EYFS: Why we need to ditch the phrase ‘on track’

Achieving a good level of development in the early years matters but relentless tracking is damaging for everyone, writes Julian Grenier

Julian Grenier

EYFS: Why we need to ditch the phrase 'on-track'

Early years assessment has been about “tracking” for as long as I can remember. It makes me think of big-game photographers on safari, tracking animals discretely from a distance. Just like photographers waiting for their subjects to move into position for the perfect shot, we’re hoping that all our children will be in the cross hairs of the “good level of development” by the end of reception.

Yet it’s been clear for some time that this focus on tracking has awful consequences. A sobering report from the Early Years Alliance, Minds Matter, documents the impact on practitioners’ mental health and home lives. As one respondent says, the workload means “I feel like I am not living, I am existing.”

The sheer absurdity of practice in many reception classes is expressed by Jim, a teacher in Alice Bradbury’s research on early years assessment: “You’ve got 22 folders down there with nothing in and it’s like, ‘Christ let’s fill it’. You need stuff in there – we need to show that we’re doing work”. 

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This emphasis on collecting evidence to show that children are on track is futile. As David Dadau argues, these types of age-related expectations are guesswork. He says: “We look at what some children can do at a particular age and then label this as an expectation for what all children should achieve.” 

It doesn’t make any sense to say that a three-year-old is “on track”. Reception mustn’t be all about single-mindedly tracking children’s progress towards 17 early-learning goals.

Early years: why we need to make time for play

I’m not arguing that the goals are irrelevant. They’re a sound indicator of how well children are doing. We know from research by the Education Endowment Foundation that gaps in learning by the end of the EYFS double by the end of primary school and double again by the end of secondary. The children who are losing out most are those who are eligible for free school meals. Achieving a good level of development matters. 

But we need to be clear about what we want children to experience, know and be able to do in the early years – not merely drive them towards the goals. When we’re clear about our curriculum, we can gear our assessment to checking whether children have learnt what we intended. Of course, we can’t put our entire focus on the curriculum. Much of young children’s best learning happens as they play and explore freely. As educators, we should make time and space for that, and judiciously intervene and challenge gently when helpful.

The changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage mean that we can get rid of this discourse of “on track” and the appalling workload associated with it. Instead of saying that a child is not on track, we can more usefully focus on what they need extra help with. That’s much more supportive to children than having a general sense that some are “low ability” and “below age-related expectations” – which are often self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Let’s take this opportunity and “on track” for good in the early years. 

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Julian Grenier

Dr Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre. He co-leads the East London Research School

Find me on Twitter @juliangrenier

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