April 3, 2017, by Rupert Knight

An Early Years ‘PISA’, Good-Level washback and the forgotten areas of learning.

It is not a new phenomenon for the UK early years phase of education to be a centre of controversy between practitioners, policy makers (and enactors) and academics. But, in this post, Philip Hood argues that the impending introduction of a set of tests for five-year-olds from OECD, a real Early Years PISA may, indeed should, produce a tipping point.

(Parts of this blog piece appeared on 01.01.17 at http://www.upstart.scot/the-looming-trial-of-pisa/ )


The OECD proposal is for a new set of tests, The International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS) aimed at children of reception / F2 year age.

On their website, OECD describes the purpose of these tests in this way:
‘Information from this new OECD study on children’s early learning will provide insights on the relative effectiveness, equity and efficiency of ECEC systems and also on the focus needed in early primary schooling. The study will also include a focus on the impacts of children’s home learning environments.’

Peter Moss, in his Briefing Paper of 18.01.17 and blog warns us:
‘The plans for the IELS have been gestating over several years, and OECD member state governments have been consulted during this period. But the wider early childhood community of practitioners and academics has not been; the OECD has shown little interest in opening up their proposals to public scrutiny and debate……. The DfE in England has similarly made no attempt to inform and consult, either on the wider OECD plans or on England’s participation in IELS.’

We know that England (not the UK) has signed up to pilot the tests as the government has recently asked for expressions of interest to tender for the contract to produce and manage the tests following the OECD brief. It intends to test four domains: executive function, i.e. early self-regulation and attention; emergent literacy, language and verbal skills; numeracy and mathematics; and empathy and trust.  Each would be based on a 20 minute tablet-based test.

Why do I think this is such a bad prospect?

We have to look at our existing context and the pressures placed on the practitioners in EY education already to get a full picture of how this will add to the considerable tension that already exists. The current assessment point for the age group is the Early Years Foundation Stage profile with its more significant measure, the Good Level of Development. Whereas most EYFS practitioners work amicably with the document ‘Development Matters’ and would accept the current set of early learning goals as a way-stage developmental broad brush formative assessment tool, the Good Level is different. It excludes two of the seven areas of learning and so promotes the other two specific areas (Literacy and Mathematics) to prime status by default. It is a fixed point judgment about each child and about each setting as figures are published and compared. It is tied into the current discourse about readiness for school which policy makers interpret as the child needs to be ready rather than the school needs to be ready.   In other words its washback on curriculum, pedagogy and assessment is considerable and that washback extends back to Nursery/F1 which now is beginning to include children of two years old. (Here we should stop to remember that in much of Europe school starts at six or seven).

It is not just academics but also practitioners (see the Facebook group Keeping Early Years Unique) a closed group with over 25,000 signed up members. All of these people broadly share the view that children will become developmentally ready with sensitive and gifted practitioners shaping their learning, rather than having to fit them to an abstract set of standards dictated from above with no view of individual contexts.  An additional testing programme with the parameters indicated by the DfE tender will exacerbate that pressure.

But let’s return to the two excluded areas of learning. Why is this important?

One is Expressive Arts and Design encompassing a whole range of creative activity but also some very important physical components if activities include some art skills teaching which will impact on fine motor development. And the other AoL missing from Good Level calculations is Understanding the World which contains, basically, most of the non-core curriculum. Children as young as two or three are fascinated by how things work, how things grow, why things are as they are, look like they do, why they change, how to build, how to balance, fill, empty and why things fall over. Science, geography, history, RE, ICT are all swept into Understanding the World. Children’s main life motivation is to do just that and what better way to develop their talk, their reading their writing and their counting by filling them with curiosity and then quenching their desire for knowledge with vibrant information about the world around them? Literacy and maths without content is a barren land for young children. Phonics without amazing stories to inspire a desire to read is meaningless. Number lines without real life calculations are places to hang disconnected ideas on.

Child-initiated activity following the story ‘The enormous turnip’

So where does that leave us?

You are (or you become) what you assess.  The combination of the current Good Level and an early years PISA with half of the content given to literacy and maths will reduce our children to half of what they can and need to be to become full citizens with knowledge, creativity, resilience, resourcefulness and agency.

Here is one response from Jo Redfern, Executive Headteacher in Nottinghamshire:

What do you think?  It would be great to see your views on this issue.

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