Assessment overload exhausts early-years staff

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Discontent is growing over pupil observations

"They won't tell you what to do," said Penny, a reception teacher in west London who asked to remain anonymous. "But then they will come in, judge you and tell you whether you've got it right. We're all willing to do what is right, but we need to know what is required."

Penny is grappling with the early years foundation stage, introduced six months ago to ensure that all pre-school children have access to a wide range of activities geared to their interests and guided by knowledgeable adults.

Discontent is growing, not with the play-based nature of it, but over the way it is assessed. At the end of the foundation stage, children must be judged against a set of 13 nine-point scales. The EYFS profile, as it is known, has to be drawn up mostly through staff observations of the children - not tests - and the guidelines on this are unclear.

"At one meeting, I was told three pieces of evidence were needed for every scale point, either an observation on a Post-it or a piece of work. At another meeting, I was told this was far too much," Penny said. "But the real problem is no one knows what it's for. It doesn't make a difference to me that observations are written down on a Post-it note that `So-and-so can use scissors.'

"The heart of the EYFS is in the right place, but the way it is being micromanaged by advisers, Ofsted and moderators is no way of managing it."

Originally proposed as a way of both raising standards and bringing together the 0-3 childcare phase of development and the 3-5 early education phase, the foundation stage has not had universal approval. Especially when it comes to workload.

Take, for example, the fact that the early-years forum on The TES website has a thread entitled "I feel like I don't know what I'm doing any more", in which posters reveal the "madness" of having to manage their classes while simultaneously writing down everything they see.

But not everyone feels overloaded and undermined. When Ofsted visited Stranton Primary in Hartlepool last month, inspectors concluded that the school was good and its early-years provision outstanding. They also noted that the children had an "exceptionally low start" in reception and that the school serves an area of significant deprivation.

Caroline Nicholls, Stranton's foundation stage co-ordinator, said: "To be honest, the EYFS has not been a big change to the way we've operated our foundation stage unit.

"Our observations are embedded in our daily practice. Every practitioner is committed to observing children. They are timetabled to do this, then the observations inform our planning."

The school has seven staff observing 42 reception and 18 nursery children, with observations filed by area of learning, not by child. To complete a child's profile, the teacher draws on the observation files and the children's portfolios of work.

Of course, some teachers are good at incorporating assessment into their day-to-day teaching, but that does not mean those who are struggling should be taken less seriously. It could be that they are just less confident about speaking out. And the system makes it more difficult for managers to know whether the difficulties lie with the individual or the system, or maybe both.

Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the NUT teachers' union, said: "If teachers have to make 117 judgments on anything between 20 and 30 children in their class, this is ludicrous."

Marion Dowling, an independent early-years consultant, said: "One of the issues is there has been so much training on the EYFS that practitioners are punch drunk. There are massive misconceptions and massive worries about assessment, observations and evaluation. Experienced people may take it with a pinch of salt and continue their good practice, but I think others have been really thrown by it. Less experienced people are really shell-shocked."

Sue Ellis, director of early years for the National Strategies programme, said: "The feedback that we have is that there is widespread support for it. But one issue, particularly from childminders, is there is a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork.

"What we're really saying is: know your children really well; know what interests them; and have some knowledge of child development so you know the next step in their learning. It doesn't require you to write it all down."

But there is still more change afoot, with moves to expand early-years provision to 15 hours in nurseries and proposals to introduce a single entry point for reception.

Amid the ironing out of these practical issues, there are those who are still pushing for more radical change. The Open EYE campaign, which includes the Steiner school movement, fears the foundation stage will lead to formal teaching too early. At the other end of the scale, phonics supporters fear it will lead to too little formal teaching. And some disagree with the concept of a state curriculum altogether.

David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, said: "As a parent, you can determine what is in the interests of your child (at all times) except for one period of life from ages three to five, when any setting they attend is obliged to follow the EYFS. That is an extraordinary position we've got into."


Sue Ellis of the National Strategies is keen to dispel the myth that children must now spend 80 per cent of their time playing.

The idea arose from the EYFS assessment document, which states that evidence should come 80 per cent from child-initiated and 20 per cent from adult-led activities. But there is no such rule. Basically, one-third of the day should be spent on adult-initiated and two-thirds on child- initiated activities, half of which is spent playing alongside adults.

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