Jon Severs

Trust teachers when it comes to EYFS assessment

The value of teacher observation shouldn’t be overlooked in the push to formalise the assessment of EYFS children, writes Jon Severs

Trust teachers when it comes to EYFS assessment

My experience of rearing four-year-olds suggests that their relationship with the truth is, to put it bluntly, sketchy. This is not to say that they are deceitful, more that they have an admirable sense of self-preservation and an eagerness to please that tends to blow any other aim out of the water (tray).

Ask them a question and they don’t try to give you the answer they think is right, but the answer they think you want. Sometimes that answer is the same either way. But sometimes – say, when you ask them if they went to the toilet before they left the house or whether the missing toy is in the box or stuck in the U-bend after an attempted impromptu “toilet bath” – the answers are very different.

This makes the job of assessing children in early years foundation stage very difficult. That’s not just academically – are they pointing at the circle when you asked them to find the square because they don’t know what a square is or because they’re hungry and just want you to go away? – but also socially and emotionally.

Despite the challenges, early years teachers are extremely skilled in getting to the truth. They build relationships in which the true skills of a child are more likely to emerge, and they are masters in the art of revisiting: spotting areas of development in varied contexts to work out what is really going on in the pinball machine of a child’s mind. Evidence is built up slowly, and eventually the reality can be seen.

In most parts of the world, early years teachers are trusted to get on with this task by those peering in for accountability purposes. But many in the EYFS sector fear that in England, this is increasingly not the case. As John Morgan writes in this week’s cover feature, there has been a push to formalise assessment in this phase, and many argue this is eroding the role of teacher observation.

What strikes me as problematic in the various arguments for and against this shift is the framing of one type of assessment as being more “reliable” than the other. There is an insinuation that the data coming from a standardised diagnostic assessment will be “cleaner” than teacher observation. Only someone who has never met a four-year-old would make that assumption.

As Rob Coe, former director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, and now a senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation, says in the article, there is a substantial challenge in creating a test “that does not depend too much on the individual relationship or the state of mind/body of the child at that moment”.

How, then, can we achieve that?

Perhaps a better question is: how could we best use these types of tests when we know that creating one that meets Coe’s specifications will be incredibly difficult?

If we accept that EYFS assessment reform is an ongoing process and one in which all types of measure should be considered, then working with the sector, not against it, would be a great place to start. As such, devaluing teacher observation as a vehicle for change is not likely to be productive. Four-year-olds are tricky beasts, and EYFS teachers know how to speak their language. Overlook this at your peril.


This article originally appeared in the 22 January 2021 issue under the headline “Who knows what goes on in a four-year-old’s mind? Teachers”

Other articles in this issue