Bold beginnings and the importance of reception

In 2018 Ofsted appointed Professor Daniel Muijs to be its new Head of Research. One of his first publications, Bold Beginnings,  proved to be an explosive read. In the report, he made recommendations into how the early years curriculum could be improved. Here, he writes exclusively for researchED magazine, setting out some of the research that informed the piece.

Early years matter. The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) study, in which the impact of the take-up and quality of early years provision in England was tracked over time, showed that good early education had significant lasting effects across primary schooling (Sylva et al., 2004).

Furthermore, there is evidence that children who fall behind in pre-school do not find it easy to catch up later. Early deficits can persist throughout primary education, meaning children who lag behind in reading and numeracy during pre-school will continue to do so for the rest of their schooling (Olofsson & Niedersoe, 1999; Foorman et al., 1997; Sparks et al., 2014).

This is a particularly important issue in terms of social justice, as children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to lack reading or numeracy skills when they enter primary school (Chatterji, 2006). Promisingly, though, there is evidence that attending high-quality pre-school provision can reduce the effect of social background on a child’s cognitive development (Hall et al., 2013).

In England, the Reception year is pivotal in providing a bridge between pre-school and the start of formal primary education. So it is should come as no surprise that Ofsted chose to take a closer look at this phase, nor that our resulting report, Bold Beginnings, generated widespread interest and indeed some controversy within the sector, not least as we found that the effective Reception providers we visited prioritised reading instruction and early mathematics alongside play-based learning.

One of the criticisms of our report is that it does not take into account the research base on early years education. This is a simplification of the evidence base, which ignores a range of research supporting the balanced approach we advocate in Bold Beginnings. In this article I will look at some of this evidence.

Play matters…but so does the formal teaching of reading and numeracy

Criticisms of Bold Beginnings have emphasised the importance of play for early development, not least in developing dispositions for learning, but also in supporting reading and numeracy (eg Whitebread & Bingham, 2014).

Bold Beginnings clearly acknowledges the importance of play in Reception, as have previous Ofsted reports such as Teaching and play in the early years – a balancing act?

However, there is also clear evidence that, alongside play-based approaches, the formal teaching of reading and numeracy are important, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Programmes aimed at improving early years education can have long-standing effects, not just on educational attainment but on a range of societally desirable outcomes, such as reduced delinquency and higher graduation rates (Barnett, 2011; Kagan and Hallmark, 2001; Stipek and Ogana, 2000).

For example, a large-scale meta-analysis of 123 comparative studies of early childhood interventions in the US found that attending pre-school (defined as prior to Kindergarten) was positively related to cognitive outcomes and social skills. The study also found that within EY interventions, the use of teacher-led instruction was positively related with cognitive gains (Camilli et al., 2010).

The EPPE study I mentioned earlier showed that effective early years pedagogy included direct teacher instruction. This refers to the provision of instructive learning environments and ‘sustained shared thinking’, where the child works with an adult to solve a problem (Sylva et al., 2013).

Looking specifically at reading, it is rather depressing to have to continue making the case for systematic phonics instruction when this is possibly the most extensively researched and solidly supported practice in education. Of course, we need to engender a love of reading and literature in children. And authentic texts are important to this, as is reading to children, which we acknowledge in Bold Beginnings.

However, authentic literature and rich contexts are not a suitable substitute for the explicit teaching of phonics decoding skills. Evidence for this comes from, among many others, the large-scale National Institutes of Health studies in the US, and subsequent evidence reviews from the National Reading Panel (Lyon, 1999; Moats, 1996; NICHD, 2000). These findings replicate across countries, with Hattie (2009), for example, likewise finding strong positive effects of phonics instruction.

There is also evidence that synthetic phonics instruction is particularly effective. In a widely cited study in Scotland, Johnston & Watson (2004) compared the reading skills of children taught using synthetic phonics with those of a group taught using analytic phonics, and found the former to be more effective.

A subsequent study of 10-year-olds whose early literacy programmes had involved either analytic or synthetic phonics methods found that the pupils taught using synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and reading comprehension (Johnston et al., 2012).

Reading instruction should not have to wait until the start of formal schooling. And indeed for many children from middle-class households it doesn’t, which is one of the factors that exacerbates inequality. Early phonemic awareness and decoding skills substantially predict later reading achievement, and interventions aimed at improving them are shown to particularly benefit children who struggle with reading (Kendeou et al., 2009; Ehri et al., 2001; Hatcher et al., 2004).

Similar findings emerge from research on numeracy. Early numeracy skills predict attainment in primary school, and the quality of early years provision is one factor that influences early numeracy, alongside experience of counting and numbers at home (Anders et al., 2013; Aubrey et al., 2006; LeFevre et al., 2009).

Another review of 19 studies showed that both formal instruction and play-based activities led to improved numeracy skills (Mononen et al., 2014).


The Bold Beginnings study did not explicitly set out to confirm the evidence reviewed above, although it had a clear focus on reading and numeracy. The study underlying our report was an empirical analysis of 41 good and outstanding schools, selected because they performed highly against a range of indicators, including EYFS development levels, the Phonics screening check and attainment at Key Stage 1 (for full details see the technical document).

However, in supporting a balanced approach that includes explicit instruction in reading and numeracy alongside play-based learning, Bold Beginnings does corroborate a wealth of research in the field.

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