'Can't' rather than 'can do'?

Early Learning Consultancy's Helen Moylett and Nancy Stewart argue why children have been set up to fail by the new Early Learning Goals

Like many others we are concerned about the recently released national EYFS profile data which shows that 52 per cent of children reached a ‘good level of development’ in June 2013. However, in the face of a predictable chorus of those who hold up their hands in horror and/or blame children, parents or practitioners, there are two important facts that need to be considered.

1.  The Early Learning Goal posts have been moved

The Early Learning Goals as statutory items are not based in professional research or validated samples of what children can do, or indeed what it is most important to their future learning for them to be able to do.  Instead the ELGs have grown out of a political process, with a history of being passed down and evolving from earlier versions. This time some key  ELGs have been made more stringent in terms of academic attainment.  Children are now ‘expected’ to understand and use numbers at a level previously described as beyond the EYFS and into Key Stage One. This move was made against the counsels of early years educators and early years mathematics experts.  Under the previous Reading and Writing goals children could meet the ‘expected’ standard without actually being able to read or write sentences, but now they are expected to perform at that higher level.   Again this move was made by the DfE against the advice of those who know about literacy development.

2.  A ‘good level of development’ is now more difficult to attain than under the previous EYFS Profile

The previous ‘good level of development’  involved a child attaining six points in key areas (this reflected a child working securely within the early learning goals, which was not the same as meeting all the related early learning goals which required eight points). With the revised EYFSP a child will be judged to have reached a good level of development only if they have met or exceeded all the Early Learning Goals in:

  • the eight aspects belonging to the prime areas, and
  • the four aspects included in Literacy and Mathematics

If a child is not yet at the ‘expected’ level in any of these 12 ELGs in total, they will not be considered to be at a good level of development.  

Since meeting the Literacy and Mathematics ELGs is far more challenging than the previous marker of attaining six points in those scales, it is was obvious that fewer children would meet all 12 of the ELGs and so the GLD figures would  be lower.  This does not mean that children are attaining less well than previously, but just that the goal posts have been moved.


The revised EYFS profile is a response to the Tickell review recommendation that the end of EYFS summative assessment should be made simpler and easier to interpret whilst still giving a reliable, valid and accurate assessment of each child. The 2013 data should not have been surprising as it matches very closely the data gathered in 2012 from the LAs that piloted the revised EYFS profile.

However we are worried about how the 2013 data headlines may be used in this time of great uncertainty over the future of the EYFSP and indeed the EYFS itself. After only one year of implementation the government is considering whether to make the Profile non-statutory and instead introduce a test for all children at the beginning of the final year of the EYFS.

This may be a politically expedient idea but let nobody think it is based on the failure of children to reach a ‘good level of development’ which sets most of them up to fail. Given the EYFS principle of the Unique Child and the linked commitment which states that ‘Babies and children develop in individual ways and at varying rates’ (1.1), setting a standard for all children’s attainment seems to breach this fundamental understanding about learning and development.  It is at odds with the approach taken throughout Development Matters, (and maintained in the DfE extract from it entitled ‘Early Years Outcomes’)  where broad age/stage bands which overlap and merge seamlessly into each other reflect the unpredictable and individual paths of development. 


Children develop at different rates, and they are of different ages and stages of maturity at the specific date near the end of the EYFS where Profile judgements must be reported.  Some summer-born children will not yet be five years old, while others are approaching six.  A year’s difference at this early stage represents a large proportion of a child’s biological development and life experience, so it is not logical to set the same standard across the age span.  The danger is that inappropriate expectations are put onto very young children, who then receive constant messages that they are failing to measure up to their older, more experienced peers.  Rather than developing ‘can do’ attitudes, these children may be at risk of spending their time in school learning that ‘I can’t’. 

As well as risks to the child’s self-image, the teacher’s perception of the child may be distorted by holding up a set standard.  A child may be younger, or maturing at a slower pace, or have had more limited experiences.  None of these mean that a child is less able.  Yet these children may be grouped into ‘slower’ groups with a lower expectation of progress.  There is evidence of a preponderance of summer-born children being classed as having special educational needs, for example.  The self-fulfilling prophecy of children living up to – or down to – expectations can then result in these children following a slower trajectory over time. 

It must also be asked whether the ‘expected’ level of attainment is appropriate for children in general at the end of the EYFS.  Children in the UK start school much earlier than in most other countries, and there is no evidence that starting later is a disadvantage to educational outcomes. In fact, children who start formal education later may well overtake the earlier starters within a couple of years of school. Children in Finland start school at age seven by which time British children already will have been put through their literacy paces for three years, yet the Finnish children surpass those in the UK and end up near the top of the international education league tables, well ahead of the UK.  

More detail on the views above can be found in Emerging, Expected and Exceeding: understanding the revised Early Years Foundation Stage Profile published by Early Education

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