Moving the goal posts

Sue Cowley
Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Sue Cowley takes stock of progress being made to change the EYFS Profile and its associated goals, while weighing up how revisions to Development Matters will affect practice and learning.

The early years sector is currently experiencing a period of unprecedented change, with policy makers focused on the phase as having a key role within their plans for more ‘social mobility’.

First, there is a new baseline assessment being piloted in Reception classes, which is due to come into place from September 2020.

Second, we have a new Ofsted handbook and Education Inspection Framework (EIF) to get to grips with in time for this September, with only a handful of months between the publication of the finalised EIF and associated handbooks, and the new framework coming into force. While schools are being given a ‘grace period’ to put any changes to their curriculum in place, PVI early years settings are not.

Third, there is a pilot of revisions to the EYFS profile and the associated Early Learning Goals (ELGs) just coming to an end. The pilot ran from September 2018 to July 2019 in 24 schools, and an independent evaluation of the pilot by the Education Endowment Foundation is due to be published in autumn 2019. More information on the pilot and the evaluation is available on the EEF website. A full public consultation on the new ELGs is planned for late autumn 2019, with voluntary early implementation planned for September 2020 and the new ELGs and approach to assessment and moderation to become statutory in schools from September 2021.

New guidance, new goals
As part of changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) guidance, the new set of draft Early Learning Goals (ELGs) was published in 2018. At the time Early Education described this as ‘a rewrite of the EYFS curriculum by the back door’. Early Education also noted that, ‘The rephrasing of these sections is highly significant, removing whole topics such as Shape, Space and Measure, and Technology, and reframing Areas of Learning such as Understanding the World and Expressive Arts and Design into a quite different format to that which is in the current EYFS’.

At the time that the new draft goals were published, Michael Freeston, director of quality improvement at the Pre-school Learning Alliance (now the Early Learning Alliance) said that the underlying theme of the new ELGs appeared to be ‘a change from children as active agents in their own learning to more as recipients of what is presented to them’. Freeston expressed concerns that that the focus was more on ‘children receiving teacher input in the correct manner rather than being enthusiastically engaged’.

One of the authors of the original Development Matters guidance, Helen Moylett, noted at a recent Nursery World Conference that attention and understanding – key developmental stages of language and literacy – have gone missing from the new early learning goals. Similarly, practitioners and maths specialists within the phase have raised concerns about the narrow focus in the new ELGs on a series of targets around number. The DfE has said that the reforms have ‘two key objectives’ which are ‘reducing teacher workload and improving outcomes, particularly in language, literacy and maths’.

Consultation concerns
Many practitioners have expressed concern about the justification for this rewrite of the ELGs, which was first suggested by the DfE in response to the Primary Assessment Consultation.

The Primary Consultation was about assessment in schools, rather than in other types of settings, and so
the majority of those who responded to the consultation were not working in the early years. The non-school part of the early years sector, which makes up the majority of provision, was not consulted. To change a key aspect of an entire phase without full consultation would appear hard to justify, particularly since the majority of early years settings are within the private, voluntary and independent part of the sector.

The wording of the primary consultation questions seemed designed to get the answer about the EYFS that the DfE wanted, rather than to gather feedback on what was and was not working. Asking about the Profile, the question was: ‘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?’ This seems very much a leading question – it is unlikely that any practitioner or teacher would vote against improving something, no matter how well they felt it was working.

Downwards pressure
From the consultation, the DfE concluded that it was being told that ‘ELGs should be better aligned with expectations at Key Stage 1’. Rather than better aligning expectations at Key Stage 1 with those in the EYFS, it seems to have been decided that the pressure should flow downwards into ever-higher expectations of ever-younger children. The reforms introduced by Michael Gove have led to increased pressure of expectations throughout the schools sector, and this is now leaking downwards into a non-compulsory phase through terms such as ‘school readiness’ and increased demands for children to reach at the end of the phase.

Increasingly, it seems as though the DfE thinks about the EYFS as Reception classes in primary schools, rather than recognising that the phase runs from birth to five years old. The hotly contested Ofsted publication Bold Beginnings demonstrated that the focus of policy was going to be on the Reception year within the phase rather than on the needs of younger children. Although the Profile is an assessment at the end point of the stage, any changes to its content will inevitably impact on practitioners working with younger children, who are putting the foundations for this later learning in place.

New goals – new narrowing?
At a Westminster Education Forum event Susie Owens of the DfE said of the changed ELGs: ‘This is where we are choosing to put our focus. It doesn’t mean we don’t value the other parts which are there.’ However, it is clear from what has happened around SATs in schools that, whatever the DfE or Ofsted believe should happen, the focus for statutory assessments very quickly translates into the things that schools value and put emphasis on.

Where the new Profile focuses on a narrower range of outcomes, it is likely that the approach and curriculum in Reception will narrow to meet the new goals, no matter how often the DfE says that the ELGs are not the curriculum.

Concerns about self-regulation
Concerns have also been raised about the new self- regulation goals, which have been described as ‘not coherent with the existing research’. The goals are focused on a narrow understanding of what self-regulation is and how it develops in young children. The third goal – that children ‘pay attention to their teacher and follow multi- step instructions’ is not really about self-regulation, but about compliance and a focus on one aspect of memory (retaining information in working memory). We can see this focus on complying with adult instructions and on memorisation of information in the wider narrative coming from the DfE around learning.

Workload increase
It is hard to take the Department for Education seriously when it says it is trying to avoid excess workload for practitioners and teachers, given the numerous changes to statutory and non statutory documents from both the DfE and Ofsted, and with an additional statutory assessment being brought in during the Reception year. In its response to the Primary Assessment Consultation, the DfE seems to acknowledge that what it is asking will have a significant impact on workload, saying: ‘We understand that this means two statutory assessments will be administered in Reception, albeit for different purposes, and we will work with the sector to minimise burdens as far as possible’. It is difficult to see how it plans to mitigate the additional workload, particularly since the EYFSP will remain in place, even when the baseline becomes statutory.

In its response to the changed Early Learning Goals, Early Education pointed out that, ‘The workload problem has arisen from teachers feeling pressured to gather excessive amounts of data to support and “evidence” their observations’. With ever more accountability measures coming into primary schools, including a new multiplication check for Year 4 from the next academic year, it is hard to see how a reduction in workload will happen in a climate of such high levels of measurement and external testing’.

Changes to Development Matters
Given the changes to the ELGs, it is perhaps not completely surprising that it has recently been announced that Development Matters is being revisited, reviewed and updated. This, we are told, will bring Development Matters in line with the new goals and will provide ‘curriculum guidance’ for the phase. However, it has come as something of a surprise to many in the sector to hear that this well-loved document is being changed, with many practitioners unaware that these changes are taking place. Of all the documents that have been influential in the early years sector, Development Matters continues to be a favoured point of reference for practitioners in terms of the expected sequence of learning in the early years. Despite the fact that it is a non-statutory piece of guidance, it is extremely helpful for thinking about what builds on what during early child development.

The DfE says that changes are being made to ensure that the document is simplified and easy to follow, while discouraging unnecessary tracking. The changes are meant to be ‘about providing practitioners and teachers with a guide to help with curriculum planning and not the plan itself’.

Learn – Explore – Debate events
A series of ‘Learn – Explore – Debate’ (LED) events were held in London, Birmingham Leeds and Newcastle in July, hosted by the organisation, Foundation Years. Slides can be accessed from the weblink in the resources box.

At the events it was explained that: ‘Curriculum guidance is currently being developed through an update of the Development Matters non-statutory guidance’. Julian Grenier, who is a nursery school headteacher and Ofsted inspector in London, is leading the work on the changes to Development Matters, with a panel made up of a majority of schools-based colleagues, rather than those from the PVI parts of the sector.

At the LED events it was also stated that there would be specific guidance for the Reception year within the new version of Development Matters. The panel advising the DfE on the changes to the EYFS includes a representative of the think tank Civitas. This think tank publishes a set of ‘Core Knowledge’ materials in the UK, based on the work of E.D. Hirsch in the US. Hirsch is a favourite of Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and is most closely associated with the idea of ‘cultural capital’ – a phrase that we see in the new Ofsted EY handbook.

Given this, we might expect to see an increased focus on memorisation and knowledge in the revised version of Development Matters, a focus that mirrors the narrative that is happening more widely in schools.

Key points

  • The DfE has just completed a pilot of the new Early Learning Goals. The pilot is going to be evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation.

  • Concerns are still being raised around the changes to the ELGs, particularly the potential for narrowing and for increased and unrealistic expectations.

  • Development Matters is also being reviewed and rewritten, to align with the new goals.

  • There is currently a focus on changes to the Reception year within the EYFS, to bring it ‘into line with’ increased expectations in Key Stage 1. Over time, these increased expectations are likely to ‘flow downwards’ into the rest of the sector.

Useful resources

  • EYFS Profile Pilot here

  • Early Education: Commentary of the draft revised EYFS framework here

  • Nursery World conference report here

  • Primary assessment in England: Consultation response here

  • Assessing self-regulation here

  • Foundation Years: Learn – Explore – Debate here

  • Slides from the event here



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