Speaking at the launch of Ofsted’s first early years annual report yesterday, Wilshaw said providers are failing to meet the needs of disadvantaged children and that schools are best placed to narrow the attainment gap, particularly for infants as young as two years old.
He said: “Too many of our poorest children are getting an unsure start because the early years system is quite frankly letting them down.
“Year after year Ofsted has tried to persuade the sector to focus on learning, but our success has only been partial.
“As long as many in early years provision continue to believe that teaching is separate from play, those children most in need of help will continue to fall behind.”
His comments caused widespread anger across the sector, and led some to accuse Wilshaw of undermining providers that deliver high-quality care.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said there is no evidence to support his claim.
She said: “We have to question how Ofsted can draw the conclusion that disadvantaged two-year-olds are being failed by nurseries when the scheme to give free places to these children has only just started.
“Ofsted’s figures show the majority of nursery provision is rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, and high-quality nurseries are specifically designed to cater for the needs of very young children with experienced staff trained in early years development.
“A disadvantaged two-year-old in a good-quality nursery will be given an invaluable start by the early years professionals who understand their needs.”
Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, shares a similar view.
She said: “The evidence shows that high-quality childcare delivered through a play-based approach to learning is vital to help children develop the social, emotional and physical skills they need to thrive and is one of the most effective ways to bring children out of disadvantage.
“High-quality early years education can take place in a wide range of settings, not just schools.
“We need to see more support for all childcare professionals to help them improve their expertise and deliver the best possible care for those children and families most in need.”
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, agreed with Wilshaw’s desire to raise the standard of early years provision but said he has failed to recognise the good work of practitioners.
She said: “He is wrong in dismissing the excellent early education and care that is provided in thousands of nurseries around the country every day, and it simplistic and misguided to suggest that all children will be better served by the provision of formal education in schools from two.
“Children from the poorest backgrounds need the most support in the early years to enable them to prepare for school.
“This means high-quality, nurturing environments where children are able to play and learn with the individual support of expert early educators and teachers who are specially trained in the early years.”
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, added: “We are at a loss to understand why [Wilshaw] has essentially dismissed the existing huge network of experienced, passionate group settings and childminders who provide excellent, and appropriate care for young children despite chronic underfunding and a never-ending wave of ill-researched, ill-thought out early years policies.
“In his eagerness to insult the sector, [Wilshaw] seems to have forgotten that recent research ranked the UK’s childcare system as fourth out of 45 countries in terms of quality, accessibility and affordability.”
Meanwhile, former children’s minister Tim Loughton said: “We all know how crucial those early years are for children’s development and we also know that we need to up our game with improving the quality of experiences for toddlers be it at home or in childcare settings, especially for those from more deprived backgrounds.
“But sometimes I despair at the relentless tide of ‘schoolification’ of ever-younger children as we further erode their childhood.
“There is a worrying tendency for Ofsted and increasingly for the Department for Education to fail to value the things that happen outside of schools.”