Analysis: First thoughts on the EYFS


Something is missing from the revised Early Years Foundation Stage, argues Ann Langston as she examines the newly-published framework.

The statutory framework for the new EYFS has finally arrived - slightly sooner than had been expected. Sadly, it's as lean as we had anticipated, with just a handful of paragraphs focusing on children's learning and development.

This is certainly a no-frills document, without so much as a silhouette or line drawing to suggest that it is about young children's learning, development and care. One has to wonder whether there can really have been so little funding that we couldn't afford some pictures!

The 'suite' of materials coming from several sources, including the Department of Education, National Children's Bureau and Early Education, which will guide leaders, managers, teachers, headteachers and practitioners, are hardly eye-catching (with the exception of the revised Development Matters, where at least there are some graphics, including children's faces).

The reason may be that when plans were put in place to reconstitute the EYFS, it may not have been immediately obvious that the task was much greater and more costly than first appeared. Not judging a book by its cover has lost resonance in these days of self-publishing and cheap printing. Appearance is important - an attractive cover can draw a reader in and an image can sometimes convey what words can't. Because of its layout, rather than making things clearer, the reconstituted EYFS statutory framework document seems more, rather than less confusing, particularly section three, which is peppered with any number of 'musts' and 'shoulds'. In spite of previous calls to differentiate between these, the opportunity for clarity has once again been lost.

CHANGES

So, what do the changes amount to in all, and what have we gained from the costly exercise of reviewing and reconstituting the EYFS?

The cynical might suggest that little has been gained through this incursion other than that the term 'school readiness' has crept into the language of early education, a progress check for two-year-olds focused on the most disadvantaged has been introduced and the early learning goals have been reduced.

In addition, we have a change in the mathematics early learning goal to reflect a focus on numbers to 20, as opposed to ten, and the problem-solving dimension has been restored.

Another change is that the learning and development requirements for literacy now include the need to encourage 'children to link sounds and letters', which is not currently a learning and development requirement, though it is an outcome in the EYFS Profile.

PRIME AND SPECIFIC

Beyond this, there has been a division of learning into Prime and Specific areas. The first is focused on child development, the second related to subject knowledge and skills. The introduction of the two areas has been in response to increasing evidence, mainly from the US but also from the UK, which highlights the significance of the early years for children's future life chances. For example, Graham Allen argued in his independent report, 'Lessons learned in this period (the first three years) can last a lifetime, and prepare an individual to progress physically, mentally and emotionally at every stage of life' (1). Why, then, in the presentation of the Prime areas, is Communication and Language placed before PSED? Surely, it cannot be more 'prime'?

Of all the lessons from research over the last few years, the one that has been writ large is that children's emotional development is what influences their lives, development and their learning. Indeed, before birth the baby responds to the sights, tastes, movement and sounds in the womb and can be affected by stress if the mother is exposed to it (2).

And, following birth, the nature of attachment relationships affects children's attitudes to themselves and others - usually positively, sometimes negatively. The WAVE Trust report warns, 'To the best of current knowledge, the window for emotional sensitivity and empathy lies within the first 18 months of life' (3).

TWO-YEAR-OLD CHECK

However, one positive that can be drawn from this division is that the Prime areas are being recognised as highly important - so much so that they are to be a strong focus of practitioners working with the youngest children. However, the progress check at age two will require practitioners working with this age group to be very skilled at judging children's development and at record-keeping, if they are to carry out the assessment in the prescribed manner.

One problem will be that if the Development Matters statements are not to be used as a checklist, what will practitioners use, in the absence of any further guidance? The irony here is that neither the revamped, nor the current development statements were ever intended to offer a detailed developmental check. This detail was provided in the Early Support materials on the EYFS CD-Rom.

PLAY, TEACHING AND LEARNING

What about play, teaching and learning in the new EYFS? The positioning of play as central to children's learning that we were promised in the response to Dame Clare Tickell's report appears to be a sentence, which risks being lost in among discussion of the judgement call that practitioners must make in the balance between activities led by children and those led or guided by adults.

Children's play is complex and when children have opportunities to play and interact with one another, with reflective practitioners alongside them, the possibilities are endless. Seeing the amazing construction in the picture which had been built painstakingly by children in a reception class I visited the day the guidance was released, it demonstrated to me convincingly the truth of Vygotsky's claim: 'Therefore, a child's greatest achievements are possible in play - achievements that tomorrow will become his average level of real action' (4).

In their play with objects and ideas children are learning far more than can be measured. They are learning to relate to others, to think, to plan, to consider, and review and amend their ideas; they are combining thought and action through hypothesis-testing.

If we are to enable children to develop imagination, creativity and possibility thinking, we must ensure that play is not devalued in the new currency of the EYFS, in favour of a pedagogy based on a desire to make children ready for school.

Schools and schooling offer a substantial part of a diverse learning experience alongside what children have at home, with friends and at pre-school. Wanting every child to be literate and numerate is a desire we all share; how we support them to become so is a professional judgement balanced between the child's needs and their interests. Fortunately, this area is given a little more space in the non-statutory Development Matters.

THE MISSING PIECE

The principles of the EYFS remain, as do the themes and commitments. What is missing is a solid articulation of the rationale - the 'why' and the 'what' and the 'how' of the new EYFS, the words and images that inspire people and make them want to embrace change.

For those who have trodden the path of change, or part of it, over the past few years, perhaps another change can be accommodated. But for the uninitiated, sadly, the document is unlikely to ignite, enthuse or inspire a generation to pick it up and gasp in awe and wonder. Hopefully, the children they work with will!

Ann Langston is director of Early Years Matters consultancy, http://www.earlyyearsmatters.co.uk

MORE INFORMATION

The new EYFS documents can be accessed at:

FOOTNOTES

(1) Early Intervention: The Next Steps. An Independent Report to Her Majesty's Government by Graham Allen MP. January 2011

(2) What's Going On in There? by L Eliot, 2000, Bantam Press

(3) Violence and What to Do About It: WAVE TRUST Report 2005

(4) www.all-about-psychology.com/lev-vygotsky.html.

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