On 24 October 2019 the Department for Education (DfE) launched a consultation into reform of the Early Years Foundation Stage. The consultation runs until 31 January 2020 and seeks the views of interested parties on the DfE's proposed changes to the Statutory Framework. The changes under consultation are to the Early Learning Goals that form the end of stage assessment to the Foundation Stage Profile, and to one aspect of safeguarding and welfare (oral health).
Consulting for change – a ‘top down’ approach
The DfE makes wide use of consultations to assess proposed changes to the curriculum. Key decisions are made prior to consultation, based on small advisory panels of those whom the Government considers ‘experts’ in a particular field.
The changes are piloted in a small selection of schools, before an online survey is launched to gather responses from the wider sector.
This creates a ‘top down’ approach to change, where proposals are presented as a ‘fait accompli’ rather than an attempt to develop policy in consultation with the whole sector. In response to the latest changes, the sector has felt it necessary to publish reports in defence of the EYFS as a ‘world class framework’. This includes a recent review of evidence published by Early Education, to which many early years organisations contributed, including the Early Years Alliance, the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) and the British Educational Research Association (BERA).
The DfE's choice of participants for panels has led to questions about its focus on the schools part of the sector rather than PVI settings. The same names have appeared on a number of different panels, leading to questions about whether the Government is seeking the full range of views.
For instance, the advisory panel looking into changes to the Early Learning Goals included an ex-secondary maths teacher, a representative of the think tank Civitas (who has appeared on two early years panels) and publishers of commercial phonics schemes.
Similarly, the advisory panel currently looking into the revision of Development Matters does not contain any representatives from PVI early years settings, despite these making up the majority of provision.
A range of responses?
The responses to Government consultations vary according to the perceived ‘audience’ for them, with certain groups less likely to respond, depending on how a consultation is framed.
The primary assessment consultation has led to the proposal for significant changes in the EYFS. However, while it elicited 1,102 responses from headteachers and 400 responses from reception teachers, it only included 126 responses from early years professionals.
An additional issue is that consultations ask for answers to specific questions, written by the DfE, and based on assumptions embedded into the way the questions are framed. For instance, the primary assessment consultation asked: ‘Should the profile be improved to better assess a child's knowledge, skill, understanding and level of development at the end of the early years?’
The DfE concluded from the responses that it was necessary to ‘bring the ELGs in line with Key Stage 1’. However, this could reflect teachers who were concerned about the ‘jump’ to the new higher expectations in Key Stage 1 and beyond, rather than a feeling within the sector that the framework was not appropriately challenging.
Similarly, answers to the question about whether respondents ‘agree that it is best to move to a baseline assessment in Reception to cover the time a child is in primary school’ led to the introduction of a new baseline test.
Again, from a head teacher's perspective the idea of a replacement for KS1 SATs, and consequently a seven-year period without any statutory tests, was clearly appealing and was supported by head teacher unions.
Evaluating the pilot
The Education Endowment Foundation conducted an evaluation of a very small-scale pilot of the new Early Learning Goals, which took place in 24 schools. Interestingly, especially given the current consultation, the evaluation states that, ‘There are no plans to conduct further evaluation of the reforms prior to roll-out.’
The pilot found that there were ‘mixed views about whether children would be better prepared for Key Stage 1 as a result of the changes, and about whether the new ELGs were more or less challenging than before’.
Changes to the proposals and implications for practice
A number of changes have been made between the original proposals for changes to the Early Learning Goals, and the finalised proposals as outlined in the consultation. The idea of the EYFS as a preparation for KS1, rather than as a phase in its own right, is threaded through the way that the new goals are written.
Overall, the new goals offer a much more detailed set of descriptors than the previous ones. This offers clarity for practitioners, but also the potential focus on meeting the goals that will be assessed, and the sidelining of areas that are not covered.
Communication and language
In Communication and language, the goals are now less focused on the learning of vocabulary through reading than in the pilot, with more emphasis on the ‘number and quality of conversations’ with adults and peers. However, there is still a keen focus on assessing the use of Standard English when speaking, with the new goal asking that children use ‘full sentences, including accurate use of past, present and future tenses and making use of conjunctions, with modelling and support from their teacher’.
There have been several changes in this area between the pilot goals and those put forward for consultation. The changed goals include an attempt to assess aspects of self-regulation, but unfortunately these still represent a narrow view of what self-regulation in this age group involves. The focus is still mainly on children complying with adult instructions and doing as the teacher says, rather than taking account of the more complex nature of self-regulation in the early years.
It is perhaps in this goal in particular that the lack of input from the whole of the early years sector appears to have led to mixed messages. There has been an attempt to acknowledge the vital role of attachment for this age group but again this aspect of early development has been underplayed.
The changes to the goals for Physical development appear to represent a missed opportunity, in that they still fail to make any link between physical and cognitive development. A mention of play has been added between the pilot and the consultation, perhaps to acknowledge how little reference is made to play within the goals as a whole.
Although the goals for Literacy have not changed between the pilot and the proposed new goal, these do represent a significant change in emphasis from the current requirements. There is much more detail specified now about the approach to the teaching of phonics, with a specific requirement to learn a sound for each letter of the alphabet and ‘at least 10 digraphs’.
The focus in this goal is now firmly on the cognitive rather than emotional aspects of learning to read, with books seen as a source of ‘knowledge of themselves and the world in which they live’, rather than as a source of joy, wonder and imagination.
Sector concerns about the removal of shape, space and measure seem to have been considered to an extent in the changes between the pilot and the proposed goal. A reference to ‘children's curiosity about number, shape, space and measure’ has been added between the pilot and the finalised proposals.
However, the strong focus in the Maths goals on number, rather than on building wider mathematical understanding, is likely to still be of concern for practitioners. The new goal now asks that children ‘count confidently beyond 20’.
Understanding of the World
Importantly, the word ‘sense’ has been added to this goal between pilot and consultation, so that, ‘The frequency and range of children's personal experiences increases their knowledge and sense of the world around them’.
The new goals fail to make a link between physical and cognitive development
The focus in this section is very much linked to school subjects, with the rationale that there should be ‘specific categorisation into historical and current figures, geography and natural science’. Again, this seems to reflect the view that the EYFS is a preparation for KS1 and school, rather than a unique and important phase in and of itself. This change also seems to ignore the approaches used in PVI settings, where the focus is now on developing learning through children's interests.
The level of detail in this goal in particular seems to reflect the fact that the advisory panel was made up of colleagues experienced in school-based settings, rather than those experienced in working with children from birth onwards.
Expressive arts and design
The goal for Expressive arts and design has undergone a significant change between the pilot and the consultation, with the goal for ‘performing’ removed completely. The focus of the current goal on children expressing their ‘ideas, thoughts and feelings’ has been removed, with the focus now on developing ‘artistic and cultural awareness’.
National/international early years frameworks
It is interesting to examine the way in which the Government's approaches to early years in England are now diverging from what is considered ‘best practice’ around the world. With education becoming a devolved matter, there are significant differences in approach in the different countries that make up the UK. For example, in Wales, the Foundation Phase covers children aged from three to seven years old.
Comparing the proposed Early Learning Goals for England with those in Singapore offers an interesting perspective on the demands we make of our youngest learners.
In Singapore, as is the case in many countries, the early years phase runs until the children are six years old.
The goals for the end of the phase in Singapore include words such as ‘enjoy’, ‘express’ and ‘create’. The requirements for all areas of the curriculum are both broader than the new Early Learning Goals, and also less intensive and specific. For instance, the goals for Social and emotional development ask that they ‘develop an awareness of personal identity’ and ‘manage their own emotions and behaviours’.
With ever-increasing pressure on our youngest learners, it is important that practitioners respond to the current consultation, to explain where and why the changes made do not align with evidence of best practice in early childhood education.
- By using consultations as a method for eliciting responses to its proposed changes, the Government limits the breadth of input it receives
- This is particularly the case where advisory panels do not contain sufficient or any representation from the PVI part of the early years sector
- Changes have been made to the proposed new early learning goals between the pilot and the consultation
- Some of the changes made address concerns previously raised by the sector in response to the proposals
Early Years Reforms: Consultation - bit.ly/34a8rP1
Early Education - bit.ly/2OB78Cc
Membership of Early Learning Goal Review - bit.ly/2s6ZXdB
Primary Assessment in England: Consultation Response - bit.ly/2QDASRC
Nurturing Early Learners Framework - bit.ly/2QFHVcs
EYFS Profile Pilot - bit.ly/37pAjRs