EYFS guidance - Better together

Prof Kathy Sylva, Prof Iram Siraj and Dr Sandra Mathers
Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The revised Development Matters has strengths and weaknesses, and continued discussion is needed, write Prof Kathy Sylva, Prof Iram Siraj and Dr Sandra Mathers

Professor Kathy Sylva
Professor Kathy Sylva

Last month saw the publication of Working with the revised Early Years Foundation Stage: Principles into Practice by Dr Julian Grenier, who led on the revised Development Matters. This independently written document acts as a companion to the revised non-statutory guidance and is to be welcomed.

The great strength of Development Matters: Non-statutory curriculum guidance for the early years foundation stage(September 2020) is its non-technical language, which will be accessible to both parents and all early years practitioners. At the same time, its weakness is that straightforward language cannot contain nuance – which is needed for a deep understanding of child development and pedagogy.

For this reason, we applaud Dr Grenier’s independent document because it delves deeper into theory and the evidence base, while providing rich guidance about the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ of early years best practice. As a standalone document, the revised curriculum guidance (CGEYFS) is far from perfect.


Freedom to enrich the curriculum

We believe that the slimmed-down CGEYFS will provide more ‘space’ for staff to adapt and extend the curriculum to the needs of their children and families, and to enrich the curriculum in the direction they wish. We hope the new CGEYFS will be a springboard to broader and deeper practice: it does not have to be a strait-jacket.

Thankfully, because it contains fewer narrowly defined ‘milestones’ for children, we can move away from mindlessly ticking boxes. Staff teams will be able to create their own goals and plans for individual children which align with the new, broader descriptions of growth and development. In this way, we believe staff can use the freedom provided by the new CGEYFS to create a bespoke and extended curriculum for their setting or school.

Although such a setting-focused curriculum will have its roots in the EYFS framework, its wider detail and implementation can – and should – draw on a wide array of resources, including the Principles into Practice guide published independently by Dr Grenier. We hope that staff will relish this new professional opportunity.


‘Exceeding’ no more

We are also pleased the ‘exceeding’ category has been removed, because it caused so much confusion. Although external moderation was sometimes helpful, the new CGEYFS gives the final professional judgement about individual children back to the school team: this, rightly, shows trust in the decisions of those who know the child best.


Imbalance between adult- and child-led play

One aspect of the new guidance that we find disappointing is its descriptions of how children learn through play. The revision rightly addressed a gap in earlier guidance relating to the adult role in guiding and supporting children’s learning through play. However, we feel it goes too far, and that adult-guided play now has an overly dominant role. In later revisions of the document, we hope that this imbalance between adult- and child-led play will be adjusted.

While the two are equally important, the CGEYFS does not do justice to the rich array of learning which stems from individual and peer play without the guidance of adults. Future versions could valuably provide rich examples of peer play, showing how it fosters teamwork skills, self-regulation, understanding the views of others, and making group plans to achieve a joint goal.

This year, when a number of schools are choosing to use the ‘early adopter’ version of the EYFS, offers a welcome opportunity to amend the non-statutory guidance to improve its balance between adult-led and child-led play and exploration.


We are also disappointed at the shift in emphasis within the Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL), which now read as additional goals for children to achieve, rather than as principles for pedagogy underpinning all areas of learning and development. A stronger section on play and exploration, for example, will be welcome to mitigate the current lack of attention to playful learning approaches.


Dr Grenier consulted many practitioners and experts in his revision of Development Matters and is now writing extensively on the principles underlying the reforms (see More information).

We are grateful to Nursery Worldfor encouraging a frank discussion of the new guidance and EYFS, but above all, we hope others will participate in open discussion to help the sector move forward in an empowered and positive direction.



Kathy Sylva is professor of educational psychology, Iram Siraj is professor of child development and education, and Dr Sandra Mathers is a senior researcher in the Child Development and Learning research group, University of Oxford

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