Amanda Spielman Speaks at 2023 ‘Big Conversation’

Hello, and welcome to this year’s Ofsted Big Conversation.

It’s my first Big Conversation speech since the pandemic, and I’m delighted to be back and talking to you all again.

Thank you all for coming and for contributing to this hugely valuable event. And thanks to the organisers for all your efforts in bringing it together.

But I also want to thank you for what you do the other 364 days a year. Because I know it’s been an exceptionally difficult year.

We published our Annual Report last month, and in it we recognised some of the pressures you’ve been facing.

The effects of missing early education

We reported on the longer-term effects of the pandemic including the effects that missing early education has had on some children.

We now have a clearer picture of where children have fallen behind, and of the difficulties you all face in helping them to catch up.

Some children’s speech and language are delayed, as well as their wider development. These children often take longer to settle into a nursery or with a childminder.

And it means some children are less prepared for Reception when they start school.

But we’ve also seen great examples of the work you are all doing to help children catch up.

These include creating more opportunities for children to interact. You’ve been rebalancing your curriculums towards language and communication.

You’re reading to children more, and emphasising social skills in day-to-day routines.

You’re giving children lots of chances to mix with each other. They’re simple changes, but they can have a significant impact.

But taking these steps, does need stable and skilled staff. We know that’s also something that many of you are struggling with.

Our Annual Report noted that it is still difficult to recruit and retain qualified staff. And of course, this can lead to a lack of continuity and consistency for children.

So far, staffing problems have not affected the national profile of inspection judgements, but of course it is something we are very aware of.


Apprenticeships could be part of the solution to recruiting enough qualified early years staff. But unfortunately fewer young people are even beginning these programmes at the moment.

The number of people starting relevant apprenticeships fell from just over 27,000 six years ago, to just over 16,000 last year. We hope this trend can be reversed.

It is also important to use apprentices in the right way. They can be a huge help, and on-the-job training is a big part of their professional development.

But we have also seen cases of employers not always releasing apprentices for off-the-job training. This may seem like a short-term fix, but it can delay or disrupt their training and cause problems down the road.

We’ve also seen some providers using apprentices to replace skilled, experienced practitioners. This can’t be a long-term solution and it isn’t fair to the apprentices, or to children.

We’re awaiting the results of the consultation on updating and improving the Level 3 criteria for Early Years Educators. I know many of you will have responded to the consultation.

It’s important that these criteria capture the right things and are brought up to date to reflect current thinking and research.

It’s so important that people coming into the sector get off to the right start, and this means equipping them with the knowledge they need. We hope this update process can be completed quickly.

Against this difficult background, it is all the more impressive that so many childminders, nurseries, and pre-schools are rated good or outstanding.

But we also know that we cannot be complacent. You don’t need me to tell you that children only get one childhood and deserve the best start.

Best start in life

And that is why our Ofsted strategy makes a priority of giving children ‘the best start in life.’

We are really emphasising the first 5 years and especially language and communication.

We know that many children do well in the early years.

But last year over a third didn’t reach a good level of development by the age of 5. And that figure is up a lot since before the pandemic.

This is clearly concerning on its own. But it’s even more concerning, when you consider how this may set them back throughout their education and later life.

You might have seen that we have now published the first of our early years research reviews.

It points out that, in early education, children explore the building blocks of the knowledge, in that they will go on to study at school. (And when I talk about knowledge, I do mean in its fullest sense, not disconnected facts.)

Obviously, preparing children for school is not the only purpose of early education. But it is an important one.

Later this year we will be publishing more parts of this research review.

They will explore all 7 areas of learning in the Early years foundation stage (EYFS), with a particular focus on language and communication.

Language and communication

Spoken language is such an important channel for learning in the early years, before children can become independent learners through reading at school.

Language and communication are the most vital areas of learning for the early years, and the hardest to catch up on later. Without them, all other learning becomes more difficult.

We understand that the EYFS goes beyond and into reception, but we want these reviews to be as useful as possible to you, and have designed them with you, the preschool sector, in mind.

In developing and evaluating our approach, we consider a range of research and viewpoints. And we look further afield and consider what other countries do.

This could be the subject of a speech all on its own, especially as no 2 countries have the same approach. But there’s always something to learn when looking at other countries’ arrangements.

Just as in England, nearly every country has one strand of thinking about childcare and another about early education. In some countries one is more prevalent than the other. Not that anyone is wrong or right, but there are many approaches.

But almost all countries agree that they want children to be competent readers by about age 7.

In terms of learning to read and write, English is at the more difficult end of the spectrum, because it has more complex and overlapping relationships between letters and sounds. This complicated code means that literacy takes longer to build in English than in many other languages.

For you, this reinforces the importance of developing language and communication in the preschool years.

It sets children up well for starting to learn to read in reception. You can all play a major part in that.

So, what should you do? I know that might sound like a daunting question. But it can also be remarkably simple. Sticking to the basics will serve you well and serve your children well.

After all, learning gets lost if you try to overcomplicate it. This applies just as much to young children as to older ones.

Working out what level of learning children can cope with is important. It’s not about coming up with more exciting and elaborate activities. It’s about working out what you want children to learn and then thinking about the best way for them to learn it. This is something you do every day of course.

However, there is a balance.

In the jargon, some cognitive load is required – but cognitive overload should be avoided.

An approach of little and often, of planning your teaching in small chunks, will help children learn now and set them up for future learning.

Learning does require effort. But that becomes easier as the young child gathers more knowledge.

Early years curriculum

Our research review identified some features that high quality early years education may have.

It should start with a carefully considered curriculum. I know that word, ‘curriculum’, can be misunderstood or make people think of something more complicated than is actually needed.

An early years curriculum should consider what children need to learn over time as well as the end goals.

It should be coherently planned and well sequenced.

It does not need to include formal subjects, but it should prepare children for that. And it should enable all children to make progress.

Once you have decided what you want children to learn, you need to think about the best way to teach it.

Again, the word ‘teaching’ can be so misunderstood. We’re not talking about chalk and blackboards.

In the education inspection framework (EIF) handbook we define teaching like this:

Teaching is a broad term that covers the many different ways in which adults help young people learn.

In the early years, that should be a balance of play, guided activities, and direct teaching.

Much of children’s learning comes through your interactions with them during planned and child-initiated play and activities.

But of course, sometimes it’s right to show or tell children what to do through explicit teaching.

For example, when they are learning something for the first time such as tying their shoelaces or using scissors.

Judging what, when and how to teach is a key part of your role. Experimenting at the water tray is a great way for children to learn about floating and sinking.

But nobody expects a child to learn how to use a microwave by discovery. That would lead to broken microwaves and ruined food.

And we don’t expect children to discover the names of shapes, colours or numbers for themselves. We teach those things explicitly.

But sometimes we don’t do the same with the wider world and the things around children.

It is important to consider a child’s interests and work with them to make your teaching engaging.

For example, if they ask for the name of a flower, naming it and then pointing out the parts of a plant could be a great way to add to their knowledge and vocabulary.

They will never soak up new words and new ideas faster than when they’re with you, so it’s a wonderful window of opportunity.

But it is also important to not just to be led by children’s interests and what they ask about. If you do, you may miss essentials.

So again, there’s a balance to be found, and that’s a big part of your role. You should encourage children to take part in all kinds of play, not just those that fit with their previous experience and preferences.

Teaching doesn’t mean treating your children as though they are already in school, but it should include making sure that they are ready for that environment by the time they leave you.

That includes making sure they can communicate and engage with other children and adults.

It can also include practical skills such as preparation for writing. You don’t need to teach letter formation, but you could start with a good, relaxed pencil grip when drawing.

It can also be the daily things that you may not consider teaching.

Even very young children enjoy simple routines and structures, feeling that they know how things work, and that they can do things.

Activities like laying and setting a table or tidy up time can of course instil good habits and routines for later in life and build social skills.

And they can also make children feel good, feel that they are contributing, and feel pride in doing something for other people.

Little routines throughout the day like putting their bags in cubbies, hanging their coats on pegs, and saying please and thank you, also stand children in good stead for when they start school.

Many of you already do these things so well and they’re so important.

These are just some examples.

But of course, finding how and when to teach most effectively will always rely on your professional judgement.

Setting the right ambitions and plans in your curriculum will make sure you are on the right path.

I hope you enjoy the rest of today’s programme – I know my colleagues Wendy Ratcliff and Kirsty Godfrey are looking forward to it!

Thank you again for joining the Big Conversation, and for all that you do.

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