EYFS reforms: Our ‘non negotiables’

Di Chilvers invites practitioners to reflect on what really matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage and emphasises that the essentials of existing best practice must be retained in the face of change.

Children's thinking and learning are intwined
Children's thinking and learning are intwined

So, what are your essentials for young children? The non-negotiables of the EYFS?

I start mine with the three ‘P's of principles, pedagogy and practice.

Principles – because we all need a secure starting point that captures our values and beliefs about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Our principles come from the EYFS Themes and Commitments – ‘Four guiding principles should shape practice in early years settings’ which remain a Statutory Duty (EYFS, 2017 p.6); the wide and rich research base which has grown extensively over the last ten years (see Getting it right in the EYFS: a review of the evidence, 2019) and from the work of highly regarded, world renowned theorists past and present.

Pedagogy – is the way in which we translate our knowledge and understanding of how children develop and learn into exemplary practice. Practitioners need the right ‘tools’ and to be equipped with a range of skills, strategies and actions in order to understand children and support their learning effectively. Being reflective and reflecting on practice is central to this process.

Practice – because what we do with our children is what matters the most. Exemplary practice provides every child with experiences and opportunities, which are well thought through, offering good continuous provision and open-ended materials which inspire, promote and encourage imaginative and creative thinking and learning.

Shaping the curriculum

The themes and principles are our starting point for shaping the early years curriculum. We have always known this – indeed, as it was launched in 2008 the EYFS was underpinned by the ‘Curriculum guidance for the foundation stage’. However, along the way we stopped using the word curriculum but the threads are there – in the Characteristics of Effective Learning; the areas of learning; play and playful teaching; continuous provision; child-led play; adult-led teaching; observation, assessment and planning were and continue to be the component parts of the curriculum.

Ofsted, in its Bold Beginnings Report (2017), stated that there was ‘no clear curriculum in Reception’ and, from this point, began the deconstruction of the EYFS starting from its belief that, ‘there was little guidance about what four and five-year-olds should be taught, beyond the content of the ELGs’ (p.5). This has left the door open for Ofsted and the DfE to now describe exactly what should be taught starting with vocabulary, phonics (‘First, fast and furious…’ Early Reading Film, Ofsted, 2019), formal reading and mathematics.

The focus of Ofsted on intent, implementation and impact (three ‘I's) as the way to devise a curriculum, has quickly become common language and everyone is busy trying to interpret this in the best way they can but always with the spectre of an Ofsted inspection in mind. For me, it is interpreted through our principles, pedagogy and practice (three ‘P's), which are more appropriate to the first six years of a child's life. If we are strong in our understanding and able to articulate our thinking through professional dialogue, which is respected, then early education is secure.

What is it like to be a child in your early years provision?

This is a great question that we should frequently ask ourselves – and which Ofsted is asking its inspectors to primarily focus on. It is good to know that we all want the same for our children:

‘Ofsted inspectors must use all their evidence to evaluate what it is like to be a child in the early years provision, taking account of the ages of the children and whether they attend part time or full time’. (Eearly Years Inspection Framework (EIF) Schools 277 p.77/EIF Providers 137 p. 29)

However, this will only be fully realised if everyone (including Ofsted and the DfE) has a secure, comprehensive and consistent understanding of how children develop and learn. If there is a sound understanding of the principles, pedagogy and practice then we are all working from the same starting points – we understand children and how to listen to their many languages (Malaguzzi, 1998) to support, extend, teach and inspire them. Although there are some significant creases to be ironed out!

  • Understanding is a term that is sadly missing in most of the Ofsted EIF and the DfE Reforms. With a relentless focus on knowledge as a priority Ofsted has said, ‘Progress means knowing more and remembering more’ (Ofsted 2019).
  • Children have amazing memories and absorb so many experiences, but these all need to be sifted and sorted in the short-term memory and connected to previous learning which then forms the strong foundation of understanding in the long-term memory. When we observe children in their child-led play we look for real understanding and mastery, not simply memorised repetition of knowledge.
  • Children are born ready to learn to be natural, expert explorers and active learners. The direction of travel begins with their starting points as babies and builds on the momentum of their development from the ground upwards and not the top down. This is called human development. Our job is to maintain that momentum through careful observation, tuning into the child, supporting and extending in appropriate and meaningful ways and teaching.
  • Ofsted and the DfE see young children's learning and development as content driven, sequenced, systematic and logical (Ofsted 2019 p. 284/141) and only in the seven areas of learning. However, children's development and learning is not linear and anything but systematic and rarely in a logical sequence which is why the Unique Child is the starting point for the Principles of the EYFS: ‘Babies and children develop in individual ways and at varying rates in every area of development’ (EYFS Principles into Practice Card). Children's thinking and learning can be seen as being interwoven and entwined rather like a ‘bowl of spaghetti’ (Malaguzzi, 1998). It is holistic, connected and complicated.
  • It also includes how children learn through the Characteristics of Effective Learning, sustained shared thinking and through their child-led play and interests. It is a far more complex process than the Ofsted framework and the EYFS proposed reforms give credit for, and is underpinned, by established theories and research into child development.

Watching children grow

How can we teach, support and work with young children if we don't understand their development and how they learn best? Working with young children in their formative years needs a clear understanding of how a child grows, develops and learns in order to teach effectively. The process of observation, assessment and planning is fundamental to good teaching and learning and is literally about watching children grow physically, cognitively, linguistically, emotionally and socially during the most sensitive period of their lives (birth –7). It is a professionally informed skill (Chilvers, 2018).

Observation is not without its challenges, including a reductionist view of children's development through simplistic and superficial proposals for baseline assessment at the start of the Reception year. These types of assessment, which do not involve observing children in the context they are most familiar with and acknowledging them as experts in their own field of play, are often quick fixes for Government/Ofsted accountability.

So, it is good news that both Ofsted and the DfE are championing a return to assessment for learning and making professionally informed Judgements after recognising that time-consuming systems, often involving tick lists, had contributed to workload. However, we need to be very clear about how this is interpreted and recognise that in the EYFS, assessment starts with observation and is based on our strong knowledge of child development, from which we make professionally informed judgements (a Statutory Duty 2.1,2.2).

Assessment for learning is an integral part of the process of teaching young children. Every time we observe and notice what a child is doing or saying we are recognising what this tells us about their development and we can then use this to inform their next steps. It is a continual cycle of observation (look, listen, note); assessment (analysing and deciding);

What next? (experiences, opportunities, environment, resources). The EYFS describes this process in clear and simple terms:

‘It involves practitioners observing children to understand their level of achievement, interests and learning styles, and to then shape learning experiences for each child reflecting those observations’. (2.1, p.13)

Professionally informed judgements are made when we draw from a range of sources to strengthen the decisions we make so that they are robust. For example, by looking at all the evidence you have from your observations, particularly in child-led play and activities, gathering an eclectic mix of their paintings, drawing, mark-making, photographs, learning and stories.

It is vitally important now that we hold on to what is essential for young children.

Useful resources

  • For more on Di Chilver's essentials for young children and non-negotiables – see watchmegrow.uk

  • For the observation and assessment toolkits see watchmegrow.uk/observation-toolkit/)

  • Blog at watchmegrow.uk/blog

Respecting children's development

I created the Development Map as a different way of looking at children's development and progress. This views learning as holistic, in ‘spaghetti mode,’ and enables us to see the relationship between areas of learning and how they impact on each other. It also enables thinking about how children learn through the Characteristics of Effective Learning, sustained shared thinking and child-led play. Above all it is about making sure that we respect, value and interpret children's development as early years professionals in order to avoid:

  • Underestimating the developmental potential of young children. If what they do, say and think is not on the list, where is it acknowledged as part of their progress?
  • Becoming a profession of ‘list checkers,’ always looking for something to tick off, rather than focusing on what children are actually involved in, often at quite a deep level
  • Looking for the superficial rather than the complex nature of how children are learning and deeper levels of engagement (think Characteristics of Effective Learning here)
  • Minimising our own professional knowledge of children's development, thinking and learning
  • To bring back the joy in observing children's progress and watching them develop as competent and capable thinkers and learners

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