If you were given the opportunity to create your ideal early years setting, what form would it take? How would staff teach and children learn? What would be your core philosophy?
Just such a blank canvas was what Tracey Bowen inherited when, in 2014, she was appointed headteacher of the then yet-to-open Langley Academy Primary in Slough.
A three-form entry free school, founded to complement its trust’s existing secondary academy, it welcomed in its first Reception pupils in September 2015, promising to champion ‘curiosity, exploration and discovery’; last year it received a glowing ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report in recognition of a child-centred approach that’s both delivering early years provision focused solely on children’s interests and employing the very same principles in Key Stage 1 and beyond.
For Tracey and deputy head, Grace Shaw, Langley offered a fantastic opportunity to identify what the best early years practice looked like and to build the school’s curriculum and wider philosophy around it.
“Pre-opening I had the luxury of being able to do a lot of research,” Tracey explains.
“I came across the Early Excellence centre, and through there was directed towards Professor Ferre Laevers and his Leuven well-being and involvement scale, and then the work of of Anna Ephgrave, Alistair Bryce-Clegg and Julie Fisher, all of which really helped us in developing our child-centred approach.”
“We were in the lovely position of planning from Reception up, rather than Year 6 down,” Grace agrees.
“The idea that the brain’s favourite way to learn and research is through play formed every decision we were making. What we didn’t have was the thought that early years would be one way, and then in Key Stage 1 we’d train our children to behave in a different way.
“We wanted everything that was happening in Key Stage 1 to be everything that was happening in early years and more – just because the children went away on holiday for six weeks in the summer didn’t mean that these amazing learners we’d finished with at the end of Reception somehow needed a completely different approach.”
In Langley’s early years classrooms, this commitment to educating young children in a manner that puts their needs first has resulted in a distinctly untraditional approach to teaching.
A large proportion of every day is given over to free-flow, with formal English, maths and phonics sessions restricted to five- or 10-minute interactions. Indeed, the school building itself was designed with free-flow in mind, with rooms separated by acoustic curtains and providing unfettered access to outdoor spaces.
“We’re not expecting our nursery and Reception children to sit for a teacher input, in small guided groups; what we do is bring the learning to children’s interests,” Grace explains.
This is made possible by Langley’s flexible approach to planning, which keeps track of where children should be and the skills required to get there, but leaves the route taken each week wide open: “What the children do today informs what we do tomorrow,” Grace says.
“Our planning is done on a daily basis, based on observations, based on the children’s interests, based on what they’re showing us. We then extend and develop that learning. It happens in nursery, in Reception and right through Key Stage 1 as well.”
To support this, staff ratios of 1:10 operate in Year R, providing the capacity required to tailor the curriculum to individual children’s interests on an ongoing basis. “It’s not unheard of for small groups to leave the school,” Tracey tells us.
“For example, they say they want to make a pizza, do their mark making or writing to request information about the ingredients they’ll need, collect the money, visit a shop with an adult to buy the ingredients, then make it the next day. That’s normal, everyday practice here – and it’s true all year round; we don’t change tack in the summer term to get children ready to sit down, to receive a more didactic education.”
For Tracey and Grace, following children’s interests is a no-brainer – children, they point out, are most likely to learn when engaging with a topic that fires their imaginations or means something to them, and when learning is hands-on. “This isn’t a school where you sit on the carpet,” Grace stresses, “these children need to be learning by doing.”
This philosophy and the school’s ‘curiosity, exploration and discovery’ ethos come together in ‘Museum Learning’ – a cornerstone of the Langley Academy Trust’s work with children aged 3–18. The principle behind it, Grace explains, is that children learn best by ‘feeling’ – that teachers can teach best by eliciting emotions through providing real, multisensory experiences that inspire and stay with learners.
In practice, this means that all year groups, from nursery up, benefit from regular time outside the classroom, visits from experts with whom they can test and extend their knowledge, and the opportunity to explore real objects up-close. “Reception went to our local park recently to hunt for the Gruffalo – all 90 of them,” Grace offers as an example.
“They were looking at the trees and hunting for the homes of all the animals in The Gruffalo. This type of visit is then built on by getting something else in – we have owls coming next week, so the children can see what they really look like. You can’t underestimate the power of understanding the context of what you’re learning about.”
From the outset, Langley’s child-centred approach and use of Museum Learning has as its goal developing motivated, independent learners, and Tracey and Grace list multiple examples of pupils becoming knowledgeable beyond their years thanks to the opportunities afforded to them to become experts in topics that inspire them – including pupils in Year 2 discussing the solar system at a Key Stage 2 level, having asked to investigate the planets in Year R.
The success of the decision to employ early years practice into Key Stage 1, with children retaining free-flow time and thriving by building on skills that were nurtured in nursery and Reception, perhaps won’t surprise many reading this – but as a model for a new way of approaching the first years of formal education, Langley is a school that deserves a lot more attention.
Tracey Bowen, headteacher
“Knowing each child – understanding what makes them tick – is really important, both for helping them to make strong progress and ensuring their wellbeing. For that reason, each year there’ll be an adult who will move from our nursery to Reception, another from Reception to Year 1, and so on – it means that there’s always a member of staff on hand who’s familiar with the children.”
Grace Shaw, deputy head
“Our child-centred approach to planning requires an in-depth knowledge of the curriculum – you have to know the Early Learning Goals practically off by heart, to find the learning opportunities, but they’re always there. For skilled early years staff, it’s about reading the situation and knowing the children, and understanding how best to get something out of them with your knowledge of the curriculum and your knowledge of that child.”