New Early Learning Goals: what do we know so far?

Long-awaited revisions to the maths Early Learning Goals will be piloted in September, but how useful will they be?

early years maths

The long awaited revisions to the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) were announced and released on Friday 22 June, as part of the government’s review of the EYFS. These will be piloted in 25 sample schools in September and then evaluated before implementation in 2020.

But what do the ELGs mean for early years teachers? And how useful can we expect them to be? Here is what we know so far.

The pilot schools are as yet unknown, but we do know that the evaluation will be carried out by three bodies, Action for Children, the Education Endowment Fund and the National Centre for Social Research.

The documents are inexplicably not available on the DfE website, but can be found on the Foundation Years site.

The goals for mathematics are separated into two areas – number and numerical patterns. For the number goal, children at the expected level of development will:

  • Have an understanding of number to 10, linking names of numbers, numerals, their value, and their position in the counting order;
  • Subitise (recognise quantities without counting) up to 5;
  • Automatically recall number bonds for numbers 0-5 and for 10, including corresponding partitioning facts.

For the numerical patterns goal, children at the expected level of development will:

  • Automatically recall double facts up to 5+5;
  • Compare sets of objects up to 10 in different contexts, considering size and difference;
  • Explore patterns of numbers within numbers up to 10, including evens and odds

There is a lot about the revised goals which is positive, especially the focus on understanding numbers to 10 (not 20), subitising, and pattern. These three aspects have been found by research to be key foundational aspects for future mathematical success. It is good to see an emphasis on "understanding" and appropriate pedagogy indicated in the target to "explore patterns of numbers within numbers". It is also good to see the removal of aspects of the current Goal which were not supported by research, for example: "counting reliably up to 20, counting back to find an answer, solving problems involving doubling and halving".

'Key aspects missing'

However, we are still concerned about inappropriate targets leading to superficial learning, and the removal of key aspects of mathematics.

Inappropriate and over-ambitious targets are likely to discourage teaching for depth and understanding. The wording "automatic recall" encourages quick-fire questioning, risking stressful and superficial memorisation, rather than children exploring number combinations in context.

Knowing number bonds for 10 is a realistic objective for six year olds, not five year olds, according to experts Sarama and Clements (2009). This belies the statement on page 10: “The ELGs are based on typical child development at the age of five, so most children are likely to meet the ‘expected’ level of development.”

Summer-born children, who are four for most of their Reception year, will risk being labeled as non-achievers at the beginning of Year 1. Whereas knowing number bonds for 10 is entirely suitable as curriculum for Reception, the requirement to assess "automatic recall" will put pressure on teachers to prioritise this over deep conceptual understanding of number. Inappropriate targets like these do not support the ideal of ensuring that all children start Year 1 with the same secure foundational understandings.

Key aspects of mathematics are missing, including problem solving and the entire "shape, space and measures" goal. This gives teachers negative messages about the nature of mathematics and the value of such experiences for young children. "Shape, space and measures" provide opportunities for children to solve problems and reason practically about mathematical relationships at their developmental level, by fitting shapes together and visualizing rotations or exploring equivalence in comparing lengths, capacities and weights. The new goal "numerical patterns", which replaces this, is a strange mish-mash, combining the indecipherable "comparing numbers" while ignoring key aspects of pattern awareness, such as identifying pattern units and rules (Rittle-Johnson et al, 2016). 

Thank goodness the "Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning" remain (Framework, page 15), as these focus on developing reasoning and problem solving. Furthermore, the Framework states: “The Early Learning Goals should not be used in any way to limit the wide variety of rich experiences that are crucial to child development…” (1.7, page 7). However, the omission of the entirety of "shape, space and measures", as well as any mention of problem-solving and reasoning in the goals, leaves it to chance whether any of this is taught. With the current high-stakes attached to achieving a "good level of development", it is disingenuous to ignore the potential effects of unrealistic targets on the one hand and the omission of fundamental early experiences on the other. As has been seen at Year 2 and Year 6, narrowing the assessment targets risks a narrowing of the curriculum, which would be detrimental to young children’s mathematical foundations.

Dr Sue Gifford is Principal lecturer, School of Education, University of Roehampton and was a member of the expert panel invited to review the goals.

Dr Helen J Williams is an independent educational consultant specialising in the teaching and learning of primary and early years mathematics.

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