November 6, 2017, by Rupert Knight

The Never-Ending Story of EYFS Assessment

In this post Philip Hood offers a perspective on EYFS assessment plans.

In September in this blog series Helen Victoria Smith wrote about school readiness and aspects of the assessment system in the Early Years Foundation Stage.  Since then the government has published a response to the Primary Assessment Consultation. You can see the full document here. In this, to the apparent delight of the headteacher unions, the DfE has opted to end testing at seven… and instead introduce it at four.

Baseline: is it a new low point?

Unfortunately some of our headteachers appear to have taken their eyes off the ball here. It may be that a few hours spent tablet testing children within a few weeks of entering Reception  seemed a good price to lay for the prize of no testing at the end of KS1. The following paragraph summarises the intention

‘The prime focus of the new assessment will be on skills which can be reliably assessed and which
correlate with attainment in English and mathematics at the end of key stage 2, most notably early
literacy and numeracy.’

The broader intention is to make comparisons from 2027 of how children have made progress from the start of Reception to the end of Year Six. This is a long way off which probably deflects many objections. But the here and now (from a pilot in 2019 and roll-out in 2020) is early testing, subsequent labelling, a narrower focus to plug the gaps together with a wash-back from other suggested measures (see below).


The case against.

If it is true that an early ability to use words and numbers, to read and write is the best predictor of later success, then it may just be that some children do have this early ability at this early age and some do not. The multitude of reasons why children differ so enormously at three and four in their knowledge, understanding and broad skills base does absolutely need full attention from all EYFS practitioners. But how do we gain from measuring in a very imperfect way (one-off testing is not proven to be reliable with young children) what is not there?

The implication is of course that if it is not there we need to put it there as soon as possible, or the child will be disadvantaged further.  But a process which consists of saying that, as a certain pot doesn’t have something particular in it, we need to stuff it full of that material no matter what else is in there or what shape it is or how much room there is, could just be flawed. Maybe growing the pot over time and adding things which complement the existing contents (such as more language, social and personal skills and physical development) and doing this in a more thoughtful or even creative way,  slightly more slowly,  is a better recipe for the important purpose of ‘not breaking the pot’. So many children evolve visibly between three and six and pick up the reading and writing they need at their own pace and without the tension of being forced to ‘study’ in ways that are unnatural for their age and developmental stage. So few will be actually ‘behind’ at seven if they have the personalised programme the EYFS is intended to provide for its hundreds of thousands of unique children. For example in an article just published David Whitebread links play with mental health and well-being with many references to research studies.  In so many countries with later attainment better than ours children simply do all of this later and there is no ‘readiness issue’. And apart from that discussion we are anyway left with the stark fact that a one-off test at four is not reliable – children of that age can do different things in different days as every practitioner knows. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the government has also signed up to trial the OECD ‘Early Years PISA’ and a discussion of that by Peter Moss can be seen here.


What do we assess at age five?

But along with baseline testing come other adjustments to EYFS assessment. The good level of development measure at the end of Reception already excludes two of the seven areas of learning (and with that five of the seventeen Early Learning Goals) but the profile of all seventeen ELGs is likely to be reduced to just the twelve which constitute the GLD. Now there is a feeling that in the English education system if it moves, you test it, so the corollary of that is that if you’re not testing it it probably isn’t moving – so that could mean a much reduced emphasis on Understanding the World (that’s just the science, technology, history, geography, RE of the curriculum) and Expressive Arts and Design for all 3-5 year olds. The rationale behind this is that the government feel children need to focus more on Literacy and Mathematics. They feel that the EYFS curriculum does not prepare children well enough for KS1 and so the dreaded word ‘readiness’ surfaces again.

Yet good practitioners in EYFS would say these two areas of learning are vital because children find them deeply interesting and motivating and they form the content of the ‘what we did at school today’ chats to parents and carers in a way that phonics almost certainly does not. Indeed the best way into literacy and maths is through the content of those many and varied subjects contained in UW.


Is this inevitable?

In an informal conversation with a very eminent early childhood researcher this month, the point was made that there is no new argument; leading academics have been saying the same thing for years because the nature of early childhood and the nature of children’s needs, especially as regards how they best learn, do not change greatly over time even as society develops.  The British Educational Research Association (BERA) early childhood SIG together with the early years organisation TACTYC  this year produced a research review about the UK context between 2013 and 2015 which forms a useful summary, for example.  We know all too well from experience that policy makers do not listen to research and the government response document references a single research article from 2007 as its evidence.

These changes, both in baseline and in the EYFS assessment system which will impact on curriculum, will happen very soon. It is really in the hands now of practitioners and headteachers who can stop this if they just believe enough that it is time to stand up and say that it is wrong and counter-productive, that it will lead to the opposite of what the government insists it wants and in the process make a lot of children and their teachers unhappy. There are many organisations which oppose these measures, but the more there are (showing how important this is), ironically, the slower they work. So it’s not the academics and not the teacher associations and Facebook groups which will make a difference. It is the concerned professional early childhood practitioner and the principled headteacher in your hundreds and thousands who can affect this.  Over to you.


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