Early years staff must tell ministers: we need a practitioner-led observational model of assessment

There appears to be a window of opportunity at the Department for Education to make politicians see sense about primary assessment, writes a leading educationist

Jan Dubiel

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Within the current confusion regarding primary assessment, Justine Greening’s measured and almost conciliatory ministerial statement last month was, at the very least, an indication that there is still room for manoeuvre, with a full consultation to follow in the new year.

Alongside the announcements for assessment in key stage 1 and KS2 lie some interesting implications for the Early Years Foundation Stage and, particularly, Reception classes. There has often been the tension that although they are clearly the final year of the EYFS and fall under the framework’s statutory remit, they are also very much part of "school" and often get "drawn into" the practices, expectations and approaches often designed for and driven by KS2 outcomes.

Too often this has led to the sidelining of the tradition of observational assessment, which utilises the practitioner’s professional judgement and knowledge without resorting to formalised "tests" and has been a staple of early childhood pedagogy since the inception of British nursery schools in the early 20th century.

So the government announcement that the EYFS Profile will continue to be a statutory assessment for an additional year (at least) is to be welcomed on a range of levels. In addition to the continuity this provides, it reinforces the status of observational assessment as a good approach, and maintains the value and reliability of the data that this produces.

The DfE has stated that the upcoming consultation will explore "the role and operation of teacher assessment".  The commitment to supporting teacher moderation and guidance, "accompanied by mandatory training for local authority moderators" (albeit in KS1 and 2), further consolidates the broad acceptance of a valid and reliable inter-relationship between what teachers know about the children they work with and how this can be represented in a means to measure and support accountability.

Support for observational assessments

The consultation’s aim to find "the best starting point to measure the progress that children make in primary school" feels like groundhog day. This was exactly the same language used in the 2014 consultation which led to the creation of the contentious baseline assessment policy.  All the signs from the government were that there was some disappointment that 72 per cent of schools selected our Early Excellence approach to baseline, which used observational assessments, rather than testing.

As we reconsider primary assessment, we very much hope that the government will reflect on this message, sent by the overwhelming majority of schools, and establish a new approach. Formal tests for four-year-olds will not provide the reliable and useable data that the government is seeking, and from which children will benefit. 

Our aim is to persuade the government to now focus on the opportunities to provide accurate data through effective moderation. As the consultation proceeds in the new year, we would encourage all educational professionals to send a message to the DfE that we want to see a practitioner-led observational model in the EYFS. There is an opportunity to introduce a model that not only creates useable data for formative ongoing assessment but also meets the government’s aim of making sure there is a robust model for accountability. 

Jan Dubiel is the national director of Early Excellence

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Jan Dubiel

Jan Dubiel is national development manager of Early Excellence

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