Guest Blog - Written by Julian Grenier
Preparing for the revised Early Years Foundation Stage: questions and thoughts
- ‘How am I going to track children’s progress?’
- ‘How do I check children against age-related expectations?’
- ‘How am I going to create baseline data for children when they start?’
These are the three most questions that practitioners are asking about the 2021 Early Years Foundation Stage. In this blog I am going to offer some thoughts in response.
Are these the right questions?
I don’t think they are.
It’s understandable that these are people’s first questions. After all, for years we’ve been supplying ‘data’ to local authorities, Ofsted, PVI owners and management boards and senior leaders in schools. But we were getting things the wrong way round. It was like putting the cart before the horse.
What we should focus on in the early years – and every other phase of education, for that matter – is offering children the best possible care and opportunities to learn. That’s all about care, pedagogy and curriculum. That’s why those are the first four ‘key features of effective practice’ in the revised Development Matters.
Assessment comes after that.
So, when we are thinking about making changes to our provision, in response to the changes to the EYFS, we should focus on the areas which make the biggest difference. Those areas are high-quality care, pedagogy and curriculum.
What approach should we take when we are assessing children in the revised EYFS?
I would bear three main points in mind.
- The most important role assessment has, is to improve the child’s learning and overall experience. So most assessment is minute-by-minute. It’s scaffolding children’s learning. For older children in the EYFS, it’s about giving kind but precise feedback that helps them to reflect on and develop their learning.
- Lots of ‘data’ about children won’t actually help us to ensure that any individual child makes great progress, or overcomes difficulties when they are struggling. What we need, for children who are struggling, is a close and detailed look at what their difficulty is and how we can help them overcome it. We want our assessment information to celebrate every child’s progress – whether that’s small steps or huge strides. We also want it to pinpoint children’s needs, so we can help them quickly.
- If you think of the time we spend on assessment like a cake, I don’t think that we should divide it up equally between the children we’re working with. Rules of thumb like ‘four observations per child per month’ are not sensible.
Most children, given a high-quality enabling environment and curriculum, loving care and effective pedagogy, will make sound progress in our settings. They don’t need lots of assessment work. In fact, all that work on ‘evidence’ and ‘tracking’ can take us away from the place where we make the most difference. That’s with the children: listening to them, developing conversations, playing with them, and teaching them new skills and concepts.
Some children may struggle with their learning at certain times. We should focus our assessment work on those children. Try to work out what their strengths are, so we can build on them. Try to work out what their needs are, so we can help them. We might want to consider using diagnostic assessment to take a close look and to support our wider professional judgement.
What about curriculum?
The curriculum is the ‘top level view’ of all the things we want children to experience, know and be able to do as a result of coming to our setting or school. We should develop and set that out clearly and briefly with our staff teams and parents. That way, everyone can be engaged and ready to support the children to achieve the key milestones in our curriculum.
We need to take a balanced view. Much of children’s best learning is driven by their interests and fascinations. Children’s play and self-directed exploration are great ways for them to learn. The balance of child-led learning and adult-guided learning/direct teaching should change as children get older in the EYFS. Older children need more adult-guided learning and direct teaching.
We need to check that all children get the experiences and teaching they need to become secure in key concepts, like early numeracy. We can’t do that solely by responding to children’s play.
So how does this all link together?
Minute-by-minute assessment practices, like scaffolding and feedback, are essential elements of effective pedagogy.
The curriculum we develop for our children will have key ‘milestones’. Those key milestones should guide our approach to assessment. When we are clear about what we want children to experience, know and be able to do, we will also be clear about what we need to assess.
Scaffolding is the way that we make sure every child can access the curriculum. Some children will need more help than others. What’s important is that we focus our efforts to make sure that every child can take part, and can thrive. For children with SEND, I think that we should ‘scaffold up’ so that they are included in the curriculum and they’re learning alongside their friends. I don’t think we should ‘differentiate down’ – offer them different and less challenging learning.
What about age-related expectations and children being ‘on track’?
The first thing to note is that the purpose of the revised Development Matters is different to the predecessor document.
It’s there to offer guidance on the sorts of environments, resources, support and teaching we might offer children at different stages in the EYFS. That’s why it’s called ‘Curriculum Guidance’.
That leads it up to us to develop an appropriate curriculum for our children, drawing on the guidance.
Development Matters also includes the brief Educational Programmes, which are statutory – we must follow them, as they are in the statutory framework.
Development Matters isn’t meant to be a long assessment list.
Previous versions of Development Matters included detailed age-bands. Lots of us – me included – used those to comment on where children were ‘on track’ for their age, or above/below.
Those age bands were problematic in several ways. Children’s learning and development doesn’t look like that. Instead, as the new Development Matters says, ‘Babies and young children do not develop in a fixed way. Their development is like a spider’s web with many strands, not a straight line.’
So the focus is on providing what’s right for the children and making sure they have plenty of time to enjoy, practise, repeat and become secure. Different children will do that in different ways.
The rest of the educational system has moved away from the sort of ‘assessment with levels’ that we were following with the 2012 Development Matters. It’s important that, in the early years, we keep up with important developments in practice like this. I’ve blogged about this before.
So my key suggestions are:
· Check that children are making progress as they access the curriculum we provide.
· Give children extra support and scaffolding where needed.
· Make sure that our assessment is useful and helps us to do this.
What about assessment on entry?
Assessment on entry should also focus on what will help our work.
I think that means we need to know about (depending on the child’s age, as some aspects won’t be relevant to babies and toddlers, or may need adapting):
- Confidence – how a child manages the move from parent to key person or childminder. How they manage to develop relationships and play or explore alongside others.
- Communication – how a child manages to express their needs and use communication to join in with others. How well they manage to follow instructions, when this is necessary.
- Physical development – how well a child’s small and large motor skills enable them to play with the equipment and enjoy the spaces we offer.
- Self-help – how well a child manages drinking, eating, toileting, their coat and dressing/undressing.
Why do we need to know these things specifically?
Given an effective settling in approach, most children (with ups and downs) will settle well, and quickly be joining in with all the play and learning we offer. They will be accessing our curriculum and thriving.
But some children will have barriers in one or more of the areas above. So they will need extra help to settle in. We will most likely need to work especially closely with their parents. If we can’t give them the help they need quickly, then they’ll miss out on lots of valuable play and learning. We want all our children to feel confident, happy and capable, as soon as possible.
In other words, those assessment points will help us to identify which children need extra help. They will be useful to our work. They help us think at the level of the individual child. Whereas a big set of data about how many children are ‘below expected’ won’t help any individual child manage a difficult settling-in experience.
We can also use this information to guide discussions about progress with parents and with managers/school leaders. We’ll expect to see children communicating more over time, for example, and joining in more with play and exploration.
Throughout the EYFS, the key thing is that we use assessment information to help each child to learn effectively and make sound progress. I think that we need to be especially careful about noticing if a child is at risk of missing out on the play and learning we offer.
It’s all about acting quickly, so children are helped to keep up with their friends. It’s not about having lots of data that we act on at a later date, in order to put in ‘catch up’ help (which is harder to offer, and less likely to work).
If parents are expecting a lot of ‘evidence’ to be logged and shared about their child’s development, this will be a good time for dialogue to explore that. On the one hand, celebrating children’s learning is important. Those online journals, or Learning Journey books, are very precious to parents. They also provide a good context for parents and children to talk about learning, at home and in the setting.
But there is a balance to be struck. Parents will understand that too much time spent on all this ‘evidencing’ means too little time for staff to have conversations with their child, play with them, and teach them new skills and concepts.
So is there no need for tracking data at all?
I’d suggest two points here.
First of all, bring in changes in a manageable way, over time. You might need to move gradually from your current approach, to new ways of doing things. That’s sensible. You could pilot new ways of working, e.g. a week where the team (if you are in a setting) spends less time recording ‘evidence’ and more time interacting directly with the children. Reflect together on how that goes and move forward with what you learn.
Secondly, different settings have different needs. I’m leading a pretty large nursery school with over 200 children on roll. We need to check how different groups of children are progressing, to ensure we are promoting equalities. So we looked for a way to do that, without taking up excessive time. We use the Early Years Toolbox app for that purpose, because those assessments can be carried out quickly, and they’re fun for the children.
That won’t suit everyone – it’s the choice that works for us. It gives us some data headlines, but that’s only a part of the holistic view we take of each child, and those headlines guide us rather than driving everything we do.
Do we still need to plan 'next steps' for all our children
I'd suggest this isn't needed for all children.
Where children are thriving and accessing the curriculum we offer, and learning independently through their play and exploration - they don't all need 'next steps'.
- Our professional understanding of child development helps us minute-by-minute to support learning and development.
- The progress model of our curriculum helps us to make sure that our enabling environment and our playful, adult-guided learning promote progress.
The problem with 'next steps' is how quickly they get out of hand. If I have a group of 20 children, and each child has 2 or 3 next steps, I need to bear in mind 40-60 plans all the time. I don't think that's realistic.
However, I'd also suggest:
- Agreeing how parents and the nursery setting/childminder will collaborate to help a child with an important next step in their development is useful. I think that should be something of key importance, like toilet training, or learning to ride a bike without stabilisers. Both parties need to collaborate to support the child.
- If your planning process with 'next steps' is working for you, don't throw it out. Just reflect on whether there are opportunities to make your planning less time-consuming so can put your energy where it will make the biggest difference. This whole discussion about the revised EYFS is about reflecting on guidance, and then making the professional judgements that will work for you, the children and their families, your staff team and the wider local community.
I’d suggest the following approach to making changes in response to the revised EYFS:
- Explore the revised EYFS for yourself. For example, the revised Development Matters is a quicker and simpler read than the old document. You’ll need to find 90 minutes to read that. Check the changes to the Statutory Framework, too.
- Dialogue – talk with your team and with parents about the changes to the EYFS. In schools and settings – managers, senior leaders, and others will need to be part of the discussions
- Reflect and self-evaluate - what do you do well? Make sure you preserve that. Where are there opportunities to make changes?
- Prepare: have a credible plan to make the necessary changes so that you are in line with the new requirements. Think about a plan for 2021-2022, with realistic milestones. Don’t plan to change everything for the first week of September.
- Prepare: make sure your team have time for discussions and time for the professional development they need.
For more guidance on making changes and planning professional development, you could check out the book which I have written. You can download it for free - Working with the revised Early Years Foundation Stage: Principles into Practice.
Julian is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre in Newham, East London and also a National Leader of Education, one of the co-founders of the East London Partnership Teaching School Alliance.
If you would like training on the new development matters we have a great webinair here.