Sir Michael Wilshaw has written to early years inspectors urging them to focus on teaching styles and whether it prepares children for formal education.
The letter represents the latest attempt by Ofsted to increase the emphasis given to formal education in early years care, an approach that many nursery providers oppose.
In the letter, Wilshaw states that inspectors should “focus on evaluating whether children are being adequately prepared for the start of their statutory schooling” and lists factors that he feels should be taken into account when considering a setting’s rating.
He wants inspectors to consider how well early years professionals help children learn, how adequately they teach children early maths and reading skills, how well they extend children’s vocabulary and how they train children to listen to instructions and be attentive.
Wilshaw writes: “Inspectors should report on what makes teaching and assessment effective rather than on its style.
“I would like you to think carefully before criticising a setting because it does not conform to a particular ideological view of how young children should learn or be taught.
“I want to know how well settings help children to catch up when they enter with skills that are lower than those typical for their age.
“I expect reports to be clear about the extent to which a provider prepares children for school.”
Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey), said inspectors should consider all aspects of children’s development equally, rather than focusing on educational outcomes.
She said: “Pacey believes it is important that inspection judgments made by Ofsted are holistic in their focus, with equal consideration for children’s physical, social and emotional development as well as educational development.
“This is further evidence of a growing over emphasis on educational attainment taking place in the early years.
“Our school readiness research has shown that childcare professionals, parents and teachers advocate a play-based approach to learning and that preparing children for school involves much more than just early reading, writing and maths skills.”
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, supports some of the detail in the letter but disagrees with Wilshaw's focus on statutory learning.
He said: "We find it fairly ironic that Ofsted is delivering further guidance for inspectors when early years practitioner guidance is being stripped back.
"A child's learning is broad, complex and varied and any inspection process should reflect this.
"However, the content in the letter could be interpreted as a move towards seriously undermining the intent of the Early Years Foundation Stage – it is not the role of the inspectorate to redefine the framework, and we are concerned that this could potentially result in an increase in distorted inspection outcomes.
"The letter also raises concerns about the perceived lack of confidence Sir Michael has in his own inspectorate and does little to reassure practitioners who believe every inspector should have the relevant competencies and skills to make these judgments."