Early years report 2015

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw's speech at the launch of Ofsted's early years report 2015.

Sir Michael Wilshaw


Good morning everyone and welcome to the launch of our second annual report dedicated to early years. As Chief Inspector, I am committed to using the power and influence of inspection to improve the lives of children and young people.

That is why I consider children’s early years to be so crucial. If we get the early years right, we pave the way for a lifetime of achievement. If we get them wrong, we miss a unique opportunity to shape a child’s future.

What is the quality of early years provision?

I want to start by looking at the quality of early years provision. I am pleased to be reporting some good news. There can be no doubt that the overall quality of the early years sector is better now than at any point in Ofsted’s history.

Across the country, 85% of early years registered providers (that is, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders) are good or outstanding. That is a dramatic 18 percentage point increase in five years. As a result, many more parents have a much better chance of finding a high quality provider in their area.

The quality of early years provision is also rising in schools. At the start of the current academic year, Ofsted re-introduced a discrete judgement on the quality of early years in schools. In the last two terms, we found good or outstanding early years provision in 86% of the schools inspected. That is 13 percentage points higher than five years ago.

These rising standards are now more evenly spread across different types of providers than in the past. Schools, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders now all have high levels of good or outstanding provision. I am particularly pleased to see the progress that childminders have made. Ofsted has played a key part in raising the bar by not registering childminders unless they have been trained on the Early Years Foundation Stage.

This raising of standards has resulted in more children meeting the government’s standard of a ‘good level of development’ at the end of Reception. In 2013, 52% of children met the standard. Last year, that figure had risen to 60% - though clearly we would like to see this figure rise still further.

Outcomes in primary schools at Key Stages 1 and 2 have risen - and risen quite markedly in recent years. It is very likely that the improvements in the quality of early years provision have contributed to this rising attainment.

What has changed?

So what is making this difference?

Put simply, more and more early years professionals see teaching as a fundamental part of their role.

While this may be simple, it is not uncontentious. I know that because last year I wrote to all early years inspectors about how they should approach inspection work. I used the word ‘teach’ to describe the practice we wanted to see. This provoked a very strong reaction from the sector. Indeed, I could show you a pile of irate letters that landed on my desk after that letter.

However, things are changing. A year later, we have used the word ‘teach’ frequently for early years education as part of the new common inspection framework. And this has been received without any hue and cry. A far distant response from the one I saw last year.

However, there are still some people who suggest that if children are taught they have fewer opportunities to play. That is a false distinction. As you know, children learn while they play.

Our inspectors have gone to good and outstanding nurseries, childminders and schools and have seen adults using every opportunity, every interaction, to encourage children to learn. They were so subtle that the children remained completely absorbed in the moment. Every activity brought new opportunities to encourage children to reflect, to practise new words, to pay attention.

Young children can learn without any loss of freedom, imagination or excitement. They can learn without sitting down, they can learn at their own pace and they can learn while doing the things they are most interested in. We know that this is happening because our inspectors have observed it.

What about the disadvantaged?

So the quality overall of early years education is better than it has ever been. But is it – and this is the key question - benefiting our poorest children as much as their peers? After all, it is the poorest children who have the most to gain if they are being well taught before they reach statutory school age – and the most to lose if they aren’t.

Remember, all the research shows that the experiences in early life matter more than at any other stage in a child’s development.

In my view, the most important measure of success for the early years sector is whether the poorest children are doing as well as their better-off peers by the time they start school.

I am sure those of you in the room are now very familiar with the statistics but I will keep returning to them until they change.

At the age of five, there is already a yawning gap in school readiness between the most advantaged and the poorest children. That is completely unacceptable.

Last year when I spoke about this, I said that, in 2007, the gap between the poorest children and those from more advantaged backgrounds was around 20 percentage points. Six years later in 2013, the gap had not closed: it was still around 20 percentage points.

Well, that was last year. And this year? I am sorry to say that the gap is still around 20 percentage points.

What this means in practice is that the poorest children are less likely to be able to follow instructions, make themselves understood, manage their own basic hygiene or play well together.

By age five, many children have started reading simple words, talking in sentences and adding single numbers. Far fewer of the poorest children can do these things.

And as we know, a child’s attainment in the early years is a good predictor of how well they will do later in life. We have one chance to get this right.

So what can be done?

Let me be clear: what the poorest children need is to be taught, and well taught, from the age two.

Last year I was very clear that schools have a fundamental role to play if we are to do better for our poorest children. I say it again, and I stand by it – schools are best placed to tackle disadvantage.

Does this mean that early education elsewhere is substandard? Absolutely not. Does this mean that no one else can do well for the poorest children? Absolutely not – and there are those in this room today who are demonstrating the difference that the private, voluntary and independent sector can make when they focus on the poorest children. Children who are at risk of falling behind need particular help though, and it remains my view that schools are often best placed to deliver this. And let me tell you why.

First and foremost, a growing proportion of primary schools have now succeeded in reducing the disparity between poorer children and their peers in reading and other core skills.

Between the age of five at the end of Reception and the age of seven, there has been a narrowing of the gap. Even in the space of two years, a lot of primary schools have made a difference.

If primary schools have demonstrated they can do this, then how much greater would be the impact if children joined the school not at aged four, but aged two?

No, it is not proven. But it is obvious what has been done to date has not worked. It’s time to try something different.

Why primary schools?

Why might primary schools do better for the poorest?

Moving to a new place of learning can be a point where children lose their way at any stage in their education. A smooth transition into Reception from nursery is particularly essential.

We know that moving from a nursery or childminder, or indeed the home, into school can cause problems for poorer children. A child has to adjust to new children, new routines and a new environment. If the child is mature and resilient and the parents have used all their knowledge and resourcefulness to prepare them for this step, they will usually cruise into school. But a child who is already struggling, whose parents may have their own negative perceptions of school, may find it much more of a struggle to adjust.

Schools that offer nursery class provision have an in-built advantage for such children – there is no transition. Once the child has settled, they can stay where they are when they reach statutory school age.

Schools have another in-built advantage – they have more access to specialists. Of course, disadvantage is not the same as special educational needs. Too many schools make that mistake. But if a child does need specialist help at age two, three or four, a school should have the specialists on call who can step in. Speech and language therapy, behaviour management, parenting support: schools are more likely to have the right phone numbers pinned to the wall.

Another advantage is that schools are familiar with tracking children’s development and have the systems to do this easily. Of course, other types of provider can track development. But we know this doesn’t always happen, and it is far easier to track from age two to 11 within one institution.

I have said it before, but it is worth repeating. Well-qualified graduate teachers make a difference too. It makes a difference across all ages but particularly in the early years. Recent evidence from researchers at Oxford University for the Nuffield Foundation makes this clear.

Does every two-year-old need a qualified teacher? No, some children do very well without. But a child whose development is not where it should be will need more adult intervention. They will need help to master new skills. They will need more gentle coaching with their speech. They will need frequent encouragement to maintain their focus and not lose concentration. Some children will need an adult alongside them almost all of the time if they are going to catch up. And it’s because adults are more important for the poorest children that higher qualifications make all the difference.

Finally, as we set out in the thematic inspection report we are publishing today, the schools we visited had their very youngest children playing alongside slightly older children. Of course, two- and three-year-olds encounter older children in other kinds of early education settings. But the schools we saw had younger children and slightly older children together for longer during the day – and this helps children to develop. They mimic what they see: more mature behaviour and more sophisticated language in those groups.

So put simply, we need to get more of the poorest children into primary schools earlier.

The government is acting to address this. It has, for example, made it easier for schools to take two-year-olds. However, in the last year, that has only resulted in 1,000 – just 1,000 – additional two-year-olds in schools. This represents fewer than seven additional children in each local authority area and that is nowhere near enough.

Even more importantly, where schools are taking two-year-olds, they are not the most disadvantaged. Forty per cent of two-year-olds in England are eligible for a funded place based mainly on family income. And yet only 9% of two-year-olds in schools are on a funded place. There are 40 local authorities where there are no eligible two-year-olds in any school.

It seems that school nurseries have been colonised by the middle classes. And who can blame these parents? I’m sure they see the well qualified staff and the appeal of an easy transition to Reception and conclude that it’s a good option for their children. But the reality is that these better-off children don’t get any particular advantage from being in a school from the age of two – they would be just as well catered for from an educational perspective in a private nursery, a childminder or indeed at home. It’s the poorer children who stand to benefit the most from this type of environment at the earliest age. But this quite clearly is not happening.

So we need more schools to take two-year-olds. And we need more two-year-olds in schools to be from the poorest families.

What needs to change?

What needs to change to make this happen?

First, we need to incentivise schools to take more disadvantaged two-year-olds and work with early years providers in their local area.

I am pleased that two of my recommendations from last year have been acted upon.

Last year, I called on the government to give the poorest children an advantage in the admissions criteria for primary schools. The latest admissions code does exactly this. Schools can now prioritise the poorest children.

I also called on the government to work with Ofsted to streamline inspection and regulation of schools that provide for this age range. The regulations have now been changed and, since May, schools are no longer required to register separately to take two-year-olds.

It is early days so I will watch with interest to see if these changes make a difference. However, obstacles still remain. It will simply not be feasible or even desirable for some schools to take two-year-olds – they may not have the space or capacity to expand. For these schools, there is still a crucial role in improving readiness for school. They should be reaching out and working closely with feeder nurseries, pre-schools and childminders to make sure more children are ready for school.

I have recently set out my plans for how Ofsted will recognise exceptional system leaders who are transforming the life chances of children beyond their own institutions. In the primary sector, we will be identifying those people - those leaders - who are demonstrating real leadership working ‘down’ with early years providers as well as ‘across’ with other schools. And of course there will be exceptional leaders in other parts of the early years sector. We will be thinking carefully about what that looks like and we will be interested to hear your views on this ‘exceptional leader’ status.

If schools and feeder nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are collaborating to get better outcomes for the poorest children, they need to be able to share information about which children are not doing well enough. The new baseline, which is being phased in from September, would be a valuable tool for tracking this if it could disaggregate individual children. Unfortunately, as things stand, it won’t. A check that only considers the school, not the child, is in my view not enough. I hope the government will look again at this as these proposals are further developed.

Now I want to come back to my starting point, which is this: what the poorest children need is to be taught, from the age of two. Funded places for two-year-olds are intended to address this. The scheme is currently not reaching anywhere near enough children. In 2014, there were 113,000 children – that’s 42% of those eligible – who could have had a funded place. But their parents did not take this up. This is over 300 million pounds worth of potential investment that is not reaching the children it was intended for.

So l me be straight about this: of course it is the parents’ prerogative to keep their young child at home. But all the evidence is clear that, for poorer children, being in high quality education at a younger age may make all the difference to lifelong attainment. How do we do get that message across? It isn’t easy, but here are a couple of suggestions.

We know there are a number of children centres that are successfully reaching these parents. Like Balmoral Children’s Centre in Morecambe, whose exceptional work we highlight in our report. This centre has been helping parents to develop their parenting and teaching skills, doing universal screening so any child who isn’t developing well is picked up quickly, and is reaching out to encourage parents to take up funded early education places for their children.

Unfortunately, Balmoral is a rarity. Too many children’s centres have lost their way. Our inspections have found that a very high proportion of them are struggling to get any kind of useful information about the children in their area. Children’s centres that don’t know local families well enough won’t be able to encourage parents to get their two-year-olds into school.

Certainly, local authorities can play a role here. Because of their responsibilities for children’s centres, they can do more to make sure children’s centres have the essential information they need to do this work.

But what is really needed is someone – one person - who meets the parents of every child who is eligible for funded early education from two. Someone who will speak to them and make sure they know what their child needs and what they are entitled to. Someone – one person - who will be accountable for making sure that no-one slips through the net.

Fortunately, there is someone who can do this. That person is the health visitor. Health visitors have already a particular responsibility to identify and support those families who need additional help. Promoting readiness for school is already part of their role – but it should be at its very heart. Health visitor numbers have risen dramatically. And, from September, they will be commissioned by local authorities. Furthermore, there is a mandatory check for every one-year-old that is a core part of what health visitors are expected to deliver.

This is the ideal opportunity to make sure every parent whose child is eligible for a funded place knows about this and is being encouraged to start their child in early education, in a school wherever that’s possible.

Health visitors will be aiming to meet every low-income parent with a one-year-old. With the right focus, they can make sure that every parent knows exactly what early education is for, why their child would benefit and the simple steps they need to take to get their place.

And to anyone who says that the job of a health visitor is health, not education, I refer them to the research just published from the University of Colorado that shows that poor educational attainment can reduce life expectancy as much as smoking. I am encouraged by the work of Public Health England in this regard, who have been highlighting the links between educational attainment and life expectancy.

And so I come back to the role of local authorities. They will be taking responsibility for health visitors from September. This is a real opportunity to focus health visitors on this clear task – getting children into school, getting children to take up their funded place. It is an opportunity for local authorities to demonstrate leadership in the early years. The local authority must make sure that every health visitor is armed with the knowledge and information about where the best provision is. It is essential that any existing barriers between health and educational professionals are removed.


It is entirely welcome that early education is as strong as it is. All the professionals who have made this possible should be congratulated. I am pleased that so many dedicated leaders and practitioners have joined us here today at this meeting. But if we are being honest, the sector has done better for the children who perhaps need it least. Early years has the potential to drive social mobility for a whole new generation. It is leaders who are galvanised by this ambition who will make the difference. I would like to close with a short video of a school leader who is doing exactly that.

Thank you.

Published 13 July 2015