'Plenty of schools are still ticking endless boxes'

For many staff, the tracking workload has decreased in recent years. So why haven't early years teachers benefited?

Michael Tidd

Early years

Nearly six years ago, I wrote a blog where I tried to clarify the difference between assessment and tracking. At the time, we were still very much in the habit of using APP charts to tick off vague statements about children’s reading and writing, recording the outcomes as sublevels, and trying to imagine that, somehow, three points of progress each year was a meaningful measure. 

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When I wrote the post, we knew that levels would soon be gone, but had little idea what would replace them. It’s fair to say that, for most primary schools, the intervening period has been rather tumultuous. But one area has remained broadly untouched by the changes of scrapping levels, continuing in much the same way as it once did.

The early years foundation stage – particularly the Reception year in primary schools – was long held up as an example of excellent assessment practice. The argument was that we could all learn more from early years teachers about how to assess in the moment, working alongside children to make judgements instead of relying on tests and marking rubrics. For a while, it seemed that the future was going to be Post-it notes and digital cameras all round.

Part of the problem was that assessment was still too focused – like so much else in education – on “showing progress” and “evidencing” outcomes. Inevitably, the low volume of written work in Reception meant teachers had to find other ways of providing that evidence. Post-it notes were soon replaced by tablets so teachers could take photographs and tag objectives. 

Gradually, over the past few years, we’ve seen reductions in the tracking workload of teachers in key stages 1 and 2 in many schools. Instead of ticking off hundreds of APP judgements, assessment has become much more about knowing what children are learning and using that knowledge to adjust teaching. Yet in the early years, there are still plenty of schools ticking endless boxes, whether on paper or an electronic device.

Perhaps the arrival of the new Early Learning Goals might change that, in the same way that the removal of levels did in the infant and junior years. If the ELGs have changed, then the Development Matters framework no longer aligns with the end-of-stage expectations. Much like APP ceased to be directly relevant, perhaps we can say goodbye to “30-50+” and other such categories?

That’s not to say that the framework doesn’t have its place. I can’t be the only teacher-parent who has glanced at the “8 to 20 months” descriptors to see how my child compares, but to imagine that this needs to be evidenced and allocated a colour seems to rather miss the point. 

It’s particularly odd given the levels of opposition to the Reception baseline. Twenty minutes of one-to-one assessment of actual skills seems no bad thing to me, compared with the endless labelling of children against the vague descriptors of the Development Matters framework. And to imagine that such a decision is necessary against 17 different areas seems even madder.

There’s no doubt that the structure of early years classrooms and the staffing of them allow early years specialists to know their children well. Can’t we just take that as read, drop all the highlighting, tick-boxing and tracking and just let them get on with engaging with the children? 

Knowing a child was a “level 3b+” was no use to anyone, any more than labelling them as “30-50 months+” will help any experienced early years teacher to teach any better. Let’s see the back of the evidencing and let early years experts get on with the job.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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