Why I believe the plans for EYFS reform don't make the grade

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A Critical Commentary on Reforming the Early Years Foundation Stage (the EYFS): Government Response to Consultation (publ. 20 Dec 2011)


The Government’s response to its EYFS consultation was published on the 20th December, when few practitioners will have been expecting important Government pronouncements. The document, Reforming the Early Years Foundation Stage, can be found here.  I believe the document to be ill-thought through and inadequate, and it deserves to be strongly contested.

(1)    Introduction
The introduction of reductions in bureaucratic EYFS demands and a more workable exemptions process is welcome. However, it is mystifying why the principle of professional autonomy is conceded for risk assessment, yet is denied in other professional pedagogical areas. The Department’s (DfE) claim that ‘The EYFS framework has helped improve outcomes for children’ is highly problematic, as the term ‘improved outcome’ denotes children developing certain ‘capabilities’ sooner rather than later (in order to be ‘ready for school’). Yet many argue this ‘earlier is better’ ideology to be severely compromising of young children’s age-appropriate development.

(2)    Nomenclature
We read of ‘the expected level of the goals’, thereby advocating the holding of ‘expectations’ about how young children should develop. There is also the now perennial misrepresentation of play, with the DfE referring to ‘adult-led play’ and ‘guided play’ – again, geared to a ‘schoolifying’ agenda.

(3) Programmatic ‘Development’
If the schooling system is to function manageably, practitioners must ensure that children reach what the system deems to be acceptable development and ‘school readiness’ by age 4. The needs of the schooling system therefore determine expected developmental pathways, rather than the system being responsive to children’s natural and diverse development. There is an inherent incompatibility between ‘responding to each child as an individual learner’ and statutorily laying-down ‘expected levels of development’ by 5. The new ‘development chart’ from birth to age five will feed this programmatic approach to development; and there are also grave dangers of pathologically labelling children at age 2.

(4) ‘School Readiness’
The DfE claims that respondents’ concerns about the ‘school readiness’ emphasis are ‘unwarranted’, as ‘school readiness should be understood in a broad sense’. Yet this strategic widening of the definition does not remove or ameliorate the content of what is currently happening under the ‘school readiness’ umbrella, and which critics strongly question. That pre-school children ‘need to be introduced to formal learning’ is a view which many authorities reject.

(5) Diversity, and a Fundamentally Split Field
Detailed analysis of responses reveals a field fundamentally split on a range of key issues, rendering inappropriate the Government’s determination to impose a single legislative framework. Given such fundamental disagreement, it is very difficult to justify imposing a standardised statutory curriculum.

(6) Supplementary Information and Practice Guidance
‘Many respondents felt that there was a need for supplementary information and practice guidance…’, with these proposed documents all designed to render the EYFS more ‘deliverable’. Yet many practitioners contest significant aspects of the EYFS; and the list of new planned materials amounts to a roll-call for all that is most controversial in the EYFS – e.g. instructing practitioners on how to ‘deliver’ the widely contested Profile more effectively; and codifying child development with a ‘chart’.

(7) ‘Revision’ of the Early Learning Goals
Most disturbingly of all, the DfE claims to be responding to consultees’ concerns about the content of the literacy and numeracy ELGs, assuring us that ‘these have been the main focus of further consideration and revision’. Regarding literacy, ‘respondents suggested there was too much emphasis on reading and writing at too young an age.’ Yet scandalously, this unambiguous consultation finding bears no relation to the changes the DfE is proposing. Far from the literacy goals being reigned back in response to consultees’ concerns, in reality they will be at least as onerous and developmentally inappropriate as the previous goals – and quite possibly more so.  

Regarding mathematics, no pretext, based on respondents’ views, is provided to support the proposed changes. The term ‘experts’ is repeatedly used, and we are entitled to know who these anonymous ‘experts’ are exerting such an influence on the DfE. Overall, the DfE has substantially ratcheted up the ‘left-brain’ cognitive demands being foisted on to young children through their proposed changes to the Mathematics ELGs.

(8) Assessment: The EYFS Profile and the Progress Check
‘Some respondents expressed concern that categorising children under the three terms "emerging", "expected" and "exceeding" was labelling them unnecessarily’. The DfE invokes ‘discussions with parents, teachers and experts in workshops’ to allay these concerns, yet they make no attempt to respond to the substance of the concerns. The DfE takes ‘widespread calls for greater exemplification and explanation about how to use the new EYFSP to assess children’ as justification for the existence of the Profile, rather than seeing these requests as symptomatic of the Profile itself being flawed, with the consequence being anxiety-driven calls from practitioners who find it unworkable.

Regarding the ‘progress check’ at 2, ‘Online consultation feedback was mixed, but in workshops where this issue was addressed there was strong support for the progress check…’. This is a totally inadequate response to concerns raised by respondents – as if those principled concerns can be simply ignored by invoking un-minuted ‘workshop conversations’ in which departmental officials no doubt orchestrated the discussion in their required direction.

(9) Ofsted
To the question, ‘…Should the Government introduce a system similar to Welfare Notices for breaches of the learning and development requirements?’, we find under one-third of respondents agreeing to Ofsted having these powers. Yet the Department construes this clear negative result as denoting ‘no clear consensus of opinion on this issue…’! The DfE will clearly have its way, willy-nilly, making no attempt to inquire into the reasons for such disquiet in the sector about these proposals.

(10) Deafening Silence in Relation to ICT
Finally, it is a major dereliction of the DfE’s duty of care that no reference is made to ICT’s inclusion in the compulsory EYFS curriculum. It is mystifying that no reference is made to this issue, when many authorities believe that these technologies harm young children, supported by a wide range of corroborative research evidence.

A much longer version can be sent on request.
Contact Richard House, MA (Oxon), Ph.D., C.Psychol., AFBPsS, Cert.Couns.
University of Roehampton, London
Email: r.house@roehampton.ac.uk

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