At Carterhatch Infant School learning in the early years is truly child-initiated. TEY paid a visit to find out why one planned activity is a planned activity too many…
Leaving nursery behind and entering primary school is a major milestone in any child’s life, but it’s worth stressing that it doesn’t mean the end of the early years. Those in the Reception year follow the same EYFS framework utilised in childcare settings across the land. It’s in the delivery of the EYFS that Reception can appear foreign to many others in the early years sector – the sense that this is a more formal environment pervades, in part because it is teacher-led provision, in close physical proximity to more structured Key Stage 1 and 2 classes; perhaps increasingly because of the government’s controversial baseline testing. Undoubtedly many Reception classes are more formal – and there’s a debate to be had about whether that’s a good or bad thing – but there are also those who embrace free-flow and the value of play in the same way as any high-quality nursery or preschool.
Certainly nobody could accuse the Reception provision at ‘outstanding’ Carterhatch Infant School, situated in the London Borough of Enfield, of being too formal. In fact, in key ways it’s less formal than most nurseries. But if you’re now imagining a chaotic free-for-all, teachers locked in their supply cupboards for their own safety, think again. “Everyone who visits us goes on about how calm it is here,” Anna Ephgrave, assistant headteacher for early years at Carterhatch, tells us,” but what they’re actually saying is, ‘The children are busy; they’re occupied’.”
Anna isn’t exaggerating. It really is quite startling how quiet – how engaged – children are at Carterhatch, at least during our visit. The trick, we’re told, isn’t really a trick at all: offer children freedom and the resources to lead their own learning, and watch them flourish…
“People talk the talk about child-initiated learning, but it very rarely happens. It’s easier and safer for adults to take control.”
For Carterhatch’s Reception-aged children – split across three classes – and those who attend its sessional nursery class and children’s centre’s daycare provision, every day is a blank canvas. Classrooms and sizeable outdoor areas alike offer a host of resources to fire imaginations, and opportunities to practise physical skills abound. Within these areas children are encouraged to make a beeline for whatever takes their fancy, and stay there until they’ve had enough. There are, it’s important to say, clear boundaries in place to ensure children access what’s available in an appropriate and educational manner – intensive one-to-one coaching is employed from day one to teach them about the school’s routines, how to share resources and use them safely, and how to tidy away after themselves, for example – but there are no pre-planned focus activities at all.
To some, it might seem a slightly laissez-faire approach to children with so much to learn – even more so when you consider that the school’s intake includes above average numbers of children with EAL, Pupil Premium funding and special educational needs – but there is a very simple belief behind the practice: children learn best when they’re tuned in to what they’re doing. “When a child is totally absorbed, digging in the mud, for example, we don’t actually know what they’re learning, but that’s not necessarily what’s important – what’s important is that they’re deeply engaged in it,” Anna explains. “I see it all the time at other schools – an adult will call the children to come and do a focused task, they get up because they’re good children and their brains switch off. They do the task, and then they go back to where the real learning’s happening, while the adult’s attention is focused elsewhere.
“Our only measure of quality here is Ferre Laevers’ levels of involvement – that’s how we assess every child, every bit of equipment and every adult,” she tells us. “What Laevers did has been backed up by brain-scanning research, which shows that when a child is engaged, their whole brain lights up. That’s actual, physical progress happening – a child’s brain growing. So if we’re getting level 5 involvement, we know we’re doing it right. If we’re not getting level 5, we keep changing things and changing them and changing them until we are.”
“If adults are involved in focus activities, the free-flow deteriorates and becomes chaos. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
With children very much in charge of their own learning at Carterhatch, teachers and learning assistants take something of a back seat both indoors and out. But this doesn’t mean that no teaching takes place. “Ten minutes of teaching at the right time is worth 10 hours of teaching when children aren’t interested,” Anna says of the school’s attitude. “Our staff look out for the moments when children have been deeply involved, but suddenly come across a little problem. Their involvement might drop or they might abandon what they’re doing altogether if the adult isn’t there, just to step in and get them over that little hump and allow them to carry on.
“So while there are no pre-planned activities, if you go into the classrooms or outdoor areas you will see adults working with groups, which might appear pre-planned – but actually they’re responding to an interest.”
Not only does this approach leave children free to pursue whatever is enthusing them at any given time, it also allows staff to make swift interventions to support their learning and development. “Often, when teachers see something happening that indicates children need support, they will plan a focus activity to look at it at a later date, maybe the following week. But by then the children’s interests will have moved on,” Anna argues. “If you see three or four children who are writing their ‘a’ the wrong way, that’s the time to step in and show them how to do it the right way, rather than waiting. If, as is the case here, the adults aren’t sitting do a focus activity, they’re free to respond to those moments.”
Though free of planning and the need to direct learning, teachers at Carterhatch certainly don’t have it easy. “Working in this way can be very difficult,” says Anna. “When we arrived this morning we didn’t know what was going to happen, and every day is like that. So staff have to be confident, and they have to be willing to follow the children, whatever they’re doing. For example, last week in nursery the children found some leaves with holes in them; the teacher said, ‘Oh, something must have eaten them’, and they looked and found some snails. They examined them, and ended up making little snails with pieces of wood and two nails for their antennae. The teacher just went with it. The children have amazing ideas, so it’s about having the resources and the staff who can work with them.”
“When teachers are writing, they’re not interacting; when they’re interacting, that’s when they’re teaching.”
The idea might give day nursery practitioners palpitations, but at Carterhatch each Reception teacher is key person to every one of the children in her class, while the nursery class’s teacher fulfils the same role for those in her care. This way of working has, under Anna’s guidance, replaced a more traditional key person system, which saw some groups of children made the responsibility of learning assistants. “It wasn’t equal for all the children – there was a bit of unevenness about their records,” Anna explains. “It’s a lot for teachers to take on, but the LAs aren’t paid to do it; they contribute, we take all of their knowledge, but ultimately it’s the teachers who have responsibility.”
That this approach works has much to do with the way in which staff at Carterhatch approach observations and their children’s learning journeys. While the odd note is made during the day, most observations are recorded after the event, during PPA time, to ensure that teachers are free to teach and observe when with the children. To manage the considerable workload, they focus on three children in particular each week, each child receiving this attention once per term. “At the end of the week they end up with a learning journey for each child,” Anna tells us. “Inside, each entry includes an observation, then identifies an opportunity for teaching and details the teaching that has taken place – we call this our planning, so we have to show how we’re influencing children’s development by making suggestions, modelling and encouraging. It’s that traditional cycle of observation and assessment, but it’s all there in a snapshot.”
According to Anna, this way of working doesn’t pose any challenges when it comes to demonstrating children’s progress. “We’ve never ever had a child who hasn’t accessed all seven areas of learning in a week, which just shows that children do do that quite naturally, if the provision is right,” she says. If gaps do appear, half-termly updates to the assessment of each child ensure they are caught and acted upon.
Focusing in on a small number of individuals also enables Carterhatch to make closer links with parents. In advance of each child’s ‘focus week’, letters are sent home inviting mums and dads to provide staff with information about their son or daughter, or special events that might be happening at home.
Afterwards, in lieu of a more traditional parents’ evening, they visit school to discuss the teacher’s observations of their children. “It seems to work really well,” Anna says. “Because the teachers have just been working closely with the children, the meetings are more accurate, in-depth, relevant and personal.”
“Why on Earth would you plan in advance what you’re going to do with a 10-month-old? You support them in the moment.”
“Some people say, ‘Fine, this works for you, but it wouldn’t work anywhere else’,” Anna tells us. “Well, yes, it can – if you get the environment right, and you get the adults working and being responsive.” Proof of that comes in the form of Carterhatch’s two children’s centres, which take the same approach to the infant school, albeit without the presence of qualified teachers. “In terms of the paperwork and not planning ahead, it was quite challenging to set up,” says Anna, who trained staff working with under-fives at both centres, “but now that we’re doing it, it’s working really well. Any setting could work in a similar way. The children aren’t stressed and the staff aren’t stressed, because they’re happy.
“I don’t think you need a lot of space necessarily. I do consultancy all over the country and have been to tiny schools, nurseries, preschools and childminders and set this up. Particularly for childminders, to have this type of planning system is amazing – it’s so liberating.”
There are also other schools and nurseries in Enfield experimenting with the approach – the legacy of a trip to Melbourne, Australia six years ago that highlighted the benefits of doing so – but, as Anna notes, the pressure from Year 1 above to adopt a more formal pedagogy is intense enough to dissuade many. “There’s a big culture of fear in education at the moment – that children won’t get their level whatevers in Year 1 and Year 2,” she says. “A lot of headteachers don’t have an early years background. They don’t understand how a very formal Reception can damage people in the long term. They still think that if you sit children down earlier, they’ll be better off. They don’t believe you can get children reading and writing and using maths working in this way, but you absolutely can.”
The learning environment is central to the quality of any early years setting, and Carterhatch is no exception. “The environment is the key,” Anna explains. “Everything is out here – there’s nothing in cupboards – but it’s all immaculately stored and organised, and the children know that if they’ve finished with something, they have to put it back.”
An emphasis has been placed on challenging children – trikes have been sidelined in favour of bikes, for example: “A trike is not a challenge; it’s not engaging, so what are they learning from it?” – and risky play is embraced. On the value of the latter, Anna is clear: “I think taking risks with wood working and climbing and all the rest of it leads children to be able to take risks with reading, writing and maths. They know that people here are going to support them when they try to do something new, and that gives them the confidence.”
Anna’s early years provision has been judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted four times at two different schools. “If you’ve got the data to show children’s progress and you’ve got them deeply involved in what they’re doing, Ofsted is a doddle. I really do believe that – I can’t have been lucky four times!” she says.
Inevitably, teachers at Carterhatch have to make some concessions to the demands of the DfE. “The children’s phonics sessions are planned,” Anna admits, “but again we use levels of involvement – they last for however long we can keep them engaged. For most that’s 10 minutes, but for some it’s much less – if they’re not engaged, they’re not learning, so there’s no point in them doing it.”
Many of the children at Carterhatch enter nursery or Reception at below expected levels of attainment, but most leave having achieved more than the national average. Anna identifies the prime areas of learning as key focuses in the early years: “If you can sort out their PSED in particular, and their language and their physical skills, you’re more likely to get good results later on,” she says.
“I first learnt about story scribing from Vivian Gussin Paley,” Anna says of a strategy that is enabling children – particularly boys – to make great strides in their writing. Children are encouraged to tell adults stories about the activities they’re engaged in, which are then written down by staff and acted out by the children at the end of the day. Over time, children are supported to write elements of their stories themselves. “It’s about not stressing these children out, keeping them confident and happy,” Anna says.
Teach Early Years visited Carterhatch Infant School in 2014. Anna is no longer working at the school, but you can read all about her approach in her growing series of books on child-led practice.