Don't let assessment drive the curriculum

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Getting the right balance between assessment and curriculum in the EYFS is tricky - but who said it was going to be easy? Dr Julian Grenier and Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs, head of early years at Ark, give their views


Dr Julian Grenier opens Newhams Early Years Conference

This article is based on a workshop given by Julian Grenier and Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs at the Newham Early Years Conference: Celebrating Children's Learning on 8 January 2018, attended by 300 practitioners.

It's difficult to make accurate assessments of young children’s development and learning.

Why? Here are some thoughts.

First of all, young children can be very different day to day. That’s why it’s so fascinating to work in the early years.

So, even as adults we know we have good days and bad days. We can remember the exam that went wrong because everything seemed to go wrong that day. Young children live life with much more emotional intensity than adults. If they didn’t feel like breakfast, or they had a big row about which socks to wear just as it was time to go out the door, or if they have just fallen out with their best friend, that will hugely affect how they learn and play in an EYFS setting that day.

That means assessment information from one day will be very different to the information from another day’s. Do we decide that the child’s level is their highest one? Or their lowest.

Secondly, the non-statutory assessment framework (Development Matters) and the Statutory Early Years Foundation Stage Profile have not been 'standardised'. That means that no-one knows for sure if the 30-50 band, for example, really is typical of children aged  30-50 months. It may be that some Early Learning Goals are set at a higher level of development than others. Many reception teachers would judge that it is much more difficult to achieve the Early Learning Goals in Literacy than in Physical Development.

Working with diverse groups of children also makes accuracy difficult to achieve. In Newham, where lots of children are learning English as an additional language, their assessments on entry to a nursery or reception class are likely to be very low because they are not yet speaking much English. That makes it look as if they then make exceptional progress – but in most cases that’s mostly about the incredible ability of children to learn a second language quickly.

Whilst many young children are eager to please adults, they are likely to be less motivated to 'perform' than an older child who wants to do as well as possible on a test or assessment. Young children are quite likely simply to say 'no' or to do something as quickly as possible if they don’t feel motivated.

In schools and settings, we can find ourselves under pressure to 'show progress' and to have a particular journey (get to 30-50 by the end of nursery; get to the ELG by the end of reception). That can encourage us to 'work backwards' – i.e. to depress assessments as much as possible at the end of the year, so that if the child takes the expected journey their progress will look strong. We worry if children don’t move from one band to the next: but we also know that young children don’t develop in a simple linear way. They may make bursts of progress and then have periods of consolidation.

Also, because the Development Matters bands are so wide, there may be more difference between the development of two children in the 40-60 band than between one child in the 30-50 and another in the 40-60. Working out the differences between a child 'consolidating', a child making good progress but staying in the same band, and a child getting stuck and not having the teaching and provision they need to make progress are tricky – but important.

Sometimes, practitioners talk about assessments showing that children are not yet 'ready' for certain steps of learning. It is important to consider that readiness is 'constructed' – it comes from the relationship between the child, the environment and adults. A baby may spit out her first solid foods: but the adult, with encouragement, helps the baby to tolerate and enjoy solid foods. The 'readiness' of a child is related to the support of adults and the environment. This is just one of the ways that assessment is linked in with provision and adult interaction/teaching. Children would show one level of development in a setting which supports their confidence and stimulates their interest, but a much lower level of development in a setting that is chaotic and unstimulating.

Even within a school or setting, there are going to be different environments - and children will show different levels of development depending on the context. The child who is silent in reception may be talkative at lunchtime with a supportive mid-day meal assistant. That’s why accurate assessment depends on noticing what children can do in a wide range of contexts – indoors, outside, at lunch, with parents, round their aunty’s house etc. The wider the range of perspectives, the more chance we can achieve accuracy.

All the same, there is a wide margin for error when we assess children’s starting points, and assessment throughout the EYFS is likely to be more challenging than the assessment of older children. If practitioners spend much of the reception year “teaching to the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile” then the summative assessment at the end of the year will also be distorted, because the EYFSP is just a narrow slice of a broad and balanced curriculum. We can see, therefore, that lots of “data” showing “good progress” can be misleading.

It would be impossible even to come close to controlling all the variables in early years assessment. So let’s make sure that we get things the right way round. Assessment is vital, but it mustn’t drive the curriculum. 

Children are entitled to a broad and balanced curriculum throughout their early years in schools and settings – in particular, let’s remember that the EYFSP is not the Early Years Curriculum in reception. 

Getting the balance right is tricky. But then again– who ever said it was going to be easy?

  • Find out more about early years assessment at the Celebrating Children's Learning website or buy the new book about the project.
  • Keynote speaker at the conference was Professor Dame Alison Peacock, former headteacher at the pioneering The Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, on the importance of fostering a culture of high ambition and expectation for all. Dr Carolyn Blackburn, of Birmingham City University, talked about supporting children and families with diverse and complex life histories.

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