Opinions. You know what they say about those.
And yet they matter. Yours certainly does, and the DfE want to hear it. Until January 31st, they have a consultation open on their proposed Early Learning Goals (ELGs) and other reforms to the process of assessing children at the end of Reception.
If you haven’t already submitted your ideas, I urge you to go ahead and do so. And to help you out, I got the opportunity to talk to four people with some especially important opinions too. Jan Dubiel, Sue Allingham, Sue Cowley, and Nancy Stewart are some of the most well respected and well-informed people in the early years industry.
I asked them what they thought about the changes to the ELGs, how they think they might be applied, and the impact on Development Matters and beyond. But first, a quick recap on exactly what we’re even talking about.
If you read one other thing about the EYFS, I would recommend the brilliant Getting it Right in The EYFS from Early Education and tens of other organisations. A research-informed, consensus-building piece of work.
There is no doubt that the EYFS in its current form, with its focus on the child, advocacy of play-based learning, and continuity from birth to five, is one of the most renowned in the world.
But the last reforms to the EYFS were during the Tickell Review in 2011, and the DfE think it’s time to look again. According to the DfE, these reforms are prompted by a number of goals:
The draft proposals have been out since 2018, where they have been piloted at 24 schools, with some mixed results.
They were generally viewed positively, with trial schools saying they were clearer and the focus on less evidence-gathering seemed to reduce workload. However, they also wanted more supporting materials, and offered mixed responses on whether children would be better prepared for year 1 as a result.
So that’s the why. But what’s actually included? Well…
Before we hear what the experts have to say, a brief summary of the changes. You can read them in more detail in the full consultation document here, while Nursery World have a good summary of what’s changed between the initial changes and the ones now out for consultation.
The main changes are to the ELGs and the wording, including:
Other changes include:
On top of this, some things have specifically been highlighted as not changing or within the scope of this review, including:
While not included in the first consultation, the Development Matters will be revised in time for the new framework to become statutory in 2021. It will be written by Julian Grenier, and while we have no specifics yet, Julian’s writing for Nursery World and his own blog Inside The Secret Garden give us some indication of what he’ll focus on, including:
So, that’s what’s up for debate, but what about that debate itself? Well here’s what our experts had to say…
Nancy Stewart first advised on the EYFS review in 2012, and was behind the rationale for why the characteristics of effective learning should be included in the updated framework. She also co-authored the original Development Matters and is currently Chair of early years professional development association, TACTYC.
“We are clearly in a major review of the EYFS,” Nancy thinks, “and in my view, it’s fine to review the EYFS – there are clearly improvements that can be made in any framework, it’s a living breathing document. But what bothers me is that it started from the wrong end.”
Like many others, Nancy’s concerns are about the DfE beginning with the ELGs, and making the change in order to improve the link to Key Stage 1 after The Hundred Review concluded it was a problematic point between two curriculums.
“The whole impetus came out of the Primary Assessment Consultation, and had nothing to do with early years at all,” Nancy explains. “We’re starting backwards.”
“It very much concerns me that Reception is being hived off, with a different kind of curriculum,” she continues. “These children are very much still five years old and they have an entitlement to an early years approach and curriculum, not something that’s built purely to move them on.”
For Nancy, the ELG changes will inevitably impact earlier practice.
“If they’re starting to see Reception as purely getting ready for Key Stage 1, so they’ll start to see early years at three as getting ready for reception at four and so on,” she argues.
More specifically, Nancy has many concerns that the broader base of how children need to be developing is being forgotten.
“There’s no evidence that starting reading earlier means you get further in the end, for example,” she says. “Internationally where children start reading two years later, by the time they’re nine they’re reading just as well. And along the way you lose a lot by focusing on reading too early.”
The removal of Shape, Space, and Measure is another concern, with Nancy arguing the new split essentially means numbers get double weighting.
“Children learn through watching and manipulating materials that they explore through shape and arrangements,” She explains. “It’s making it too abstract too early.”
Nancy also has a number of concerns about the changed approach to Literacy, which are neatly summarised in an article she wrote for Nursery World. In particular the shift of one ELG from Communication and Language to Reading.
“We have to learn how to support growing communication,” she tells me, “and developing understanding comes before speaking – we can’t just take it out and call it reading comprehension.”
As an original author of Development Matters, Nancy thinks it’s right that changes to the EYFS should be reflected in a new document that ties up to the changes. But the lack of clarity is concerning her.
“We haven’t been given any timeline yet,” she explains, “and it has been a very secretive process. I’m pleased to see Julian will consult, but we don’t know how or who will be consulted yet.”
While she shares the concerns about Development Matters being used as a checklist, she’s not sure rewriting alone will solve this. What she thinks is needed is a clear agreement about what the job of Development Matters is and how it should be used before anything else.
“I think people want so many different things from it, it’s hard to do it all,” she explains. “I’ve heard comments that Development Matters has too many gaps, but we had to make it brief. You could make it a best-fit overview but that loses the people who want more structured guidance.”
She also underlines where the current age-band setup is helpful, explaining that new and inexperienced practitioners need that understanding of what is typical – something which you can read more about in her piece with Helen Moylett written in Nursery World.
Jan is an internationally recognised expert in early years, and is part of the panel that has been brought in to consult on the proposals during and after the pilot process.
“It’s really important to state that the EYFS is renowned throughout the world,” Jan explains, “the model of the areas and the characteristics, the pedagogy and key person approach that we all take for granted – it really is admired elsewhere.”
But for Jan, that doesn’t necessarily mean change can’t be positive. In particular, he’s eager to stress that these changes do come from a desire to make things more clear for Reception teachers during the end of Reception assessment process – the EYFSP.
“The conversation is quite school heavy, because it’s about dealing with the Early Learning Goals and the profile specifically,” he explains. “That’s why things like the characteristics and the prime areas are being revered in the text just as they always have.”
One feature of the changes is that some ELGs have moved between areas, but this isn’t such a big concern for Jan.
“We have seen different elements go into different areas of learning throughout the development of the EYFS,” he says. “At one point handwriting was in physical development, for example.”
According to Jan, one thing that’s important is that the interconnected nature of the areas is again highlighted strongly in the proposals. This is particularly relevant with regards to the removal of Shape, Space and Measure.
While Jan tells me he would personally like it kept as an ELG, he says he finds it hard to see how it wouldn’t be taught in the classroom as part of all mathematical learning. “You’d have to deliberately prevent yourself from teaching it,” he says, “I think it should be in there, but just because it isn’t doesn’t mean it will get lost.
In a separate presentation, Jan highlighted the need to comb through the proposals and try to find language that is problematic or unclear for your consultation answers.
In particular, he mentioned that under self-regulation children are expected to take instruction ‘even when engaged in activity’, and he questions how this could be assessed in Reception without adults actively choosing to disrupt deeply involved children. He also pulls up the proposals on Expressive Arts and Design, asking how we’re meant to assess that children ‘try to move in time with music’?
“It’s important the language is so clear,” he adds on our call. “Where you need to pitch this is at the least experienced, least confident practitioner and how they might interpret it. Can they make it work? I do think in its current form, some of the wording in the consultation doesn’t do that.”
“I do think that Development Matters is misused quite badly in a number of ways,” Jan tells me, echoing all of our experts’ concerns about using it as a checklist approach.
He admits that he’s not sure what the new Development Matters will look like, but that his understanding is that it will be much more curricula-focused.
However the final document appears, a key theme in our conversation is Jan’s belief that all practitioners and leaders need to interpret it using their own understanding. “Development Matters is non-statutory,” he stresses, “and because it’s guidance, it’s important to understand that you can and should be flexible with how you use it.”
When any big change comes in the sector, it’s important that the Continuous Professional Development (CPD) around it is done right. And that’s no different with the new EYFS proposals.
“When the revised EYFS is published and does become statutory, it’s so important that everyone is trained effectively around it,” he explains. “It’s about knowing that all settings can make those interpretations and see how it fits in alongside their existing pedagogy and the way they work.”
“Curriculums are always about stuff – knowledge and skills,” he adds, “and that’s why they’re so hotly contested. “But once it’s interpreted that’s when it comes alive and is made real and relevant.”
Dr Sue Allingham has both an MA and a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education from the University of Sheffield. She is a Trustee of Early Education and was part of the coalition that wrote Getting it Right in the Early Years. She sent me some thoughts over by email for this piece.
“It’s always good to review and reflect on what is being done,” Sue thinks, “even when it is working and effective.”
But just like some of our other experts, there’s a concern that the changes are born out of Key Stage 1 concerns, leading to a lack of early years representation.
“The perceived need for change to the framework came about from the results of the Primary Assessment Consultation, which wasn’t completed by many early years teams as it wasn’t directed at them,” Sue explains. “This has led to the sector being misrepresented.”
Sue also shares the concerns that this might lead to Reception being ‘lost’ from the early years. “It’s been reinforced already by the two separate ways of inspecting the early years depending on whether this stage is in an independent setting or a school,” she adds.
Sue has written for us before on the problem of using a checklist approach to next steps, and that’s something she’d like to see solved in any changes to Development Matters.
“The Development Matters guidance, though weak in parts, has always been a very useful document as a reference point for practice,” she says. “However it’s increasingly misused as a tracker and ‘next steps’ planner, which was not its original purpose.
Sue hopes that whatever comes next will keep the strengths of the existing guidance, while also including some updated thinking on neuroscience, mathematics and physical development in particular.
“It’s also hoped that the new document will be produced in such a way that it cannot be turned into a tick list, and that it will refer to stages of development only,” she finishes. One way this might happen, she thinks, is similar to something that Julian Grenier has suggested – removing the age bands altogether.
Sue Cowley is a renowned early years author, presenter and teacher educator. She has helped to run her local early years setting for ten years.
Like many of our other interviewees, Sue’s biggest concern is the entire approach to changing the framework to begin with.
“They’ve basically done it upside down,” she tells me, “they started with the ELGs, and that’s wrong, because you can’t just have a set of goals for a five-year-old that are related only to Key Stage 1 and don’t tie in with the normal development of children that age.”
For Sue, it seems as though early years has been an afterthought in the process, and there’s not been enough of a consideration that expectations at Reception level inevitably filter down to the rest of the early years.
“One of the big mistakes they have is that they just see these as being about Reception,” she explains, “they see these changes as part of the school, and not as part of an early years setting.”
By aligning Reception more closely with Key Stage 1, Sue fears that the EYFS could lose its status as a unique phase, something she’s explored at length for an article with Early Years Educator.
Like many, Sue is concerned about the relative secrecy surrounding the rewrite of Development Matters so far.
“The previous version was very much done by the whole sector,” she says, “consulting with experts, health professionals, taking on lots of different opinions.”
While Julian Grenier has promised that the process will involve a lot of consultation with the sector, it is as of yet unclear what this will really mean in reality. “It just feels like an attitude towards the sector that they won’t consult because they’ll ask for stuff that you don’t want.”
As for the suggestion to remove overlapping age bands, Sue’s not so sure. “Personally we don’t really use it as a checklist in our setting, but I do find the bands helpful for what you might expect at certain ages,” she says. “I’m not sure how you would rewrite it so that it wasn’t in bands, because child development does happen in stages.”
At the end of the day, Sue reminds me that Development Matters is and has always been non-statutory. “It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out,” she says. “People can always just use the current version – it has to change in theory, but it doesn’t have to change the basics of child development.”
One thing that Sue would like to see come out of the consultation is an even more rounded look at the Unique Child.
“Things around building positive images of themselves, how you keep them healthy, how you build those dispositions of learners – all the characteristics of effective learning,” she says. “You shouldn’t panic about everyone reading by the age of five – instead I’d take it back to first principles, that you make the child happy, cared for, safe, and healthy.”
She’s also concerned about exactly how practitioners will be able to apply the practice, when right now the educational programme wording is very focused towards older children, something Helen Moylett is also concerned with, saying “There is no mention of babies anywhere, and not much talk appropriate for children aged under three.”
“The EYFS should be written so that it’s applicable to all of the children in the phase,” Sue finishes.
Beyond the articles, reports and other important pieces littered throughout the article, here are some other great pieces I wanted to direct your attention to:
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.