Curriculum Questions and Answers

This Q&A has been written by Sarah Neville, Ofsted outstanding rated registered childminder

There is an ongoing professional discussion about the value of a ‘balanced teaching approach’ in the early years. It started a long time ago when the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) was first released and talked about ‘balance between activities led by children, and activities led or guided by adults’. The ‘balance’ discussion resurfaced with the Ofsted report ‘Teaching and Play in the Early Years – a balancing act?’ (2015) and was put into practice in more detail in the revised Ofsted Early Years Inspection handbook changes which came into force from September 2019.

We know that the EYFS is currently being updated so I would expect more information to be released over the coming months about how much focus will be given to a ‘balanced teaching approach’ that includes playful learning and direct teaching, especially for pre-school children. this type of holistic pedagogy is popular in the early years and has demonstrated its worth as practitioners combine child-led play and themes, topics or focus subjects to teach children new things.

Ofsted introduced the word ‘curriculum’ into the new early years inspection handbook. In this blog, one of a series which looks closely the new inspection framework through answering frequently asked questions, we will explore curriculum in more detail.

What do Ofsted mean by ‘curriculum’?

The early years curriculum is the 7 areas of learning – the 3 prime areas and the 4 specific areas.

The prime areas are the most important for life-long learning:

  • Communication and language
  • Physical development
  • Personal, social and emotional development (PSED)

The specific areas of learning support children’s learning in the prime:

  • Literacy
  • Mathematics
  • Understanding the world
  • Expressive art and design

The day-to-day curriculum also includes:

  • PLAY – child initiated play every day: inside, in the garden and on outings.
  • British values – linked mostly to PSED and Understanding the World
  • Children’s learning characteristics:
    • Playing and exploring
    • Active learning
    • Creating and thinking critically
  • Teaching children about life in modern Britain – linked mostly to Understanding the World but also across the whole curriculum.

Read more information about the learning characteristics 


What does the EYFS say about curriculum?

The EYFS does not mention the word ‘curriculum’ – it talks about teaching and learning to promote school readiness and ensuring each child has a quality learning experience.

Ofsted have introduced ‘curriculum’ in their new early years inspection handbook. You will find more information about this change from Ofsted in this Slide Share presentation.


What should a quality curriculum do?

A quality early years curriculum should interest and excite children’s learning and raise outcomes for children. It should also embrace inclusion and cover children’s wider development.

The curriculum should always build on what children already know and can do: it should begin with children’s starting points and cover new learning through quality teaching. Ofsted have defined their meaning of the word ‘teaching’ in the early years inspection handbook – footnote 18, page 34.


Who is involved in writing the curriculum?

Parents and practitioners should work together to think about what children know and can do – and then consolidate or build on their learning. Children are also an important part of the curriculum – their current interests and fascinations should be part of your day-to-day practice.

**Consolidate – practice, do again, try in a different way.

**Build on – learn something new as part of a carefully sequenced curriculum.


How can I provide a quality curriculum?

There are lots of different parts to a quality curriculum including, for example:

  • Getting the environment right – a well-planned environment is needed for quality learning
  • Resourcing to cover all 7 areas of learning
  • Daily routines that suit the children’s current care and learning needs
  • Sequencing the curriculum so children learn things in the right order.


Is there a curriculum I can buy?

No, we don’t have a curriculum to follow or use – DfE / Ofsted have not given us one. The Development Matters guidance isn’t a curriculum – it’s not a tick list either and many experts believe that over-use of guidance such as Development Matters and Early Years Outcomes may actually limit learning.

It is up to each provider to take their children’s starting points and their knowledge of child development and to work out a sequenced curriculum that works for them.


So, what do I need to do?

If your early years curriculum focuses on children’s play then you won’t go far wrong.

Play linked to, for example:

  • A good understanding of child development
  • Children’s starting points and your own baseline assessment of what each child can do
  • Inside and outside learning which complement each other
  • Scaffolding what children are learning and interested in
  • Developing children’s learning through books and stories
  • Challenging thoughts and ideas
  • Direct teaching so children learn new things

Remember: children only know what they know – teaching more helps them to know more!


What sort of curriculum should I use?

It’s totally up to you to plan a curriculum that works for you, parents and the children in your care. The EYFS has been informed by lots of different theorists and is very flexible.

For example, you might use a range of strategies if you find them useful, such as:

  • Montessori – as part of our early years curriculum, we teach practical life skills and provide children with real life experiences
  • Steiner – in our setting, we use small world resources a lot and promote fantasy play; we have quite a few natural resources and we are committed to buying more (rather than more plastic); we also collect bark, leaves, fir cones, stones etc to help children connect with the natural world
  • Reggio Emilia – we promote child-led learning in our setting alongside some adult-guided activities to teach children new things
  • Bowlby – we use attachment theory to ensure every child has a named key person who gets to know them really well. Even if you work on your own, each child needs a named key person to comply with the EYFS (safeguarding and welfare and learning and development requirements).
  • Vygotsky – in our setting, we recognise the importance of scaffolding children’s learning. We do this when we play alongside them and guide their play, supporting them by providing, for example, vocabulary or resources.
  • Te Whāriki – this is the New Zealand curriculum and we are currently learning more about it to use in the setting. For example, we focus much of our individual and group activities on supporting children’s personal, social and emotional development in the early years, teaching children about, for example, their emotions and how to manage relationships.

Note: in our setting, we pick what we believe to be the best approaches from a range of different ways of working. We note that the DfE did this when they published the EYFS.


Sarah, what curriculum do you use?

I am being asked this quite a lot. Alongside the theorists I have talked about above, focusing on the 7 areas of learning, in my setting our curriculum includes:

  • Our daily routines
  • Outside learning – we plan around the seasons to help children connect with nature
  • Outings – to support children’s learning and to link with their current interests
  • The emotional environment – we want to promote children’s emotional wellbeing and sense of belonging so we do a lot with cosy spaces and one-to-one relationships with every child
  • Each child’s sense of self – we are very much a child-led setting and we believe children need to learn to play on their own as well as in a group – to solve problems, to develop independence skills, to connect with their senses etc
  • Ensuring our continuous provision resourcing supports every child.


How should the day be run during inspection?

You should not do anything different for inspection – the children will struggle to settle into a new routine and the inspector will know that you have changed things. Think about what you do every day and make each experience the very best for every child.

Inspection routines might include:

  • Reading / story time – read to the children and tell stories – discussing, retelling, exploring text, extending books through craft, role play etc
  • Music and movement session - include nursery rhymes, number songs, dancing to music from around the world, listening to music etc
  • Meal and snack times – involve the children as much as possible in preparing and serving food – use meal times to develop independence, to learn about food and healthy eating and to develop sharing / maths skills
  • Outside play – to complement inside play. Ensure your play invitations for outside are high quality and that you have children’s interests and next steps in mind
  • Child-centred outings – it’s unlikely you will be able to plan an outing during inspection but some inspectors do pop on wellies and go on leaf hunts to follow a child’s interest.
  • Themed learning – we always have a theme in the background, linked to children’s current interests or the time of year or something new we want to introduce
  • Role / dramatic play – we always have an area set up that promotes imagination and wellbeing, expressing self and playing with others
  • Arts and crafts including mark making opportunities linked to other types of play. For example, if the children are role playing doctors, they might ‘write’ prescriptions
  • Fiddly fingers invitations – to strengthen hands and upper bodies ready for writing
  • Letters and Sounds phase 1 – we plan a daily activity for the pre-school children. At our last inspection, our inspector asked to see our Letters and Sounds planning.


Do I need to plan a circle time?

It’s totally up to you – but remember that if you are asking early years children to sit down, then movement should always come first – children cannot sit until they have moved. Then, if it works for you and if a short group learning session benefits the children, circle or group time might be used to, for example, focus on PSED or your current theme / topic.


We do have to be careful with circle times – some children might find them frustrating and boring and other children might disrupt them because they do not know how to behave in a group. We want children to be engaged, excited and interested – we want the time we spend with them to be valuable, not wasted (think: herding cats), so keep any group times short, relevant, interactive and interesting.


Do I need to plan a theme?

Again, it’s totally up to you – child-initiated learning should always come first in the early years, but the EYFS states: ‘As children grow older, and as their development allows, it is expected that the balance will gradually shift towards more activities led by adults, to help children prepare for more formal learning, ready for Year 1.’ EYFS requirement 1.8.

We want children who are engaged (not passive learners) and we need to ensure children are learning across all 7 areas of learning including reading books, extending vocabulary, focusing on the process and, as they get older, the end product of their learning.

If themes work for you, use them – if they don’t, then you should consider how you extend children’s interests and introduce new learning about, for example, the world around us, shapes, letters, numbers, dinosaurs, people who help us, under the sea etc in different ways. publish monthly planning for gold members on the Childcare Guides website. This will help you to plan your early years curriculum effectively. Ofsted have stated that they will not look at paperwork – they want to see the curriculum in practice. The documents from effectively do your planning for you, so you can get on with the job of playing and interacting with the children.


What do Ofsted say about reading books?

Reading books will be a focus of the revised inspection framework. In schools, for example, Ofsted are focusing on how teachers use phonics to teach all children how to read; in the early years, Ofsted want to see us introducing children to a wide range of books with a diverse content.

This is an interesting article based on an Ofsted presentation, which talks about how we read to children and the importance of them understanding the ‘substance’ of the story rather than being constantly interrupted with questions:


What do Ofsted say about teaching vocabulary?

Closely linked to reading books to children, Ofsted will also be focusing on how early years practitioners develop children’s vocabulary.

You will find more information about reading and vocabulary in this YouTube presentation by Gill Jones, deputy director of Early Education at Ofsted.


What curriculum does Ofsted want to see?

Ofsted won’t comment on the type of curriculum you use – they will look at its effectiveness – its impact on outcomes for the children in your care. Inspectors want to see children who are motivated, engaged and thinking (using their learning characteristics) in a well organised environment with quality resources which support their learning. You are the main resource – an interested, involved and engaged practitioner who believes each child has the potential to be the best they can possibly be.

Ofsted will ask you to show them how you ensure every child makes rapid progress from their starting points – and how you deliver cultural capital for each child.


How does curriculum link to cultural capital?

Cultural capital is inspected in the ‘quality of education’ section of the revised inspection framework (point 142, page 32 – and footnote 17). Cultural capital is about providing awe and wonder in children’s lives. We do that in many different ways – including through using the 7 areas of learning to provide an exciting, interesting and knowledge-based curriculum which engages the children’s interests.


What do I need to do ready for the revised inspection framework?

I don’t know your pedagogy or practice, but I can share some of the things I have done to help me prepare for the revised inspection framework:

  • Read through the revised inspection framework and made notes of the main changes
  • Watched Ofsted YouTube presentations and read their webinars to make sure I understand what they will want to see
  • Read articles on, for example, cultural capital and early curriculum and made my own decisions about how they translate for my setting
  • Used the ‘good’ grade descriptors in the early years inspection handbook to start my self-reflection – how well we are doing and what we want to do next to support our practice
  • Reviewed our knowledge of child development and the ways we track children’s progress to ensure we are supporting each child’s learning journey effectively. This has involved making small changes to our record keeping.
  • Researched and written webinars to share with colleagues which will cover:
    • The main changes to the inspection handbook – what inspection will look like from September 2019
    • The early years curriculum
    • Enhancing children’s vocabulary
    • Reading
    • Cultural capital etc.


**Note: I am keeping an eye on the proposed changes to the Early Learning Goals which are currently under consultation and to the proposed tests for reception children. As soon as they have been decided I will consider in more detail whether I need to make any further changes to my provision or ways of working.

You can keep updated with new information through the latest blogs:

Q&A about the new inspection framework 

Q&A about learning and development during inspection


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