the early years stage.

    Further, I cannot understand why 100+ 3 to 5 year old children in huge indoor/outdoor settings, milling around choosing freely, is considered to be really age-appropriate. I know that children adjust to this and parents think this is great – but I just don’t get it. In other words, no-one seems to have allowed for different models of early years provision for very large settings and the children often seem to be pushed together as one huge group of children with a number of adults watching over the children. Such a far cry from being at ‘mother’s knee’.

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  3. I am a huge fan of your blog but I’m not convinced parents lack information. I think most parents know that hearing children read is a good idea. I think you can know something is a good idea but if you’ve got other children, you work shifts, your own reading’s not that great, you’re exhausted etc then it’s not impossible but certainly much harder. I like a lot of your solutions but I think schools should assume no prior knowledge at EYFS stage and aim to have everyone reaching a certain standard by the end of the year through teacher input.

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  4. You make massive assumptions here about disadvantage. It’s really innapropriate to suggest that children need such massive levels of intervention to somehow improve their dim chances of success. With educators who perceive children with such a deficit approach, it’s really no wonder that so many children are failed by the system.

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  5. It’s obviously clear through your transparent and complete lack of understanding about child development that you have never set foot for more than 1 minute into an early years classroom. I challenge you to make the switch for a year and then make your suggestions. It is this kind of top down approach that is causing so many of our children in schools to suffer anxiety and mental health difficulties because so many teachers are expected to prepare 5 year olds for year 6 SATS now. They are five years of age- five!

    All of the things you “suggest” to be done in the Early Years already happen through planned purposeful play and interaction with the skilled practitioners we employ within the early years workforce. This whole class approach yo house describe is not beneficial to good quality interactions and personalised learning. It saddens me that the reality is that’s so many KS2 staff share your “vision”.

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  6. You are gravely, if dangerously, mistaken. The whole point of the EYFS is to teach children the individual skills that they personally need to succeed in life. I suggest you read some of the excellent research available on how young children learn.

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    • This is a very, very old conversation. In 1990, when I discovered that my son couldn’t read a word after a year and a half of full-time attendance at a highly-regarded suburban RC primary school, I discovered that the only letters he knew were the ones in his name–we taught him those before he started reception. I wrote the head and asked if they expected children to read before they learned the alphabet. She replied that I would have to come in and see how they did things now.

      The long and short of it was that I was told that “we know so much more about how children learn these days”. My son was ‘developmentally slow’, and it would cause untold harm if we tried to force the pace. When I replied that my son’s oral language skills were far advanced for his age, they couldn’t deny this–but reading was different.

      Shortly after this we found a retired teacher who showed us how to teach him ourselves, and inside of six months he was reading way ahead of his age. The head graciously conceded that he was one of these rare children who needed a bit more phonics, but we were so disgusted we found another school. In all honesty, it wasn’t worth the bother: despite claiming to be more ‘traditional’, it was just as bad.

      Of course, the EYFS now concedes that children need to learn phonics skills. But the old mantra, “we know so much more about how children learn these days”, hasn’t changed a bit.

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  7. Genuine question: have you ever taught early years? Because I understand you not understanding it. I didn’t, until I moved down. I didn’t get it at all. But reading this, it’s very clear that you don’t understand how young children learn. It’s sad that you feel entitled to make these suggestions without the understanding to underpin it.

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