This has been an exhaustive process in which both common-sense and pragmatism have prevailed. A heartening verdict for all those who have worked hard to implement the EYFS since it became statutory in September 2008 is the pronouncement ‘There is much to be proud of’ which has obviously led Dame Clare to state that her aim through her report is to build on the strengths of the current framework.
This is an endorsement of the views of more than 70 per cent of respondents to the consultation who in autumn 2010 asserted that the EYFS was working successfully. At the same time the voices of the remainder, whose perception was that they were unreasonably burdened with large amounts of paperwork, have also been heeded.
WHAT HAS BEEN PROPOSED?
46 recommendations are set out in the report with proposals which could, if accepted, lead to a radical reconfiguration of practice in the early years. There is a strong endorsement of the principles and of the themes of the EYFS with support for play as the route through which the areas of learning should be delivered, and with a recommendation that there should be consensus about what playful adult-directed learning looks like.
There is also an increased focus on the characteristics of effective teaching and how children learn through developing the characteristics of learning: play and exploration, creating and critically thinking, and active learning.
At the same time it is made clear that play alone does not lead to successful learning and the role of practitioners and parents in supporting playful learning is emphasized as fundamental in children’s learning.
The key recommendations address:
- ways to prevent children from falling behind in their learning through early identification;
- the need for greater engagement of parents in their children’s learning;
- clarification of what would be the new ‘safeguarding and welfare’ requirements;
- simplification and easing of requirements for the exemption process for certain groups
- an overhaul of the EYFS curriculum framework particularly a focus on prime areas and specific areas togeter with the characterisitcs of effective teaching and learning;
- an EYFS website and a plain English document;
- the feasibility of a single integrated review at age 2 to 2 ½;
- a reduction in paperwork for providers of early learning;
- a focus on the relationship between play and learning; and
- a simplified approach to assessment at the end of the EYFS.
It is clear that Dame Clare has listened to all those who have expressed views about what is best for young children and that she has given due consideration to these in this response.
WHAT DOES THE REPORT ADDRESS?
Dame Clare has focused her report in four main areas:
- ways to increase inclusivity, accessibility and flexibility of the EYFS;
- ways to equip children for life and ensure their readiness for school;
- ways to keep children safe and
- ways to ensure a professional well-supported workforce with appropriate knowledge and skills and qualifications.
EYFS APPLIED TO ALL PROVIDERS?
One of the first recommendations focuses on the retention of an EYFS framework for all, yet, paradoxically, it seems, the report goes on to recommend that the process of exemption from the learning and development requirements in the EYFS should be eased and simplified for groups such as independent schools, wraparound care and holiday provision.
It is also recommended that all settings following the philosophy of the Steiner-Waldorf Foundation should be exempted from ceratin early learning goals which conflict with their philosophy.
Another area of focus is how information in the EYFS can be communicated clearly and simply to parents, providers and inspectors when there is going to be less support for quality improvement in settings (due to financial constraints).
The suggested solution is a revised EYFS with a Plain English Crystal Mark together with an easily navigated interactive website to help people find out about the EYFS. In addition it is suggested that the Development Matters statements are retained though presented in more simplified language and in a slimmed down format aligned with the proposed areas of learning.
ROLE OF PARENTS IN CHILDREN’S LEARNING
Several recommendations relate to the role of parents in their children’s learning as well as in the assessment process. Engaging parents in learning is seen as valuable and worthy of increased emphasis. Yet this is a big requirement for some practitioners and parents, particularly the parents whose children stand to benefit most from them engaging in their learning. This is because these are often the families whose lives are subject to greater ups and downs caused by adversity such as ill-health, poverty, unemployment and housing problems.
At the other end of the spectrum parents who are in demanding jobs and who work long or unsocial hours can also be difficult to engage. It is important then to recognise that although it may be desirable for parents to get involved in their children’s learning some may be unable to do so because of these factors.
At the same time not all practitioners are adept at successfully engaging parents and many would benefit from professional development in this area, so more may need to be done to ensure that this recommended engagement is supported in some way. One suggestion is that parents receive a brief explanation of the EYFS and what to expect from it when their child registers at an early years setting.
Another recommendation focuses on keeping professionals informed about children’s progress through sharing the early childhood health record, known as the Red Book. It is proposed this should be supplemented so parents can add relevant information including that drawn from a proposed summary completed when children are between 24 and and 36 months. It is also recommended that the Government works with experts and services to test the feasibility of this single integrated review of two-year-olds.
Bringing the focus of parents and professionals together through this approach would be invaluable since these partnerships could lead to earlier identification of delay and a significant reduction in the numbers of children who are at risk of falling behind in their development and learning.
Making explicit the different approaches to assessment for children with special educational needs is a further area addressed along with consideration of how children with English as an additional language can receive the necessary support prior to entering Key Stage one so that they can benefit from their learning. In a similar vein there is a proposal the government should investigate how the development of children’s English language skills can be effectively supported and assessed.
READINESS FOR LIFE AND SCHOOL
The most weighty and controversial recommendations in the proposed changes occur in the discussions around children being equipped for life and ready for school. Ranging from a considerable rethink on improving the areas of learning and development and a greater focus on child development to an overhaul of assessment including a recommendation to reduce the top-heavy Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), these recommendations represent a radical departure from current practice in the EYFS.
Overcoming disadvantage by early intervention
Using the term ‘school unreadiness’ to explore the emotive issue of ‘school readiness’ for four-year-olds in reception classes Dame Clare argues that being ready for school is not about being pressured too early into reading and writing but about giving every child the essential skills that will increase their ability to benefit from learning at school – thus preventing the inevitable spiral for some children of early underachievement.
Related evidence in the recent Allen report, Early Intervention: The Next Steps, reminds us that research shows ‘A child’s development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years’ (pxiii:2011).
Similarly this finding is consistent with the cross-party review on poverty and life chances where it is argued that ‘the first five years of life shape children’s life chances’ and that ‘by age three there are large and systematic differences between children from lower and higher income families and these gaps persist throughout childhood, as later attainment tends to be heavily influenced by early development’ (The Foundation Years by Frank Field 37: 2010).
Prime and specific areas of learning
Among the many recommendations in relation to curriculum the proposal to create a division of the six areas of learning and development into two areas described as prime and specific areas of learning will be seen as most significant.
The focus of the prime areas on personal, social and emotional development (PSED), communication and language (CL) and on physical development (PD) reflects the areas used in healthy development reviews by health visitors when children reach two to two and a half years of age.
The recommendation to require early years practitioners to provide a short written summary to parents during the same time span is indicative that these areas of learning have been selected, because they provide the ‘essential foundations for healthy development, for positive attitudes to relationships and learning, and for progress in key skills such as reading and writing (para 3.6)’.
Evidence shows that the right foundations of early learning (from pregnancy until age five) make significant differences to outcomes for children and to future life chances. Physical and mental health and the establishment of positive attitudes to learning that will continue throughout the EYFS into the school years and beyond are all affected by what happens at the beginning of children’s lives.
It is similar to baking a cake: getting the right ingredients is important. The ingredients in this case are the three areas of learning and development: PSED, CL and PD. Research tells us these are the most crucial ones in ensuring the very best start in life for all children, but particularly those children who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
Personal, Social and Emotional Development
The aspects that make up PSED are also essential for children’s understanding of who they are and what they can do. Making relationships is about understanding other people and making friends, whilst behaving appropriately towards others and understanding society’s rules lays the foundations of citizenship and moral understanding. In managing feelings and behaviour, children understand their personal feelings and those of people around them. Putting themselves in someone else’s shoes develops the important skill of empathy. Including PSED as a prime area will ensure that the foundations which allow children to feel good about themselves and relate well to other people are laid early: these are vital skills for life.
Communication and Language
Despite communication being an imperative from birth, too many children do not have the communication skills appropriate to their age. Difficulties impact on their later learning especially their skills in reading and writing. Success in these areas affects how children feel about themselves, their friendships and behaviour with others. Communicating is based on attention, speaking and listening, understanding and play skills. Including communication and language in the prime areas of the EYFS will help babies and young children to benefit in all other areas of learning.
Physical Development (PD) is about movement. Movement is a child’s first language and begins in the womb even before children are born. Movement allows children to understand their physical capabilities and to express themselves. It is directly connected with active learning which requires children to be mentally and physically engaged. Experiences of different types of movement helps children fathom abstract ideas and ‘make sense of themselves, properties of objects and … of shape and space’ (Cooper & Doherty, 2010, p18).
Using equipment and tools safely improves gross muscles such as those in the back and legs and fine muscles which are required, for example, in holding a pencil or turning the pages of a book. Children learn about taking care of themselves by exercising and eating healthily and so set down important habits for active lifestyles and sensible food choices.
The identification of these prime areas represents a shifting emphasis in the EYFS, recognising that embodied in early learning are the first foundations of the self and the self in relationship with others. The focus on these areas re-establishes a sense of the newborn infant as a competent and capable learner from birth.
The introduction of specific areas of learning may be seen as controversial and the label ‘specific’ may need to be reviewed given that most in the early years would argue that the selected areas of Literacy (L), Mathematics (M), Understanding the World (UW) and Expressive Arts and Design (EAD) are about the application of ideas, understandings and learning and, where young children are concerned are not specific - since nothing is compartmentalised in early childhood because everything links.
However, that these areas are significant even in the earliest years is not contested since most would agree they are the springboard into a love of reading, of nature, art, music, science, mathematics, design and technology and of place and the past – the basis of much of what is learned throughout children’s lives.
A number of significant changes are proposed in relation to assessment at the end of the EYFS. These include:
- a recommendation that assessment should be based primarily on the observation of daily activities that illustrate children’s embedded learning
- a reduction in the number of early learning goals which also reflect clearer links to Key Stage One in the National Curriculum;
- the introduction of a slimmed down EYFS Profile with a simple scale showing whether children’s skills and knowledge across the early learning goals for the seven areas of the EYFS are ‘expected’ (in line with expectations for five year olds), ‘emerging’ (below expectation) or ‘exceeding’: (working beyond the expected level) and reporting on the characteristics of learning.
Not unexpectedly in light of a number of serious regarding safeguarding issues, there is a call to make more explicit in the welfare requirements a discussion of the warning signs that practitioners need to be aware of if suspicious of the behavior of any colleagues working in a setting. In addition there is a recommendation that the EYFS should specify the content of child protection training that lead safeguarding practitioners are obliged to attend.
Further areas addressed by the report in relation to children’s well-being include:
- a recommendation for the Government to act on the recent report of the Advisory Panel for Food and Nutrition in early years and to consider providing advice to practitioners;
- a move to create parity between adult: child ratios in independent and maintained sector schools, and
- an encouragement for Government to review the 1:30 ratio in reception classes –which many people will be pleased is to be addressed.
Dame Clare has clearly understood the messages from professionals she has consulted with about the important role of the early years workforce. The final section in the report is far-ranging, covering areas such as workforce training, professional development and teaching schools for early years. Her final recommendations focus on persuading the Government to:
- continue to aspire to a graduate-led workforce;
- ensure that careers in early years are positively promoted
- ensure that vocational qualifications in early years are retained with prior learning accredited where expertise is recognised whilst also recognising the importance of developing qualifications both for young people and leadership.
This will please those people who have expressed concern about the use of vocational qualification routes for people with no prior experience as will the suggestion that, in the future, entry qualifications should be of a high standard consistent with the former NNEB diploma qualification.
Paperwork requirements have been a source of confusion throughout the life of the EYFS – dependent on the advice received from numerous trainers, Ofsted inspectors and consultants – each no doubt concerned to ensure that they were doing a thorough job in evidencing aspects of practitioners’ practice, as well as children’s learning.
The group most affected by this seems to have been childminders though no doubt there are many others who will breathe a sigh of relief to read Dame Claire’s unequivocal messages that paperwork should be kept to a minimum and her advice to practitioners to focus their greatest efforts on supporting children’s development rather than on writing complex risk assessments or producing reams of information to show how they meet the EYFS requirements.
PRACTICE: A SNAPSHOT
So, what would practice look like in the future if Dame Clare’s proposals were accepted? If all of the proposals in this report were to be accepted, there would be some major changes for young children, their parents and early years and health practitioners.
The focus would be on reducing bureaucracy and paperwork in order to get children’s development and learning right. There would be a greater emphasis in the period from birth to three on supporting babies and young children to develop their physical skills, together with their personal, social and emotional skills and language and communication skills.
This would address the concerns that many have expressed regarding the most vulnerable children whose development in these areas often needs support, particularly children’s speech and language development. It would also focus practitioners on the most important aspects of child development for the youngest children.
The emphasis on these areas would not be at the exclusion of the specific areas rather the specific areas would feed into and enhance the prime areas so babies and young children would still enjoy listening to and sharing stories; learning number rhymes and finding out about the world around them at the same time as building characteristics of learning which would equip them for life.
As children moved beyond the first three years they would continue to be developing their skills in the prime areas: personal, social emotional, physical and linguistic skills whilst gaining competence in the specific areas – which are the ‘cultural tools’ of our society that is – becoming literate, numerate and skilled in the use of technology; understanding the world around them including finding out about the people in their communities and the place in which they live and being able to draw on a range of means to communicate their original ideas, thoughts and feelings.
There are many positives in this report although some slight potential for confusion. Many will see the introduction of prime and specific areas as positive. particularly the early focus on developing language and communication skills, personal and social skills and physical and emotional self confidence. At the same time there will be those who fear that this may create a differentiated system between practice with children from birth to three and with those aged three to five.
This is clearly not the intention and this message must be conveyed loudly and clearly: it is simply a way to ensure that babies and young children receive the right type of experience relative to their individual characteristics, stage of development and needs and that as children grow, learn and develop they have opportunities to apply their learning through the specific areas.
On another note others will be concerned that it will be less likely given the economic climate that a single integrated review between health and education would ever be endorsed and many will also doubt whether and to what extent better training will be achieved when the largely female workforce continues to receive low pay.
However, this is a report about aspiration – one which hopefully will bring health and education services closer together with parents, ensuring that all children are supported to reach optimal development – their strengths and weaknesses noted and any special needs identified and supported early, in order to enhance their opportunities for play, learning and life. And, most importantly it seeks to ensure that children will be in safe hands in settings where well-led and highly trained practitioners care for them, safeguard them and support their play and learning so that their early years are truly the best foundations for life, health and learning.
- Cooper, L & Doherty, J (2010) Physical Development. Continuum International Publishing Group, York Road, London.
- Graham Allen, MP (2011) Early Intervention: The Next Steps, Cabinet Office, London.
- Frank Field (2010) The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults: The report of the independent review on Poverty and Life Chances, Cabinet Office, Whitehall, London.
- Tickell, Dame Clare (2011) The Early Years: Foundations for life, health and learning
Ann Langston is an early years specialist, conference speaker and trainer who has written widely on effective practice in the early years and contributed to the development of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and Birth to Three Matters frameworks. She works with Dr Jonathan Doherty providing services to a range of early years providers to support young children’s well-being and learning: www.EarlyYearsMatters.co.uk (to go live on 1 April). Ann can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org