Best practice: Up for discussion

Under the new Ofsted inspection framework practitioners are expected to talk meaningfully about how their curriculum has achieved impact for children. But where is the best place to start?

Observations need to be based on the how and why.
Observations need to be based on the how and why.

Having considered the importance of effective observations in informing our intent and implementation in the first two parts of this series, I will now examine how these enable us to understand the impact our input has had on the learning and development of the children in our care.

Ofsted expectations

The Early Years Inspection Handbook (Ofsted, 2019) states that inspectors will consider how well ‘leaders and practitioners evaluate the impact of the curriculum by checking what children know and can do’, including how well:

  • Children develop detailed knowledge and skills across the seven areas of learning and use these in an age-appropriate way.
  • Children articulate what they know, understand and can do in an age-appropriate way, holding thoughtful conversations with adults and their friends.

The Early Years Inspection Handbook (rightly) does not specify how this evaluation should be achieved although the Early years Foundaton Stage (EYFS) provides some guidance:

  • 2.1 Assessments involve ‘observing children to understand their level of achievement, interests and learning styles, and to then shape their experiences for each child reflecting those observations.’ (DfE, 2017)

Assessment burdens

Traditionally, settings will have achieved this assessment through systems of observations and tracking methods.

In many cases such systems have become burdensome, unmanageable and frequently unfit for purpose, paperwork for paperwork sake. The inappropriateness of this has been recognised by the DfE in the EYFS which is very clear on the matter:

  • 2.2 ‘Assessment should not entail prolonged breaks from interaction with children, nor require excessive paperwork. Paperwork should be limited to that which is absolutely necessary to promote children's successful learning and development.’ (DfE, 2017)

Ofsted's new inspection framework reiterates this and feedback from inspections since the September implementation indicates that it has been focusing far less on paperwork and far more on what it sees and is told.

  • ‘Inspectors must spend most of the inspection time gathering first-hand evidence by observing the quality of the daily routines and activities of children and staff. These observations enable inspectors to judge the contribution practitioners make to children's learning, progress, safety and well-being.
  • Inspectors do not expect to see documentation other than that set out in the EYFS. They will use the evidence gathered from discussions and their own observations to help judge the overall quality of the curriculum provided for children’ (Ofsted, 2019)

What does progress look like?

‘…emerging, developing and secure; observed new skill performed three times; new skill or knowledge consistently applied…’ These are all ways in which progress has been defined. Ofsted has discussed progress in terms of children's learning during which with their newly acquired knowledge moves from short to long term memory, evidenced by them gaining skills and understanding that were not there previously. Integral to this is the adult's input; in their design and implementation of the EYFS curriculum and how, as part of their teaching they assess the impact of this:

However, a child's development is not neat and linear. I recall a talk by Helen Moylett, co-author of Development Matters. She showed a graph illustrating this point. On the axes were the child's age/stage and plotted between these were a spaghetti-like tangle of coloured lines representing the areas of learning and development, as they weaved between each other, a little up, a little down, a little forward, a little back, but with gradual upward movement, showing that progress was evident, but definitely not straight!

Effective observations

So, how do we know that our teaching has had an impact and that consequently the children in our care know something new or have gained a new skill? How do we know they are making progress?

It might be when a child uses a new word that the adult introduced previously. It may be when they display a new skill, such as cutting paper with scissors after the adult modelled the grip for them or held the paper still. It could be hearing the child explaining a newly attained concept that they had been exploring with an adult earlier, such as why some stones make bigger splashes in the water than others.

I have previously written about the importance of undertaking effective, high quality observations, in order to note children's interests, learning and development. Observations are a vital tool that tell us so much, when conducted appropriately and with purpose. We need to know the children well, and our knowledge must be underpinned by secure understanding of child development for our observations to be of the most value.

Susan Isaacs, one of the pioneers of early childhood education, developed and advocated the use of naturalistic observations which she viewed as providing a window into the thoughts, knowledge and understanding of the child:

‘If we watch him when he is free to play as he will, the child shows us all that he is wishing and fearing, all that he is pondering over and aiming to do’ (Isaacs, 1937, 2013)

‘By patient listening to the talk of even little children and watching what they do…we can wish their wishes, see their pictures and think their thoughts’ (Isaacs, 1971).

We naturally observe children constantly, and these incidental observations help us to form an accurate picture of each child we care for. How though do we share this with other practitioners to support their knowledge of a child? How do we share it with parents? What if we want to dig deeper, to improve our understanding and planning or have a concern about the development of a particular child? In this situation we may choose to undertake a more detailed, deliberate observation of the child. For example, this may be while they are undertaking a specific activity, or it may be at intervals to map their play over a period of time, or to explore their response in a social or emotional situation.

Whatever method of observation we choose to employ, it needs to be relevant and meaningful. It needs to enable us to note not just what the child is learning but why and how. Only by doing so will we truly understand the learning taking place and how this can be supported further.

Recording progress

How do we evidence progress without it becoming an onerous and potentially pointless exercise?

At inspection Ofsted will be expecting to see evidence of learning through its own observations of practitioners interacting with children and through professional discussion with practitioners. For some practitioners this may be challenging. It requires a certain degree of confidence and skill that not all may have. For childminders working alone and settings where ratios are tight, it may present logistical difficulties as they juggle meeting the needs of the children alongside the needs of the inspector.

In a busy setting where there are many staff, or staff working part-time, having written records may be helpful in ensuring that all staff benefit from each other's knowledge of a child. There is also enormous value in sharing observations with children and their parents. Therefore, you may decide you do want to record some of your observations and assessments, in order to benefit staff and children. But how best to do so?

Anna Ephgrave, who has developed the concept of ‘in the moment planning’, uses a ‘focus child’ system. Practitioners capture short observations on a sheet of paper, with supporting photographs, of a child's learning journey through the period of time in which they are the focus. Every child is observed in this way at least once per term, usually over a week, with input at the start from parents regarding the child's current interests. The observations are just a sample of the interactions taking place but all demonstrate a ‘teachable moment’ in which the practitioner recognises a spark of interest in the child to which they can add or extend on the spot or ‘in the moment. The practitioner's input is highlighted in a different colour and the learning that has occurred is included. This is the whole planning cycle, or the three I's compressed into a moment of time. The learning journey sheets are added to the child's folder but also reviewed by their key person to identify possible next steps that can be supported going forward.

Within the Reggio Emilia approach documentation panels are used to ‘make children's learning visible’. These include written notes, photographs, scribing the child's words, children's drawings and models. This process is referred to as ‘pedagogical documentation’ and is more than a simple record of children's experiences, encompassing the voice of the child and opportunities for reflection.

‘Pedagogical documentation supports educators in both including child development in their view, but also looking beyond development to capture broader aspects of experience for reflection.’ (Wein, 2013)

Another approach is that of the ‘learning story’, developed as part of the Te Whariki curriculum in New Zealand by Margaret Carr. Written, narrative observations document the child's (or group of children's) experience as if the practitioner were addressing the child directly, describing what they saw them doing. The practitioner adds their interpretation of the child's abilities and ‘dispositions toward learning’ (think Characteristics of Effective Learning) highlighting what the child can do, rather than what they can't. Learning stories are shared with the child and their families with their comments added.

Many settings collate folders, often referred to as learning journals, that illustrate the child's progress through their setting, including observations, charts and reports the setting.

Others use online systems, but the content is usually largely similar to their paper equivalents. Trackers and progress summary charts may be useful to see at a glance if a child is ‘moving up through the age bands’ (albeit erratically) and working ‘within their expected level’ but a skilled practitioner will know this already, because they know the child. Trackers may be useful to a point, but they do have limitations, and tell you very little about the child as a person and what inspires them. They need to be used in context.

I hope I have provided food for thought and ideas for further investigation.

Key points

  • Ofsted is focusing far less on paperwork and more on what it sees and is told
  • Practitioners are expected to have a conversation about how their curriculum impacts children's learning
  • Observation is key and it needs to enable practitioners to note not just what the child is learning but why and how
  • It's up to practitioners to determine the best ways to record children's progress, using a variety of means

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