Why have we allowed checklists to dominate early years?

EYFS assessment has become about data collection, not children – this needs to change, says Beatrice Merrick

Beatrice Merrick

EYFS: Assessment should be about teacher judgement - not data, says Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education

The Department for Education has just published the revised EYFS statutory framework, which applies from September 2021. 

Many of the core principles remain unchanged, including the observation-assessment-planning cycle, which is based on a long tradition of putting observation of the child at the core of early years practice

If you really want to understand what children know and can do, watch them in their everyday activities, talk to them about what they are doing, stand back and reflect, and do it over time – not as a one-off assessment. Then use that knowledge to work out how to support and extend their learning.

That’s the theory. But, for many years, assessment in the early years has become about data collection and tracking. 

EYFS: The data tail wagging the accountability dog

So why has the sector been caught up in a cycle of generating endless Post-It notes, photos, entries in online journals and highlighted photocopies tracking every statement in the old Development Matters document? 

One answer is the accountability bandwagon. The assumption was that there were lots of people who wanted or needed to see the data: Ofsted, school and setting leaders, local authority quality-improvement teams and moderators. Teacher assessment was not to be trusted, and there was a need for “objective” evidence. 

Data-tracking apps designed to reduce workload may inadvertently have encouraged that push towards standardised collection of certain types or amounts of data. Myths abounded, such as that practitioners had to record a certain number of pieces of evidence in order to prove that children had achieved a particular milestone. 

Tracking became about achieving targets such as “three steps of progress per term”, which required creating lots of steps that children could be verified as having achieved. The data tail was wagging the accountability dog, and the original point of collecting the data was getting lost.

Another driver has been the level of professional knowledge and confidence in the workforce. Assessing children in the early years depends on having a good understanding of what “typical” child development looks like.

The differences in child development that occur at all ages are particularly marked in the early years, because of the rate of change for under-fives, but patterns can still be identified that allow practitioners to make a judgement about which children need extra support – or extra challenge. 

Unfortunately, the wide range of qualifications and experience within the earl -years workforce means that a Reception teacher may have had no early years content in their teaching qualification. Equally, some level 2 and 3 early years qualifications still aren’t consistently producing practitioners with enough child-development knowledge.

This means that staff have often been dependent on tools such as Development Matters to support their assessments. Despite the statement on every page of Development Matters stating that it should not be used as a ticklist, it frequently was. 

Focusing on professional judgement – not data

The cycle became self-reinforcing, as practitioners lost confidence in their ability to know where their children were and what they needed without a dossier of evidence to back up what they knew. Worse, in some cases collecting evidence replaced knowledge of children – collecting the evidence was so time-consuming that it crowded out time to reflect on it and plan to do something as a result. Or time to spend time with the children.

There is now a concerted attempt to dispel those myths about the necessity of endless tracking, and to get practitioners back to spending time with children, not collecting unnecessary evidence. 

Ministers are right to want to see practitioners interacting with children, not hidden behind iPads and clipboards, and to put out the message loud and clear that professional judgement – not data – needs to be central.

(Oddly, they are simultaneously introducing a Reception baseline assessment, purely for accountability purposes, which will take the best part of a week of a teacher’s time in the crucial first six weeks of children being in class – but that’s another story.)

The sector view on the EYFS reforms may be mixed (are they really any better or clearer or more evidence-based?) but there is widespread agreement that it’s time to change the mindset on assessment. Ofsted is very clear that it doesn’t want to see data. No data is needed beyond what teachers find helpful for themselves in compiling it. 

Perhaps the next challenge will be for school leaders and setting owners and managers to look again at what they ask their teams to do. They may face the challenge of knowing relatively little about the early years, and may have to learn to trust the professional knowledge of their early years teams. 

How do we know that all our children are doing well enough? The professional judgement of practitioners should be the starting point, alongside discussions that improve practice. 

Everyone involved – both leaders and practitioners – may benefit from learning more about child development in the early years, what supports it and how to measure the quality of provision.

This is the context in which the Early Years Coalition – an alliance of 16 sector organisations – has published Birth to Five Matters: guidance by the sector, for the sector. We received clear messages from our consultations that practitioners needed support in building their understanding of child development – particularly for those newer to the early years. 

The trajectories of typical development that it contains are there to help scaffold that knowledge, and to show how practitioners can support development and learning through their interactions with children and the provision of enabling environments. 

It is part of a richer and growing resource designed to support practitioners to develop their knowledge and confidence – and their managers to be confident that there are better ways of measuring quality than endlessly recording assessments of children. 

Beatrice Merrick is chair of the Early Years Coalition and chief executive of Early Education

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