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Assessing children against a framework intended to promote good practice doesn’t make sense – except, perhaps, to the Government


Michael Pettavel

Life is a matter of perspective and perspective depends on where you are standing at the time. What was once perfectly acceptable quickly becomes unacceptable and it can be hard to see why we ever thought it was OK in the first place. Think smoking on buses and the Underground. The reverse can also be true: ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time…’

It struck me during a conversation how our perspective has changed on assessment. It used to be ‘formative’, to enable us to plan appropriately, and it seems that it has come to mean ‘summative’ – or how to provide evidence in the accountability environment.

Thinking back to the 1990s, when there was very little Government intervention, there was a very real effort to have the early years sector taken seriously. As Government became more involved there came accountability. The battle between the pedagogues and the civil servants (remember Chris Woodhead) looked to research to justify good practice, and EPPE (1997) and its subsequent projects were born. We had to measure and analyse in order to justify that what we did was important.

These were valuable studies that brought the importance of high-quality learning and care into sharp focus. The trouble is that with the subsequent changes to other areas of the sector, such as the increased emphasis on inspection judgement, that good pedagogy began to be used for the wrong reasons.

The revolutionary Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage arrived in 2000, Ofsted took over early years inspections in 2001 (although had been inspecting nursery schools for longer) and the Foundation Stage Profile quickly followed in 2003. This combination has resulted in a document intended to promote good practice becoming an accountability framework with everyone madly measuring children against the stages of development to show progress.

The danger in a narrow focus on assessing achievement and attainment is that it becomes an end in itself and the curriculum begins to narrow, just as it has in primary schools. Starting with the assessment framework and not the child is back to front and looks to what a child cannot do rather than what they can. Perhaps it is time to refresh our perspective and take back ownership of the Early Years Foundation Stage?

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