The task of assessing older children's achievements can rely mostly on written evidence. But the assessment of nursery children - who may spend much of their day experimenting with paint, glue or clay, or dressing up - is much more dependent on staff observing their play and taking notes.
By taking photographs as well, however, you can greatly enhance the process. Brearley Nursery, which has 104 full-time three and four-year-olds, is one of a growing number of nurseries using a camera as a key assessment tool.
"Photographs add another dimension, and a way of checking your evidence," says Sue Bennett, Brearley's headteacher. "Also, if you've got the camera and something happens, you can capture it; it's a way of not missing things."
For example, four-year-old Jordan's sculpture of a dragon might have appeared little more than a messy bundle of paper and Sellotape had staff not been on hand, with camera and notebook, to record the creative process. A series of photographs, plus snippets of Jordan's own dragon narrative are now displayed on the classroom wall.
In another classroom, newly mounted photographs show two children, at very different stages of development, building structures from toy bricks. One child has not quite mastered how to make a tower balance - it keeps toppling over - while the other is using the bricks to create sophisticated interlocking patterns.
"I found these two playing with the bricks and it was really lovely play, so I took some pictures and jotted down what they were saying," says Daphne Cryan, one of the nursery staff. "It helps in assessing how to move children on; the first still needs more input about building and the second needs to be shown how to transfer these skills to something else."
The use of photographs at Brearley Nursery has evolved steadily over the last few years and was particularly strengthened by a study week in Reggio Emilia, Italy, attended by Sue Bennett and Maureen Cryan. Reggio Emilia is renowned for its pre-school education and its nurseries place great emphasis on photography as a method of documenting children's learning.
Unlike Reggio Emilia's nursery teachers, the staff at Brearley Nursery do not receive any photographic training. However, they all have a camera in their classroom and can take snapshots that reflect what children are doing.
Staff are also starting to work with a digital camera to provide pictures that children can use almost immediately. It is hoped the children may occasionally be able to use this camera themselves - as well as their toy ones.
Photography has definitely become so much a part of the nursery's modus vivendi that, on my visit, four-year-old Omar asks me if I will be taking any pictures. The children, staff say, enjoy being photographed. They also like being able to point out pictures of themselves on the wall, to visitors and parents.
Barbara Copland, whose classroom photographs follow a project about buildings over a six month period, says the pictures "help me look back at what we've done and see how things have changed". Photographs an also help to "chart a child's well-being," she says. For instance, they help to provide information - through body language - about a child who may be unusually tired or depressed. Children caught in the background of a shot can be another source of information: "You can pick up the ones who are really concentrating and the ones who tend to be standing by and watching, and not doing very much," she says.
When staff compile profiles of the children when they leave for new schools, the photographs they have kept on file are an important reference. Once this assessment is complete, each child receives their own book with pictures of themselves in it.
There is, however, the expense of having so many pictures developed. "We'd like to get a link with a business partnership, so it doesn't cost so much," Sue Bennett says. However, there are likely to be many other valuable uses for the pictures, such as being able to show children's development when it's time for OFSTED inspections.
"The photographs are good evidence because they show progression," says Barbara Copland. "I find they relieve some of the pressure to have a tangible result to show."
In the same way, they can be useful to parents, giving them more insight into what goes on in the nursery and what their child has been doing. Special displays around the school use photographs to explain to parents the new learning goals for nursery education, and the business of learning to write. The children can also use the photographs in role-play and dressing up to help them explore different emotions.
"Our displays have moved away from just having an end product," says Sue Bennett. "In the past, you'd see nice displays, but with nothing to show how children had got to that point. Working with photographs has really moved our thinking on; it's become a way of documenting and focusing on their learning."
1. Keep a camera that is reasonably simple to operate in a handy place in the classroom.
2. When you pick up a pen and paper to do observation work, get into the habit of picking up the camera as well - just in case.
3. Without getting children's attention too obviously, take shots - and short series of shots - of groups or individuals engaged in purposeful, creative play. Also jot down what children are saying about their play.
4. Involve the children in sharing and discussing the photographs once they have been developed. For instance, they might use them to draw or paint from, or to make their own books.
5. In the classroom, display photographs of children working towards something, alongside the finished product. This is pleasing for children, as well as instructive for their parents.
6. If possible, involve children in the process by allowing them to have a go with a camera themselves. Polaroids or digital cameras are useful in this situation as they yield more immediate results.
7. Keep photographs on file as reminders of children's development. These will serve as helpful pointers when it comes to assessment and report writing.
8. If you have a digital camera and print your images from a computer, it will save of development and printing costs.