To provide students with the best opportunity to thrive throughout their education, the Early Years curriculum must be highly effective. The challenges experienced by some pupils entering Reception can limit their learning (EEF, 2017). Encouragingly, the EEF report that it is possible to narrow the attainment gap if schools can find ways to ‘effectively and efficiently use the resources they have… for maximum impact’ (p. 2).
Concerning impact, Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva (2004) observe that learning via cognitive construction is ‘only achieved when the child is motivated and involved’ (p. 720). Our Reception cohorts present a profile that mirrors the challenges examined by the EEF: the local area is within the five per cent most deprived areas in the country, as measured by the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) (Bolton Council, 2015), and four in five have English as an additional language. Since both of these factors can be barriers to learning, it became vital for us to re-examine our Early Years curriculum.
Our aim was to consistently challenge pupils in order to improve their attainment in language, writing and maths – all of which were areas of concern in our Reception entry data. External inspection of our curriculum had reported a good focus on strong relationships and an enabling environment. Therefore, we prioritised tasks that actively engaged pupils and promoted relationship-building. To monitor engagement, we used the Leuven scale (Laevers, 1994). This method detects the signals of engagement, which we then used to evaluate the quality of our curriculum and the learning environment.
To maximise engagement, we focused on:
- creating stimulating learning opportunities
- using adult–child conversations and quality pedagogical interactions
- ‘focus child’ parental engagement.
Creating stimulating learning opportunities
Having considered the link between involvement and learning, we planned to create experiences within our indoor and outdoor space that built on the interests of pupils.
Activities were designed based upon a good understanding of pupils’ interests, alongside a careful consideration of tasks that linked to learning outcomes. For example, pupils recreated scenarios described in Supertato (Hendra, 2014), a popular illustrated children’s book, becoming participants in the story. The text was brought to life by spreading peas across the floor and freezing carrots within ice, building on the book’s narrative about the process of picking and freezing vegetables, which led to writing, reading and science outcomes.
Adult–child conversations and quality interactions
The provision of engaging activities is not sufficient in its own right to maximise learning. Adult–child conversations are vital to both engagement and progress in Early Years learning. Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva (2004) identify ‘pedagogical interactions’ as the specific behaviours on the part of the adult to support learning. To develop our use of pedagogical interactions, our Early Years practitioners selected from 10 pedagogical interaction types, taken from the Ofsted Early Years handbook:
- exploring ideas
- modelling language
- providing a narrative.
Each Early Years practitioner wore a lanyard with all 10 pedagogical interactions attached, supporting the use of quality interactions and encouraging a rich mixture of the 10 different approaches. Every day, adults carried out one-to-one conversations with pupils, specific to their individual learning needs. The pedagogical interactions supported the delivery of targeted conversations, and underpinned other quality conversations that occurred naturally throughout the day. For example, when observing a pupil creating a word with letter tiles, the adult moved learning forward by encouraging her to write her own words using her phonics knowledge. The adult then demonstrated writing with the handwriting patter, which led to the pupil writing further words. Quality interactions were discussed in weekly team meetings to maximise interactions and avoid interfering (Fisher, 2016).
’Focus child’ parental engagement
Having established our method to encourage learning through engagement and pedagogical interactions, we looked to the association between pedagogical methods and parental participation (Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva, 2004). The research evidence is unequivocally positive about the benefits of quality parent engagements on pupils’ learning (Harris and Goodall, 2007; Willis and Exley, 2018). By increasing the quality of our communication with parents, we believed that pupils could make further progress. Using the work of Ephgrave (2013), we used ‘Focus Child Feedback’ to monitor the progress of pupils and feed back to their parents. This involved creating a learning journey document for 10 per cent of the class each week. Every pupil was a focus child three times a year. The contents of the learning journey were then discussed with parents and next steps to learning agreed. Focus child feedback meetings replaced the traditional termly parents evenings.
Our Early Years Foundation Stage data indicates an improvement in attainment. While this may be due to a range of factors – without a control group it is difficult to isolate the impact of our project – we observed learners of all abilities developing strong characteristics of effective learning, which, in turn, plausibly contributed to improved attainment.
Measures of learning (pupils working at age-related expectations (ARE) in reading, writing and maths and good level of development (GLD)) were, on average, seven per cent higher when compared with levels from the previous cohort. Notably, boys’ GLD attainment rose from 44 per cent (pre-project cohort) to 67 per cent (project cohort), surpassing the national average of 65 per cent. Although most of our data is below national averages, this project contributed to a three-year upward trend in attainment in Reception.
There was also a positive impact on parent engagement. Beforehand, the proportion of the cohort who had an adult attend parents’ evening was 60 per cent. Through the Focus Child Feedback sessions, this figure grew to 86 per cent. Parents’ feedback showed that they appreciated their involvement in the home–school learning journey and enjoyed their part in planning the next steps in learning.
The successful impact of the engaging learning curriculum in Reception prompted us to reflect on how we could transfer similar benefits to Year 1. We asked ‘how could we implement an effective Early Years pedagogy to aid the transition into Key Stage 1?’, and transferred the three approaches described above, with tasks and resources altered to suit Key Stage 1 objectives. In doing so, we hope to see a similar rise in attainment as we observed in Reception.
Bolton Council (2015) Indices of multiple deprivation 2015: Briefing report. Available at:
https://www.bolton.gov.uk/downloads/file/1919/imd-2015-extended-briefing-report (accessed 5 February 2019).
Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2017) The attainment gap. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Annual_Reports/EEF_Attainment_Gap_Report_2018.pdf (accessed 5 February 2019).
Ephgrave A (2012) The Reception Year in Action. London: Routledge.
Fisher J (2016) Interacting or Interfering? Berkshire: Open University Press.
Harris A and Goodall J (2007) Engaging Parents in Raising Achievement: Do Parents Know They Matter? London: DCFS Publications.
Hendra S (2014) Supertato. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Laevers F (1994) A Process‐Oriented Child Monitoring System for Young Children. Leuven: Centre for Experimental Education.
Ofsted (2018) Early years inspection handbook. Available at:
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/760110/EY_inspection_handbook_281118.pdf (accessed 5 February 2019).
Siraj-Blatchford I and Sylva K (2004) Researching pedagogy in English pre-schools. British Educational Research Journal 30(5): 713–730.
Willis L and Exley B (2018) Using an online social media space to engage parents in student learning in the early years: Enablers and impediments. Digital Education Review 33: 87–104.