EYFS Framework 2020: A mathematical dog’s dinner

The government has failed to listen to early years professionals or the research in forming the new EYFS framework, says the Early Childhood Mathematics Group

The Early Childhood Mathematics Group

EYFS framework

We in the Early Childhood Mathematics Group (ECMG) became very concerned reading the Department for Education’s (DfE) response to the recent consultation on proposed reforms to early years foundation stage (EYFS), which include revised early learning goals (ELGs) for the end of the Reception year (4- and 5-year-olds) and the EYFS educational programme (also in the framework for early adopters).

Sadly, it is clear that what early years educators across the country have been saying has been ignored, with very few changes in wording from the draft ELGs.

This has resulted in enormous disappointment, and much anger across the sector, about changes in all the areas of learning. 

Multiple concerns

Regarding mathematics, we are concerned that aspects of the new ELGs do not reflect professional feedback and recommendations for pedagogical practice, and lack support from research evidence. 

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We are deeply concerned at the loss of "shape, space and measures" and of "problem solving", which ensured that a rich, broad and appropriate mathematical curriculum was provided and assessed.

We are also concerned by the inclusion of "automatically recall" of number bonds, which resulted in abstract quick-fire questions without understanding, according to the Goals’ pilot study (EEF, 2019).

Research informed?

With regard to research, the ELGs claim to reflect the “latest evidence” and “the strongest predictors of future attainment”. This is undoubtedly true for some items and we welcome the emphasis on ensuring understanding of numbers 10 (VanBinst et al, 2016; Xenidou-Dervou et al, 2017; Chu et al, 2015) and on subitising (recognition of a small number of items without counting; Butterworth et al, 2011).

However, the inclusion of automatic recall of arithmetic facts seems to stem from findings with older children and adults, inappropriately applied to younger children.

There is little evidence, either, that many 4- and 5-year-old children do frequently have automatic recall of number facts (especially out of context) or that this predicts later mathematics. Stressing abstract recall without a meaningful context is likely to further disadvantage some children, including younger, summer-born children.

Future impact

Understanding of pattern has also been found to be important to children’s future mathematical development (Burgoyne et al, 2017). While a new numerical pattern ELG has been added, this does not include practical spatial and repeating patterns and so omits the predictive aspects identified by research.

Shape, space and measures is no longer included as an ELG, although concern about the removal of this area was a “central theme” in the consultation replies. Numerous research studies have indicated that spatial reasoning is indicative of future mathematical attainment (eg, Hawes and Ansari, 2020; Fischer et al, 2014; Kyttala et al, 2003). Instead, it is included in the educational programme: however, historically it is clear that what is not assessed is less likely to be taught, as evidenced by teachers’ concerns about this in the pilot (EEF 2019).

Furthermore, the replacement of this ELG with numerical patterns does not seem to contribute to a great reduction in workload for educators.

Pedagogy missteps

Finally, the research-based pedagogical approaches included in the current EYFS framework (DfE 2019), including responsible pedagogy, child-initiated play and embedded learning have all been removed. 

Worryingly, in addition, the statutory requirement for teachers to provide a narrative of what the child demonstrates in terms of the three "characteristics of effective learning" has also been removed.

These characteristics are fundamental to the development of mathematical thinking in young children and form the bedrock of later mathematical reasoning and prediction:

  • Playing and exploring.
  • Active learning.
  • Creating and thinking critically (DfE 2019).

Both the new ELGs and the new educational programme for mathematics will need substantial clarification, pedagogically appropriate exemplification and extensive professional development if the mathematics teaching of young children is not to take a significant backwards step. This is particularly true for the educational programme, which is even less appropriate for the under 3s.

More work needed

In its consultation response, the DfE claims it sought to make the ELGs clearer, more evidence-based, better preparation for Year 1 and reflective of the "strongest predictors of future attainment".

These are indeed fine objectives, but they remain unfulfilled.

The aim is to “foster a love of mathematics” in the educational programme, but with goals providing a narrow and inappropriate view of early mathematics, it is hard to see how this will happen.

If the aim is to provide a secure mathematical foundation on which a Y1 teacher can build, the ECMG considers that these changes, in particular the ELGs, will not lead to this. There are missed opportunities to build on predictive research and to gain the support of educators. A dog’s dinner indeed.


  • Burgoyne, K., Witteveen, K., Tolan, A., Malone, S. & Hulme, C. (2017). Pattern understanding: Relationships with arithmetic and reading development. Child Development Perspectives. 11, 239-244.
  • Butterworth, B., Sashank, V. & Laurillard, D. (2011). Dyscalculia: from brain to education, Science, 332, 1049-1053.
  • Chu, F.W., Van Marle, K. & Geary, D.C. (2015).  Early numerical foundations of young children’s mathematical development. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 132, 205-212.
  • Fischer, U., Moeller, K., Bientzle, M. et al (2014) Sensori-motor spatial training of number magnitude representation. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 18, 177-183.
  • Hawes, Z. & Ansari. D. (2020). What explains the relationship between spatial and mathematical skills? A review of evidence from brain and behavior. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 27, 465-482.
  • Kyttala, M., Aunio, P., Lehto, J.E., Van Luit, J. & Hautamaki, J. (2003). Visuospatial working memory and early numeracy. Educational and Child Psychology, 20(3), 65-76.
  • Vanbinst, K., Ansari, D., Ghesquiere, P. et al (2016). Symbolic numerical magnitude processing is as important to arithmetic as phonological awareness is to reading. Plos One, 11, No. e0151045.
  • Xenidou-Dervou, I., Molenaar, D., Ansari, D. et al (2017). Nonsymbolic and symbolic magnitude comparison skills as longitudinal predictors of mathematical achievement. Learning and Instruction, 50, 1-13.

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The Early Childhood Mathematics Group

The Early Childhood Mathematics Group (ECMG) is an informally constituted group of expert practitioners, educators and representatives of organisations concerned with the mathematical education of young children.

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