Ofsted want to introduce more formal teaching practices – this is a potential disaster for children’s learning

We know that when it comes to brain development, it continues throughout most of our lives – from infancy to adulthood. But unlike other more obvious signs of growing up, many parents underestimate how much a child’s brain changes from year to year.  senior lecturer in teacher education at Leeds Beckett University writes for The Conversation. 

Research shows that during early childhood, the links within the brain are busy forming – this is a time when children are learning to learn. And their brains are gradually forming connections that enable them to organise their thoughts.

For children to be able to learn new information, they need to relate the new learning to previous learning. They need to develop an awareness of their own thinking and to monitor their thoughts, emotions and actions. And these capacities develop best through play.

Psychologist Pam Jarvis explains this in her blog The Psychological Historian, using an analogy of trying to put clothes into a wardrobe with insufficient hangers. The hangers are the neural connections in the brain. Without enough hangers, some of the clothes will fall to the floor in a jumbled mess. In the same way, if new information is given to children who have not yet developed enough neural connections, the knowledge will not be retained.

In this way then, teaching is most successful when the child can use their individual interests as a “hanger” to put the new knowledge onto. This happens in play, as the child chooses what they would like to play with and the adult can support them by challenging them to think at the next level.

Less time to play

It’s not surprising then that a recent report from Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) which calls for less play and more formal lessons has caused shockwaves among early years teachers.

The Bold Beginnings report outlines aspects of good practice with four to five-year-olds in a number of primary schools. It claims that for many children, the reception year is a false start as by the end of it, children are not adequately prepared for school.

To combat this, Ofsted suggest teachers spend less time supporting children’s learning through play, and more time teaching formal lessons.

The report was met with outcry. A letter signed by over 2,800 teachers, academics and educators – including the professor and TV presenter Robert Winston – was sent to The Guardian, asking for the report to be withdrawn.

Play power

Part of the problem, is there is little evidence the writers of the Bold Beginnings report have considered the brain development of children.

In the report, four and five-year-olds are presented as being the same as older children. A headteacher in the report is even quoted as saying: “We have the same learning and behavioural expectations from the start of school as we do at the end.” This may appear to be quite reasonable, but research into learning through play indicates that learning expectations should actually be very different.

Recent research from the world of neuroscience demonstrates that learning through play develops the executive function of the child’s brain. Cambridge professor, Usha Goswami, in her book Cognitive Development, describes this as a function of the brain that helps us to regulate our thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

Fun and games

It includes skills such as problem solving, planning, thinking outside the box and controlling behaviour. Young children develop these skills through play, which enables them to become successful learners in the future. In this way, research shows play is more effective than formal teaching in preparing children for difficult high level thinking and problem solving tasks.

Play also enables children to make sense of the world. This is because rather than knowledge being transferred to the child from the teacher, children in play, actively make their own meaning. Children find out for themselves how the world works, how numbers work, how writing works, how to communicate and relate to others through their playing.

Academics from Cambridge University found that in play, children work together to make meaning. They support and “scaffold” each other as they work together on shared play projects, in role play games and many other social endeavours.

Future learners

The belief in play-based learning is central to the ideology of most working in early years education. The reason for this is that it is the best way for young children to learn. In fact, without play, early years would be exactly the same as school.

Play in Ofsted’s report is not presented as being essential to children’s development. While acknowledging that it is an important way to teach certain subjects – such as personal, social and emotional development they suggest that it is not the best method to teach maths and English.

Ofsted recommend teachers should devote “sufficient time each day to the direct teaching of reading, writing and mathematics”. By “direct teaching”, Ofsted mean more formal teaching methods, which involve the teacher delivering a traditional lesson to the class. But while direct teaching can have a place in early years education, the balance needs to be right – for the sake of the children.


The Conversation

Read more in The Conversation

Do you agree? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: Infant, Learning, Pre-school and Primary.


  1. Throughout early years, children remain vulnerable to adult expectations to show greater maturity when actually they need time to be in control. Professor Pat Preedy’s Movement for learning, currently being developed with Loughborough University, shows how important acquiring physical motor skills is for 3 to 5 year olds.

  2. Wendy

    I have a 3 year old. She has been attending an Active Learning nursery since she was 1. The reason I chose this nursery is because I wanted there to be an emphases on play.

    Why are we trying to make our children grow up too soon? They don’t need formal learning at this age and I question if they really need it until they are at junior school.

    Why are we, along with North America, so determined that our children must read before they go to primary school, when most other countries don’t start learning to read until much later; and why do we feel that are children are failing if they can’t?

    Let children be children for a while longer, they have plenty of time to be adults.

    My child has benefited hugely from active learning. Not only are they learning numeracy, literacy, French, coding, ballet, sport but social skills, problem solving and it’s all through play.

    As a parent, please just let our children play and be children.

  3. Victoria Jaquiss

    I don’t know how much more damage we can do to our children’s health, education and happiness. The next generation will be looking after us in our dotage. They may be quite unskilled and unable to. They may want revenge. I think I will make and sell badges saying Not Me!

  4. wasateacher

    It seems that everything the Government want to bring in to schools is aimed at assessment, not learning, and that, more and more, it is assessment by computer (ie cheap). This is just one of the problems with bringing business economics into education. Another of the problems is that, in order to be economically and industrially competitive, the country needs a workforce which is adaptable, inventive and can learn. For examples of change during a lifetime: when I was at school we may have had mechanical calculators somewhere. As a child I walked half a mile to watch my father on television demonstrating a machine called PAT (the Parametric Artificial Talker) – a huge ‘computer’ which said “my name is Pat” as far as I can remember. All of my generation have had to learn how to use computers, mobile phones (yes I am still struggling with my newish smart phone), central heating, washing machines and very much more just to carry out our daily lives.

    Rote learning teaches pupils to repeat facts – not to be able to learn. Using the multiplication tables issue as an example: a child might know that 7×8=56 but can she use that to work out 14×16? (I must have been rebellious when we were doing the 7x table at primary school in the ’50s because I can’t do 8×7 and have to reverse it). Learning basic facts does have its place but hidden amongst an enjoyment of learning by adventure and play.

    Being taught to learn facts, ready for testing, also leaves the pupil with the sense that they need to be taught and that they are unable to develop their own learning – ready to cope with whatever changes are thrown at them.

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