The Government response to the Primary Assessment in England consultation has been met with a mixture of concern and suspicion by early years professionals who feel their opinions are being ignored. While elements of the document are welcomed, there are worries about the underlying consequences of proposed changes, especially that they may lead to increased downward pressure on early years children.
The report effectively spells the end of Key Stage 1 (KS1) tests, signals the introduction of a new baseline test for Reception children, and while retaining the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), flags up changes both to it and the Early Learning Goals (ELGs).
The key aims of the proposed changes to the Profile and goals are to ‘reflect the latest evidence on child development and predictors of future attainment’, ‘strengthen the teaching of literacy and numeracy in the early years’ and ‘bring the ELGs in line with Key Stage 1’ (see box).
Along with these potentially conflicting goals is contradictory language that vacillates between advocating ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ approaches to early learning, and so has left early years experts wondering which ‘side’ will win out.
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, regards the document as ‘confused’. She says, ‘I can see that it’s written by civil servants caught between understanding the comments of the sector and being told they must press ahead with something in opposition to that. The result is that it will unravel pretty quickly when they try to do it.’
Independent early years trainer Helen Moylett is in no doubt as to who the ‘winning side’ will be. She is ‘horrified’ by the proposals, which she thinks are not in the best interests of early years children.
‘The overall tone of the document as it relates to early years is summed up with the first chapter heading, “Preparing Children to Succeed at School”. The EYFS is a key stage in its own right, not merely a preparation for school,’ she says.
‘This is particularly important to remember when the school success that is measured and counted is literacy and mathematics. If we are not careful, the holistic nature of learning in the early years will be narrowed into those two areas.
‘Justine Greening says in the introduction that the consultation provided “a great deal of expert advice” – much of which has been ignored! Government listen to people who want to formalise early education, most of whom are from a primary background, and ignore early years experts.’
This leaves Ms Moylett suspicious too of the proposed changes to the EYFSP. While it may not be perfect, she says that it is based on formative observational assessment, provides a ‘holistic picture’ of the child at the end of Reception, and is a useful transition aid for Year 1 teachers.
‘The new proposals,’ she warns, ‘run the risk of its secondary purpose as an accountability measure becoming more important than the child’s learning and development.’
The NAHT Early Years Council is pleased that the EYFSP will remain and believes that the proposal to alter the assessment levels by splitting the ‘emerging’ category into two bands ‘makes sense and will help provide a more accurate and granular assessment for this group of children’.
However, Jan Dubiel, national director of Early Excellence, isn’t sure how splitting it into two would help. ‘I feel it should be kept as it is but made clear that when a child is emerging, it is the responsibility of the teachers to say how they are emerging.’
‘Specifically raising descriptors such as self-regulation and executive function is very welcome. Having this in the profile will focus teachers’ minds on what to look for in practice.’
UW and EAD
Many early years practitioners have reacted with upset on social media to proposals to reduce the number of ELGs which schools report on in the Profile by dropping Understanding the World (UW) and Expressive Arts and Design (EAD). But Professor Chris Pascal, director of the Centre for Research in Early Childhood, believes that while these two areas are important, there is not the need to include them in the Profile.
‘Practitioners need to observe these areas, but do we need to measure them? They should evaluate, ensure that the children have those experiences and are making progress in a meaningful way,’ she says.
From a purely statistical point of view, Mr Dubiel understands the proposal but cautions against it. ‘Making assessments is more straightforward in the other areas, but diluting the influence in these areas is worrying,’ he says. ‘It could mean dropping them from the curriculum and then these areas would become second-class and not given the focus that they need.’
Characteristics of Effective Learning
Many early years professionals believe it’s a missed opportunity not to give the Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL) greater prominence within the Profile – in fact, they receive no mention within the document, though it does acknowledge the importance of self-regulation and executive function in early learning.
Ms Moylett wants the Good Level of Development (GLD) to be revised to give a more rounded reflection of children’s attainment, by moving away from its current narrow focus on only the Prime areas, literacy and maths (which are ‘very poor predictors of later success in school’) to include the CoEL, which research shows is a critical basis for learning.
Professor Pascal agrees, ‘There is evidence that underpinning all skills is the capacity to competently navigate any learning. It’s not about subject learning but about the skill to think and to create knowledge that we want to generate in children. If anything matters for early years children’s later learning it is their capacity to be successful in these CoEL.’
Early Education and TACTYC propose that the GLD should be the ELGs for the Prime areas and a non-binary score for the CoEL. ‘In addition, the Specific areas could be represented by identifying an overall total score across all areas which would not privilege literacy and mathematical development over other areas of learning,’ says Ms Moylett. ‘By using these three scores, professional judgements would be stronger as they are triangulated.’
EARLY LEARNING GOALS
The proposal to clarify and refine the ELGs, last revised in 2012, has been welcomed by many in the sector. Mr Dubiel says, ‘We feel the goals are inappropriately pitched too high, but whether the Government will see the same is open to speculation.’
There is much unease, however, over Government plans to better align the ELGs with expectations at KS1. Ms Merrick says, ‘The problem comes when the expectations of KS1 are inflated, which equals downward pressure on Reception and pushes children to do things before they’re ready. This could distort the EYFS, which is very broad, balanced and has a focus on holistic aspects of development.’
‘It depends what aligning with KS1 means in the final document and in practice,’ adds Mr Dubiel. ‘For me it makes complete sense to have continuity from ELG to KS1, but this should be reasonable and age-appropriate. The devil is in the detail and the Government may use it as an opportunity to unrealistically crank up learning.’
21st Century learning
Hopefully, the proposals will open up an important debate about what young children should be learning. There is already a question mark over the potentially narrow definition of maths in the EYFS, a discontinuity between children’s use of digital technology in the early years framework and KS1, and a widespread desire within the sector to give the CoEL the recognition they deserve within the curriculum.
It’s expected that consultations will begin in the new year, with the new ELGs tested in September 2018 and introduced the following academic year.
Iram Siraj, professor of UCL Institute of Education, feels that as a society we should be considering the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will be needed to enjoy a fulfilling life in the artificial intelligence age of the 21st Century.
She argues, ‘Today’s pre-schoolers will enter the workforce around 2035, and although we cannot contemplate exactly what their world will then be, we do know that children and adults will continue to need the basics of the 3Rs, and that they will also need a greater ability to learn how to learn, and to possess problem-solving, critical thinking skills, and to be resilient in the face of fast-moving change.
‘The changing nature of work, with both a concomitant growth in the need for interpersonal, analytical and creative skills and an associated decline in the need for routine, repetitive and manual skills, is well documented. Society’s forward requirement for an adaptable workforce and a flexible adult population has never been greater.’
Will the Government be prepared to take on board sector views? Mr Dubiel fears not. Parts of the document sound ‘benign’ he says, but adds: ‘It is quite clear the DfE and ministers have a very ideological position on the early years that doesn’t reflect evidence and expertise of practice.’
Primary assessment in England: government response, published on 14 September, signalled significant changes to the EYFS Profile and the Early Learning Goals.(See: www.gov.uk/government/consultations/primary-assessment-in-england)
The Government will:
- retain the same number of goals and areas of learning but explore reducing the number of goals assessed. Assessment may be on the three Prime areas plus maths and literacy, so removing EAD and UW from the Profile
- make clearer the descriptors for a typical level of development against the ELGs and bring them in line with KS1
- retain existing scales but explore introducing an extra band within the ‘emerging’ scale
- retain the scale for SEND but explore how to provide more nuanced information
- explore how to capture developmental information more accurately and efficiently to avoid children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, falling behind
- explore how to reduce assessment workload
- investigate whether alternative models to local authority-led moderation, such as moderating within school clusters, would reduce burdens without compromising the rigour of the process.
Early Learning Goals
The goals, particularly for literacy and mathematics, will be aligned with the Year 1 curriculum. The changes will strengthen the teaching of literacy and numeracy in the EYFS, and reflect the latest evidence on child development, as well as predictors of future attainment, such as vocabulary.
The goals across all areas of learning will be subject to change:
C&L to ensure sufficient focus on vocabularyPD to ensure sufficient focus on fine and gross motor skills
PSED to take account of the latest evidence on self-regulation and executive functioning
L and M to ensure they develop the building blocks for learning in KS1
UW and EAD to bring them ‘up to date with the evidence on child development’.