Over the past few years there have been several reports focussed on the Reception year. They can be classified quite simply as the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good came from Early Excellence and was entitled the Hundred review- well worth a read! As for the bad and the ugly- I do not wish to give either any more airtime or risk the chance of them being handed to any Reception teacher as any sort of guidance or approach to be followed!
But what about today? In 2021- during a global pandemic, with a new framework, new guidance and an update inspection handbook. What is it like teaching Reception right now?
Well- its tough. We all know that. The KEYU admin team received regular emails and DMs from people who have quite frankly had enough. Their mental health is suffering, they know what they are being asked to do in their classrooms is wrong- and whilst many simply say- “Don’t do it then”, those of us on the ground, with bills to pay and families to feed- know it isn’t quite so simple.
Many do what they can- nod, agree politely, pick their battles, and get their heads down, close the classroom door and do what is right as much as possible. A new feature from Facebook of being able to post anonymously is seeing an increase in the numbers of members crying out for help in a public forum knowing their identity is safe from repercussions.
This is not just happening on the Keeping Early Years Unique page though. Social media is full of people are speaking up and often just asking for help. Help with making sense of what exactly it is they are meant to be doing- as they face an onslaught of poor, mixed, ill-informed messaging about what learning looks like (spoiler alert: it is much more than remembering more) and how Reception fits into the whole school picture.
So, with all of this in mind, the KEYU team decided to launch a very simple survey for reception teachers. We wanted to find out- what is the reality? Is it all as bad as it seems? What can we do to make a change? What are the common issues teachers are facing?
Well, one thousand teachers later and the results are in.
To quote a rather well-known quiz show: “We asked 1000 reception teachers” these questions....
This showed the wide range of experience within our Reception classes- and a very experienced 35% who have been working in Early Years for over 11 years. Unfortunately, 2% of those surveyed had been put into Reception without requesting a move to EYFS. These are the teachers who often reach out- moved to Reception from other year groups with little understanding of child development. As our workforces ages and moves closer to retirement- it is absolutely essential that the baton is passed onto those coming behind us- those who sometimes have had very little. if any, EYFS input as part of their training. Those who may only ever know the way of working with young children currently being advocated by policy makers.
Most reception classes within our survey reported having two adults- typically the class teacher and an assistant. As the survey progresses, we see mentions of children starting school with increased levels of need- sometimes due to lockdown and the lack of access to services. This impacts hugely on staffing. For those trying to run successful free flow environments which offer high quality inside and outside activities- this is extremely challenging- if not nearly impossible with only 2 staff.
It only takes a bumped head or a toileting issue to throw a spanner in the works. More concerningly was the fact that 2.5% of those surveyed were alone in their classroom with no adult support. Questions need to be asked in these settings about not only the quality of teaching and learning that can take place and the impact on the style of delivery- but the safety aspect of keeping thirty children safe with only 1 adult in the room.
The staffing available to us impacts on how we work and what we can offer for our children. If as the EYFS reforms states- the changes are about putting us back with children (although many of us never really left them)- then can how any teacher focus on those high quality back and forth interactions when a) they are alone or b) have only one other member of staff to support them?
This was a divided picture and really illustrated the inequity of the Reception year experience. Whilst almost 45% of reception classes did not break up children’s days with assemblies, playtimes and other whole school activities over 40% of classes did attend assemblies, and of these 30% went for “playtime” on the playground. For those attending assemblies- sometimes it was due to being in a faith school, so attendance at other religious gatherings was also expected. Where children were on the main playground with older children at lunch and break times this was often due to staffing- again reinforcing the needs for investing in increased staffing levels in Year R so that children’s daily experiences are based on their needs and not a lack of staff.
Remembering this survey was completed in the first term of children joining school it was interesting to see just how many whole class sessions children were expected to participate in during these very early days of schooling. As expected, phonics and maths sessions were in place in the vast majority of schools. Overwhelmingly reception children are engaging in singing, rhymes and stories on a daily basis- highlighting the value the sector place on these core early experiences. Other whole class sessions included circle times, topic times, and interestingly PE (which is not a requirement of the statutory EYFS and is in fact a National curriculum subject). Literacy sessions are also in place for many children- although in a positive piece of news so are Helicopter stories!
Teachers reported that their classes are expected to take part in a whole range of other whole class sessions from fine motor focussed activities such as handwriting, dough gym or dough disco to foreign languages, mindfulness and yoga and outdoor activities such as forest school.
It is absolutely essential that we reflect on the whole class sessions we are expecting our children to participate in. We need to look at their levels of wellbeing and involvement using the Leuven Scales during sessions (read this fantastic blog from KEYU's very own Dr Sue to learn more) and consider the impact of the sessions on the children. How long are the sessions? What are the children gaining from them? How do they cut into the time where we know the magic happens- that child-initiated time?
This was another interesting picture! Whilst almost 30% of those asked did not complete any focussed group activities- suggesting they work with children in a responsive way perhaps in line with the “planning in the moment” approach- just over almost 30% of teachers were expected to carry out 4 or more focussed group activities with each child, each week. Putting this into context- if teachers have a class of thirty children and are expected to work with them in a small group on a focus activity 5 times a week- that means surely these teachers spend their weeks delivering adult led activity along with their whole class sessions.
The responses to this question again flag up the inequality of experience for children in our nations Reception classrooms- and the intense pressure teachers are under.
Again this was a really mixed picture- and heavily linked to the amount of whole class sessions children are expected to sit through and the focussed activity expectations.
If we remember that most children are in class everyday for around 6 hours. If we take an hour out for lunch and perhaps an hour and a half maximum for things like register, phonics, maths and story which most classes seem to follow- this could still leave possibly around 3.5hrs for child-initiated time- something which only 25% of those responding seem to have.
Concerningly around 17% of children are accessing less than 90 minutes per day of child-initiated activity- begging the question what is happening for them for the remaining 4.5hrs of their day.
The results clearly demonstrate the pull of teachers with the overwhelming majority trying to give children at least some time to learn in the ways that make sense to them.
On reflection- it would have been good to follow this up with asking teachers how much time they get to wallow in this child-initiated play time with their children.
Giving children child-initiated time and being available to them within it to make the difference when needed- are two very different things.
This was generally a positive response but illustrates the need for high quality EYFS cpd for ALL senior leaders. Almost 60% of respondents feel supported and trusted by leaders who do not have EYs understanding. Only 26% do have the understanding. Whilst the picture here is overwhelmingly positive- our leaders are supporting teachers whether or not they have the EYs understanding- it does make us wonder if the answer would be the same if we were discussing KS2 practice in a primary school. Would results look very different? Unfortunately, around 15% of teachers reported they are working under leadership who do not understand EYFS but also do not support their staff who do.
Just under 40% of the teachers we surveyed were happy with the experience being offered to their children. Almost 15% were not. Interestingly the largest response was “somewhat”. This reflects the torn feeling of reception teachers in our schools. This group know there are some good things (often behind closed doors) they are doing- but ultimately there are things they know are wrong but often feel powerless to challenge or change. For those who said “no” or somewhat” we asked why they felt this way. You have been reading these comments throughout this blog.
So what did the KEYU review tell us? Well nothing unexpected really- it just clarified all of the challenges experienced across the sector and proved that this is not just about a few teachers in a few schools. It also illustrated how the EYFS reforms promises to put us back with children, to reduce our workload and to improve language outcomes- are empty promises made by a government also requiring children to read, write and work in increasingly formal ways from the beginning of YrR inline with their own reading guidance. Unsuprisingly OFSTED was also mentioned and the direction their current agenda is moving schools towards- a move away from one statutory phase and towards another- a move towards Year R being something different from the EYFS. It. Is. Not.
Despite the struggles and battles illustrated through this review, the resounding answer to “Would you want to stay in Reception next year?” was an overwhelming yes. Over 80% of Reception teachers wanted to continue with their work. With around 15% undecided and the remaining 5% looking to move out of the EYFS. What does this tell us about the sector? Well put simply- we want to keep fighting on, because we know our children deserve better and we are committed to finding ways to give it to them
But does this commitment come at a price? Ultimately this survey reflected a workforce on their knees, frustrated and in some cases suffering from mental health issues as they try to support a unique cohort of children joining school with increasing language, SEND,social and self care needs whilst implementing approaches which take us away from supporting children in these fundamental areas and endless interventions that are not having a positive impact.
As we move forward- what can we do?
Thank you to each and every one of the one thousand teachers who shared their stories. We thank you for all you do for our children- and even on those days when you feel you are failing them- remember you are not. You are there for them and you are doing your best. We will not stop pushing back until there is change. And it will come.
If there is one outcome from you reading this today- we hope it is that you realise that you are not alone.
You are not alone in the struggles you face.
You are not alone in knowing what is happening right now is wrong.
You are not alone in wanting something different- even if at times you doubt yourself.
Please get involved and share you comments below. If you have an story to tell- anonymous or not- please get in touch and we will share it here.
Let's find a way to be the change our sector needs.
Together we can do this.