A cautious welcome has been given to the revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) by many in the sector, especially with the introduction of the three Prime areas - Personal, Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development and Communication and Language - being greeted positively.
Nancy Stewart, principal consultant with Early Learning Consultancy, believes that this clarification of Prime and Specific areas will help people to understand how important they are for children throughout the early years. This is thought to be an especially good approach for those working with babies and younger children, potentially removing aspects such as 'calculating' for newborns.
Registered childminder Penny Webb, who operates Penny's Place in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, says she finds it reassuring that the suggestions for supporting children's learning and development in the guidance material are all achievable within a home-based setting and with no need for expensive resources. She also takes heart that it is a play curriculum.
The vibe is that the early years sector wants to be upbeat about the new framework because it is statutory and they will have to embrace and work with it from September. It is hoped that it will provoke practitioners to reflect and improve on current practice.
'At the end of the day it is down to interpretation by practitioners and they are the ones who need to make it work,' says Jan Dubiel, national development co-ordinator at Early Excellence. 'Good practitioners will keep what is best at the forefront and it is good that the document is open to interpretation and quite flexible.
'The real gem is the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning. To have this in is brilliant and it has the potential to redefine practice because it focuses on the process of learning. It could be immensely powerful because it is all about how children learn, the process of learning and taking ownership of learning.'
Author and early years consultant Penny Tassoni regards herself as a 'critical friend of the EYFS'. She says, 'I welcome the focus on Prime areas and the concept of the two-year-old check. There is also a definite strengthening in the role of the key person. They are now required to offer a settled relationship with both the child and parent.
'The other reason I am happy with the EYFS overall is there is a clear requirement for providers to plan for individual children and what they plan must be "challenging and enjoyable". That should put an end to activities that are not stimulating but boring or not age appropriate. I am delighted to see that.'
LACK OF CLARITY
But, of course, there are numerous concerns. It has been raised that in the Safeguarding and Welfare Requirements there is no clarity between the use of 'must' and 'should'. Ms Tassoni suggests that it would have been helpful at the start of the statutory document to have an explanation of the legal requirement of the two words - '"Must" is very black and white and non-negotiable, whereas with "should" the expectation is that you will,' she says.
It is proposed that the reforms will reduce paperwork and bureaucracy, something that the majority of the early years profession would welcome but are cautious to celebrate until they see how it is interpreted. Early years consultant Margaret Edgington voices the opinion of many when she says, 'Unless the Government is quite clear that practitioners can keep records as they choose, then it will not reduce paperwork because there is such a culture in local authorities and Ofsted of asking for data against non-statutory areas. We need a clear message from Government.'
Then, instead of 69 early learning goals (ELGs) there are now 17 - a reduction that has been excitedly highlighted by the Department for Education but which Jan Dubiel finds 'insulting to our intelligence'. He has worked out that there are at least 140 separate components in these goals. 'I would say the actual content is at least similar if not more than before. All that has been done is it has been compressed and collected together,' he comments.
Pre-school co-ordinator Sue Williams, British International School of Ljubljana, Slovenia, thinks condensing the ELGs is reminiscent of the Desirable Learning Outcomes from the 1990s. She says, 'This document wasn't rated highly once it was put into practice due to grouping the various outcomes together. I remember there were huge debates about the implications of this as the misunderstanding of these groupings led to many children being expected to achieve skills way above their age or developmental level. I have grave concerns that the same thing could happen again with this new EYFS.'
While Ms Stewart agrees that the 'meat' of the ELGs has been condensed, she says, 'Practitioners should not focus on each separate bit as they have done in the past but move to a best fit mentality and see it as trying to give a typical general description.' She hopes it will stop checklist mentalities and reduce paperwork.
During the consultation significant numbers responded that they were unhappy with some of the goals, particularly in writing and numbers, but no changes have been made. Penny Tassoni wishes reception teachers 'good luck' when it comes to the goal that children 'write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others'.
She says, 'To make this the threshold is to put pressure on reception teachers and it is a very unrealistic goal. I would like to know where the research evidence for that as a normal expectation is.' Ms Stewart adds that there is a huge focus on phonics, which she believes, 'discounts a love of books'.
When responding to the consultation and Tickell review, Linda Thornton, early years consultant, had expressed concern that scientific content is being lost and is lacking the rigour of the current EYFS. She feels this concern has not been taken on board in the revised documents and also questions, 'whose world is it?'
She says even the examples used tend not to reflect boys' typical interests, tending towards a more 'feminised' curriculum, 'What has happened to the children who live in rural communities? A lot of the EYFS fits in with what children know who live in the city but there is barely a reference to rural communities,' she says. 'Much of what is in the documents about the world would be an anathema to 50 per cent of children.'
A two-year-old check has been introduced following concerns that children needing additional support may not get it soon enough. This is regarded as helpful but it is not clearly outlined when practitioners should conduct the check - when a child turns two or before they are three - and Penny Tassoni says structured assessment guidelines are needed. 'There is reluctance to pinpoint a clear expected development in the way other professionals, for example health visitors, deal with children,' she says.
Ms Stewart wishes more attention had been paid during the consultation to comments regarding school readiness, which is even flagged up in the Framework introduction.
'They are still talking about more formal learning in Year 1, which is unfortunate. The way this is defined in the ELGs this time - as what children are expected to attain - is not helpful,' she says.
'In the old document it said "most children", and the new one has a blanket statement which makes no reference to the fact that some children will be nearly a year older than others at the end of the EYFS, or that children have different health needs. This has turned into a barrier that children need to jump over before they can move on.'
Jan Dubiel is also unhappy with the many 'unhelpful' references to school readiness. He says, 'It is said that this is an evidence-based review but where is the evidence that says that more formal learning works? The idea that formality produces better results or outcomes contradicts the evidence.'
Margaret Edgington argues that the underlying concept of the EYFS having set goals that children are expected to achieve is wrong. 'I see practitioners who are so driven by what the children are expected to achieve that they have lost the art of seeing the unique child in front of them; they are just matching things to a grid,' she says.
She would like to see the EYFS starting from a different premise. 'We should be looking at developmental perspectives and not where we want children to be at age 11 and working backwards. Goals do not work,' she believes.
'It is well understood that toilet training and walking depends on a child's developmental level not age, but this is forgotten when it comes to literacy, even though if a child does not have the right development it is not going to happen either. We really need to think again with the EYFS.'
Jan Dubiel believes as long as practitioners receive support in interpreting the revised EYFS, it can be made to work. He says, 'Practitioners need to be confident to do what is right for the child and they need to trust their professionalism to make judgements that are right for the children in their setting.
'Come September, the practitioners will have the same interactions and quality practice and it will all be about making the new document work. The document does not change what practitioners do.'