The DfE’s Hokey Cokey approach to early years

19th August 2016 at 01:00
The foundation-stage profile has been in, out, in and out – the turnaround has been quite dizzying

An early years teacher will have a full repertoire of songs and nursery rhymes for every occasion. And it seems that the Department for Education is drawing from this inspirational collection to guide its policymaking. Whether it’s the Hokey Cokey (“in, out, in, out, shake it all about!”) or Polly Put the Kettle On (with contrary Sukey), they’ve clearly been inspired by the constant toing and froing of nursery rhymes when planning early years assessment.

When the department consulted back in summer 2013 on changes to primary assessment (one of its lovely end-of-term gifts), it asked us whether it should introduce a baseline test for Reception: more than half of respondents said no. When asked if schools should be allowed to choose from a range of commercial options, nearly three-quarters said no. A third said it could cause inconsistencies and confusion. Nevertheless, that was what we got, and in return – to help manage workload – schools wouldn’t have to complete the foundation stage profile after this summer.

It seems that, on this occasion, the many respondents to the consultation were right and the government wrong. Not that the department has admitted as much, of course. Instead we have been treated to the intervening years of rolling out baseline assessments only to see them scrapped. And so – the inevitable corollary – the foundation-stage profile is back.

It seems that, on this occasion, the many respondents to the consultation were right and the government wrong. Not that the department has admitted as much, of course

You might think the middle of the summer holidays is a strange time to announce this final stage of the early years U-turn. It suggests that four months after the first step – the scrapping of baseline tests – the DfE has come rather late to realising it has left something of a void. Surely somebody at the department should have noticed this back then? You can be certain that plenty of early years specialists have been thinking about it. Many were predicting the profile’s return even then.

Like with so many other chaotic changes from the DfE recently, the response was one of resigned eye-rolling rather than the ire that really ought to be coursing through the profession. This was perhaps helped by the fact that most early years professionals were fond of the profile in the first place. But, frankly, that makes it worse. Especially given the fact that the return is temporary, joining the nonsense of the repeat-run for the interim assessment frameworks in key stages 1 and 2.

One presumes that the DfE is determined to introduce a new baseline assessment system – and, arguably, that is its right. But for it to cause so much turmoil in early years settings, indeed throughout primary schools, is just unacceptable. If the government wants to introduce significant change to the sector, then it needs to do so with thought, planning, time and in collaboration with the profession, all of which have been lacking in the past few years.

It’s easy to draw simplistic comparisons to individual schools, but, in reality, any school leadership team overseeing such chaotic implementation of improvement planning would rightly expect Ofsted to be critical of its actions. The DfE should be no different. One has to ask: where is the governance that should be holding them to account?

Maybe it’s indicative of the worrying state our Parliament is in: surely with constant mismanagement at the DfE, there ought to be some part of the wider political system demanding action and improvement. Instead, we have a largely unchanged team focusing instead on whether or not to wind secondary education back 50 years and reintroduce grammar schools. Perhaps that’s all part of the Hokey Cokey approach to policy?

Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire

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This article first appeared in the 19 August 2016 edition of TES.


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