An emphasis on tracking progress in the early years is having a negative impact on children's development, according to a prominent nursery head.
Julian Grenier, headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre in Newham, made the comments while delivering a keynote speech at the National Association of Head Teachers' (NAHT) early years conference in London.
He said a "constant pressure" to track progress as part of the early years foundation stage (EYFS) has "distorted pedagogy" – meaning some children might score highly in assessments, but lack the foundations for further development.
His concerns have been backed up by other leading early years figures.
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"The huge focus on tracking has been a really unhelpful development in the early years," he said.
"The purpose of assessment is to help us plan the resources, put together the best routines, give children the right experiences and teaching, so that they are making progress. That's what assessment is for. And it's there to guide teachers' professional judgements, not to replace teachers' professional judgements.
"[It's] much more than this emphasis on the vital significance of children making two points of progress every term.
"And the constant pressure to show points of progress has led to a style of teaching and provision that results in children who may have very good scores in the EYFS profile, they may have a 'good' level of development, but they've not been given the foundations with their early learning that they need. It's distorted pedagogy."
His comments were echoed by Ruth Swailes, school improvement adviser and education consultant, who said it was unhelpful to constantly track progress against documents such as Development Matters, which forms part of the government's non-statutory guidance on the EYFS.
"We need to get back to trusting practitioners to know their children well and plan for their next steps in learning, which is the whole point of assessment," she added.
Cathy Gunning, pedagogical lead at Early Education, said schools and nurseries should have a rounded understanding of children's developmental needs, starting points and wellbeing, "rather than purely accelerating – or limiting them – to a set of outcomes".
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, agreed that teachers should not be reliant on tools such as Development Matters as a "tick list" for progress.
"[This concern reflects] a need to upskill the workforce," she said.
"Teachers and practitioners need a really good understanding of child development so that they are not reliant on using resources such as Development Matters as a tick list, but can make professional judgements about how children are developing and plan their teaching accordingly.
"They need to learn to use observation skills effectively, not seeing observation as being about amassing piles of data. The cycle of observation, assessment and planning is at the heart of good pedagogy in the early years.
"We need to prioritise developing the knowledge and skills of the workforce to do this with greater confidence."