A lively debate is going on about the need to reform assessment, yet almost nothing has been said about the early years. Why are early years practitioners sitting this one out?
It’s because the early years sector was already so far adrift from the rest of the educational world, even before Covid-19 and exam chaos.
Most early years assessment is guided by the 2012 Development Matters document. This sets out children’s learning in broad, overlapping age-bands, like 30-50 months or 40-60 months.
As the document sensibly explains, "these are not fixed age boundaries but suggest a typical range of development".
In practice, because the age bands are so wide, many schools and settings break them down further. So the 22-36 month band might be broken down into two or three sub-levels like "emerging", "developing" and "secure".
The rest of the education system abandoned these types of levels in assessments back in 2015. That’s when the Final report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels noted that "the difference between pupils on either side of a boundary might have been very slight, while the difference between pupils within the same level might have been very different".
Measuring progress in early years
It’s the same in the early years. There is no adequate explanation of the difference between "22-36 months secure" and "30-50 months emerging", for example. The assessment system for our youngest children is stuck in a backwater.
Furthermore, early years practitioners have to complete excessive amounts of assessment work. The 2012 Development Matters sets out children’s learning as 17 aspects. Many schools make teachers complete a "data drop" termly, or even twice a term. That often means assessing 30 children in all 17 aspects of learning: 510 assessments. Often, every assessment must be matched to a photograph or a written observation.
As a result, early years practitioners sit up late into the night, blistering fingers as they stick yet more photos and Post-its into learning journals. They rub their eyes while updating online trackers on iPads and laptops. Much of their effort is wasted.
Recording data and providing evidence of progress are not the top priorities. We should look up from our iPads and join in with the children as they play, explore and practise new skills. We should be checking that all the children have securely gained the skills and knowledge they need, and offering extra help to those that haven’t.
The assessment practice that makes the most difference to children’s learning is feedback in the here-and-now. Where children are having difficulties with their learning, diagnostic assessment can help us to target extra help precisely. Sadly, burdensome data collection and tracking leaves some early years practitioners feeling too exhausted to use assessment effectively.
When the revised Early Years Statutory Framework and Development Matters replace the current versions in September 2021, we will have an opportunity to reform assessment in the early years. It’s time for assessment to serve the curriculum, rather than lording it over everything we do.
Dr Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre. He co-leads the East London Research School and tweets @juliangrenier