Inspections: What do children show us?

In the final part of her series, Sue Allingham explains that ‘impact’ on learning can only be achieved when we understand what children bring with them – in other words, their cultural capital.

For each article I have drawn on the, potentially controversial vocabulary used across both the new Early years and School inspection handbooks. I'm not spending time here questioning why there are two handbooks as this has been discussed in other articles. But I would recommend that anyone who works in early years in a school makes themselves familiar with the Early Years Inspection Handbook as it is far more detailed.

Important to note is that the Ofsted definition of teaching and learning still stands. In both handbooks it is stated–

‘Teaching should not be taken to imply a “top down” or formal way of working. It is a broad term that covers the many different ways in which adults help young children learn. It includes: their interactions with children during planned and child-initiated play and activities, communicating and modelling language, showing, explaining, demonstrating, exploring ideas, encouraging, questioning, recalling, providing a narrative for what they are doing, facilitating and setting challenges. It takes account of the equipment that adults provide and the attention given to the physical environment, as well as the structure and routines of the day that establish expectations. Integral to teaching is how practitioners assess what children know, understand and can do, as well as taking account of their interests and dispositions to learn (characteristics of effective learning), and how practitioners use this information to plan children's next steps in learning and to monitor their progress’.

This definition is key to developing a curriculum and it is useful to filter our role as teachers through it. Before moving on, it is important to note that –

Inspectors will not grade intent, implementation and impact separately. Instead, inspectors will reach a single graded judgement for the quality of education, drawing on all the evidence they have gathered, using their professional judgement.

So, while I've examined each word independently, as it suited an examination of the word ‘curriculum’, it is the aim of this final article to draw everything together to consider what we need to understand about the ‘impact’ we make on the children we teach.

So what does ‘impact’ look like?

The new Education Inspection Framework is clear that there will not be a concentration on data, which we could take to mean spreadsheets, tables and computer programmes which claim to demonstrate ‘progress’. However, this is not the only type of data we collect, we also use ‘soft’ data all the time to inform what we do and what we teach. And the impact we make. So what does this look like in practice? Let's unpick this through the two following examples. While you are reading through them both, reflect on –

  • What was intended?
  • What was implemented?
  • What impact was made?

The Gruffalo

According the planning sheet on the wall, the children in the nursery had been working on the theme of The Gruffalo, based on the character in the book by Julia Donaldson, since the half term break. It was now nearly the end of term.

One of the tables in the room had been set up with six sheets of paper, some paints and brushes. In the centre of the table a soft toy of the Gruffalo had been placed. A group of children were brought over to the table where they all sat down with the adult. She started to explain to the children that they were going to paint a picture of the Gruffalo.

One of the children had already started painting as the teacher was talking. As he worked he was talking about what he was doing, saying things like, ‘This is my Mummy, and here is my Daddy. They are taking me to school’. The teacher was not taking any notice of him, she kept talking about the Gruffalo, looking at various aspects of the soft toy, and pointing out colours that the children might paint with.

As she stopped talking the teacher realised that the rest of the group had started to paint and they were all talking about their families as they worked. In an effort to bring the activity back to the Gruffalo theme the teacher picked up the soft toy and started reminding the children of some bits of the story.

Learning intentions are based on knowing the individual child

However the children continued to talk about, and paint pictures of, their families. The teacher started to point to aspects of the pictures and interpreting them as characters from the story. Once the pictures were finished, the teacher picked up the ipad and took a picture of each child holding their painting. These were then put on the wall with a sign that said ‘We painted pictures of the Gruffalo’.

The Three Bears

The story of the week in the Reception class was The Three Bears. There were activities about the story, and the role-play area had been turned into the Bears' house. There were several children in the outside area, and a group of boys playing with the tyres. They were stacking them up as high as they could, and were even standing on a chair to reach higher and could be overheard to be talking about how they were making space rockets and would be going to space in them.

As they were working their class teacher walked past. She stopped to talk to them and her first comment was ‘What are you building?’ Even though they had been constructing a whole story about going into space, one of the boys immediately said ‘We are building beds for the three bears’. The teacher accepted this explanation without question and moved on with no further comment. As soon as she had walked away, the group returned to building their rockets and talking about going to space.

Intentions go astray

Both the examples demonstrate the mismatch of adult and child thinking. What the adult intends is not what the children implement, thus the impact is not what the adults have planned for. How can this be avoided? If the teachers are not clear about what they are teaching and why – how they construct the curriculum – then any impact will be unreliable. What is missing in both the examples is any respect for what the children add to their learning. Look at what Robin Alexander says about the role of the teacher –

Skilled practitioners at Dizzy Ducks in Hainault have respect for what children bring to their learning

‘The teacher engages, as a matter of necessity, with a number of distinct but related domains of ideas and values. Firstly, and most immediately, these are concerned with:

  • children: their characteristics, development and upbringing;
  • learning: how it can best be motivated, achieved, identified, assessed and built upon;
  • teaching: its planning, execution and evaluation; and
  • curriculum: the various ways of knowing, understanding, doing, creating, investigating and making sense which it is desirable for children to encounter, and how these are most appropriately translated and structured for teaching’.

Intent, Implementation, Impact

The problem with too much of what happens in early childhood education today is that is often objective led.

If we are to make the most significant, and relevant, impact on the children we teach then we need to understand them and what they bring with them – their cultural capital. Working with this crucial knowledge and basing what we do upon it is how we develop our intentions.

This cannot be done through an ‘off the peg’ theme – this has been demonstrated above. To move superficial teaching into a really educated impact that will make a difference for the children then we need to be able to understand the soft data – what the children show us – and use this as our raw material (according to Robin Alexander):

‘Curriculum: the various ways of knowing, understanding, doing, creating, investigating and making sense which it is desirable for children to encounter, and how these are most appropriately translated and structured for teaching.’

Useful resources

  • Still no pedagogy? Principle, pragmatism and compliance in primary education by Robin Alexander, Cambridge Journal of Education –

  • School inspection handbook May 2019, No. 190017 p80

  • Early years inspection handbook May 2019, No. 180040 p34

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