Analysis: EYFS assessment isn't about paperwork

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When assessing children in the Early Years Foundation Stage, practitioners need not feel pressured to supply loads of evidence. Jennie Lindon explains what the task really involves.

The message from some heartfelt letters to Nursery World and chatroom postings has been that the EYFS has created brand-new bureaucratic demands. However, such problems are not new. Some practitioners were harassed to collect three pieces of evidence against every stepping stone of the Foundation Stage. Such a burden was never required by that framework, and neither is it demanded by the EYFS.

The resource materials in the Development Matters column are suggestions to guide and refresh knowledge. The Practice Booklet makes it clear that, prior to the early learning goals, the descriptions are all examples. They are not targets or outcomes, and they are certainly not a non-negotiable checklist.

The National Strategies Early Years team was so concerned about the burden of paperwork required by some local authorities that they sent a circular letter in July, stating: 'We have received some disturbing feedback about the quantity of paperwork that practitioners report is being expected of them by LAs in order to support the implementation of the learning and development requirements, and to provide evidence of young children's achievement ...

'It is, of course, extremely important to have accurate measures of the progress being made by settings in improving children's outcomes. However, there is a need to balance this with ensuring that the time and effort required to secure an accurate picture of children's outcomes does not detract from the capacity of setting leaders and staff to do their day-to-day work with children and parents in order to secure those outcomes.

'While it is important to encourage good practice in record keeping, and that practice in settings supports improved outcomes for children, it is also important to keep in mind that neither the EYFS nor the outcomes duty in the Childcare Act 2006 has added additional requirements in terms of paperwork for settings.'

GOOD PRACTICE

Many practitioners work with local authority advisers who are absolutely on their side, who want them to spend generous time with the children and not paperwork. I am pleased to mention (with permission) that Southampton has developed an assessment and recording system built around Learning Stories.

This kind of approach is consistent with the key principles described by the National Assessment Agency, the first of which is that 'assessment must have a purpose'.

That purpose is to reflect individual learning in an accurate way, a way that engages young children and their parents and which makes a positive difference to their continuing experience of learning.

However, just as settings started to challenge ill-informed judgements by Ofsted inspectors, so practitioners need to take a stand if their local authority advisers or team leaders demand:

- excessive amounts of evidence of learning for each child, or

- that all settings use a given pro- forma for assessment.

To do this, practitioners:

- will need to be clear about what assessment is, how it works and the requirements for assessment under the EYFS (and I've set these out below)

- should ask their advisers/leaders to explain their decisions

- should insist on providing feedback on how well an assessment format works, or on problems and uncertainties that need to be resolved.

what Assessment means in practice

Two broad kinds of assessment need to happen over the span of early childhood, and they are both required within the EYFS.

Formative assessment, often called assessment for learning, is an ongoing process in which you are alert to what babies and children choose to do or how they want to extend experiences that you have made available.

Summative assessment, also called assessment of learning, depends on alert observation, and good descriptive records of what has happened so far. But this kind of assessment pulls together an accurate picture of this individual child at this point in time.

Summative assessment is like a snapshot, a freeze-frame that brings together all that is known about this child. You know there is much more to come 'later', but here you capture 'now'.

Formative assessment is like a continuous webcam of development and interests. You will not notice everything and this week some aspects will catch your attention more than others. But your observation and related assessment are part of the continuing flow.

Informed choices

In the EYFS the usual aim of a summative assessment is to help adults to gain an understanding of a child unfamiliar to them. A summative assessment is also a time of focused communication with parents and perhaps children themselves. Some kind of summative assessment is beneficial when a child is about to leave their current provision.

The only required summative assessment in the EYFS is the Profile, which is completed in most cases by the reception class team and is the same as the Foundation Stage Profile, except for EYFS changes to the wording of early learning goals.

Summative assessment does not have to include a numerical component (quantitative); it can be exclusively descriptive (qualitative). Scores were made part of the Profile because Government wanted a means to measure children's achievement at this point. Local authorities have to submit the totalled figures to Government and now have improvement targets as part of their Early Years Outcomes Duty.

Other forms of summative assessment have been developed locally, because many children experience changes of provision. Local record formats are sometimes called a Profile, which can cause confusion with the EYFS Profile.

The EYFS Profile is the only specific, written record that is compulsory. However, practitioners could not meet the general requirements of the EYFS if nobody wrote anything at all until children entered reception class. The crucial point is that any other way of recording information - formative or summative - is a matter of choice.

Making it work

There is no required format in the EYFS for formative assessment. Decisions about any kind of written record should be informed by professional knowledge, judgement and discussion.

Yes, it is expected that practitioners will be observant and that some of your observations will become part of an ongoing record for individual children. Detailed knowledge of individual children enables you to fine-tune any plans.

No, it is not required that you use this or that particular layout for organising your observations, nor for sensible links into a flexible approach to planning.

There are possible pro-formas on the CD ROM against Principles into Practice card 3.1, but they are all suggestions and you could not possibly do them all. Personally, I favour the Learning Journey/Story approach, having seen it work well as a flexible form of documentation.

All practitioners across the EYFS will be involved in formative assessment as an ongoing process.

- Helpful practitioners never stop being alert to what individual children are doing today. You look, listen and note what has caught their interest, the way they have chosen to solve this practical problem or how enthused they are, perhaps with friends, to find out lots more about what happens if you ...

- For much of your time with babies and young children, 'note' means that you notice and make informal, of-the-moment assessments about what this child or small group might appreciate from you, now or a bit later.

- Many of your alert observations will be a mental note. You may 'note' in the sense of writing something down and putting that observation into a child's personal folder.

- Children should be able to contribute easily to this process - by words, their choices for what they want put in a folder and the photos they want taken.

You become familiar with individual girls and boys through the key person system in group settings. You can make some sense about how today links up for this child with yesterday and last week. You can make an informed guess about how today might link forward to possibilities tomorrow and next week. In this way, your observation and ongoing assessment provides the information and making sense that feeds into flexible forward planning.

The EYFS does not require even more adult pre-planned activities. Noting any plans will be brief, much of it in your own mind and aired in conversation with colleagues.

Formative assessment is sometimes called 'continuous' in the EYFS pack. This word may explain why some practitioners believe they have to be writing on a constant, non-stop basis. You cannot, nor are you expected to, write down everything, nor to amass piles of evidence that have no genuine pay-off for individual children and their enjoyment of time with you.

Perhaps we should all remind ourselves of the words of author and consultant Mary Jane Drummond who, before the EYFS, wrote that the process of assessment is about seeing children's learning, understanding it and then putting our adult understanding to good use. If we are guided by those words, we will all be on track.

FURTHER RESOURCES

- Drummond, Mary Jane (2003) Assessing Children's Learning (second edition), David Fulton

- EYFS pack (ensure you have the revised, May 2008 edition). Tel: 0845 60 222 60 or download www.teachernet.gov.uk/teachingandlearning/EYFS

- Lindon, Jennie, 'All about ... Planning for the EYFS', Nursery World, 1 May 2008

- National Assessment Agency, www.naa.org.uk/naa_17850.aspx.

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