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Assessment beyond levels in the Early Years

Written by: Julian Grenier
11 min read
Julian Grenier, Headteacher, Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre Director, East London Research School, UK

Practitioners working with children in the Early Years frequently have an excessive workload, and activities associated with assessment are a significant cause of this. The Early Years Alliance (2018) reported that practitioners feel overwhelmed by ‘unnecessary paperwork’ for Ofsted inspections. In response, Ofsted have changed their inspection handbook, saying that inspectors will not look at any ‘non-statutory internal progress and attainment data’ (Ofsted, 2019, p. 47).

Ofsted’s change of tone is welcome. But it addresses the symptoms of our problems in the Early Years, rather than the causes.

The cause of the problem is the downgrading of the curriculum in the Early Years. Back in 2000, the national guidance for Early Years practitioners was ‘Curriculum guidance for the foundation stage’ (QCA, 2000). By 2012, the word ‘curriculum’ had almost vanished from official documents. It is absent from the 2012 guidance for practitioners, ‘Development matters’ (Early Education, 2012).

A clear curriculum framework

Young children may miss out on the learning that they need if there is no clear framework in place for our reference. As Siraj-Blatchford argues (2004), an effective curriculum framework supports practitioners to think clearly about pedagogical aims. It ensures that practitioners are mindful of children’s progression, and can focus their attention and observation on the most important aspects of children’s development.

These claims are not controversial. As UNESCO and the International Bureau of Education explain (2016, p. 20), curriculum organisation for early childhood education may:

  • interrelate development and learning processes
  • systemise and organise educational work
  • lighten the pedagogical role of the educator by providing him/her with guidance in the learning activities
  • enable children to construct meaning based on and make sense of their learning experiences.

Assessment driving learning

So does this approach drive Early Years practice in England? In the recent period, it has not. Instead, the driver has been assessment. We have been on constant alert for ‘evidence’ of children’s learning, iPads at hand to snap the photograph that we need. We have ticked off aspects of children’s learning and development, and turned them into numerical data on our trackers.

Where that data shows a gap in a child’s experience or stalling in progress, we have taken steps to fill that gap or accelerate progress in that area. We have used the age bands in ‘Development matters’ (Early Education, 2012) to make judgements about the rate of progress: has a child made 12 months’ progress, according to the bands, in a year? We have also used the age bands to judge whether children are at the expected level of attainment: is a four-year-old securely in the 40–60-month band?

This approach to Early Years education is problematic. As Rix and Parry (2014) argue, the age bands are essentially fiction. Only a small number of key milestones are age-related. They note that the research commissioned by the Department for Education to inform the 2012 Early Years Foundation Stage concludes that ‘development proceeds in a web of multiple strands, with different children following different pathways’ (Evangelou et al., 2009, p. 8).

The age-related assessment system is especially inappropriate for children with special educational needs. For example, a child with an autism spectrum condition (ASC) aged three is commonly assessed as being in the ‘birth to 11 months’ bracket for their communication. In reality, the child’s communication is nothing like a baby’s. Children with ASCs will have communication strengths, which practitioners need to notice, build on and celebrate. They will also have communication needs. Practitioners need to assess what the barriers are to each child’s communication and choose the appropriate way forward. The other children may also need to learn a new way of communication in order to play with the children with ASCs. This is different to supporting babies’ communication.

In-the-moment planning

The primary role given to assessment and tracking in the Early Years has also underpinned the popular approach of ‘in the moment’ planning. A leading advocate for this approach, Anna Ephgrave (2017), describes how planning might be organised in a group setting. Each week, around 10 per cent of the children will be ‘focus children’. Their learning will be carefully observed on blank ‘Learning Journey’ sheets. Whenever an adult has a productive interaction with a child, this is recorded in full, with the ‘plan’ for the child being ‘formulated and delivered in the moment’ and recorded retrospectively.

Many aspects of Ephgrave’s approach are worthwhile. She recommends continual attentiveness to children, minute by minute. She argues against excessive recording of assessment information, as this interferes with being present in the moment.

But the evidence suggests that this approach is only an important part of a teaching repertoire in the Early Years. It is not an approach that will work wholesale. For example, Clements and Sarama (2018, p. 2) agree that much of young children’s spontaneous play is mathematical, and that ‘teachers can build on such experiences’. But, they argue, ‘teachable moments alone are far from adequate… it is unrealistic for any teacher to see opportunities for multiple children to build multiple concepts consistently over the year’ (p. 3). Mathematical learning is about gradually building and connecting new concepts and skills. To count, a child must know the sequence of numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and that each number name relates to one object, and that the last number name they say represents the total number of objects in the set. Children also need to understand part–part–whole relationships, how a group of five objects can consist of three and two, or four and one. Coordinating and using all of this knowledge together is very hard for children. They need repeated and enjoyable experiences so that they can practise and become fluent. That requires planning in advance. The larger the group size, the more carefully we need to plan. Otherwise, some children will miss out on the experiences and the practice that they need to become fluent.

A reliance on tracking can lead to a focus on superficial coverage and progress: as soon as counting to five is ticked off, the child’s next step is counting to 10. The research suggests that this is unhelpful. Instead, practitioners need to check that the child’s learning is secure before introducing new concepts or skills.

Finally, as Rix and Parry (2014, p. 6) argue, this approach to early education is too individualist. If a child is ‘not engaging in social activities’, practitioners are encouraged to focus on the unique child and create an individual plan to support them. But ‘the practitioner is not encouraged to assess the collective situation including the wider social expectations and pressures which constrain their own options and practice. As a consequence, they are separating the individual from the context.’ (Rix and Parry, 2014, p. 6) A balanced approach to supporting children as individuals and having an effective curriculum framework might help us to consider which aspects of the curriculum need modifying to support the child’s social development. We might also think of the scaffolding that we might offer to help children who are struggling with their learning, so that they can access the curriculum.

However, the Effective Pre-School, Primary And Secondary Education (EPPSE) Project (Sylva et al., 2004) suggests that where young children are struggling, practitioners do not focus their attention on helping them to take part in the mainstream curriculum. Instead, they offer them a different curriculum, with more focus on activities to promote personal, social and emotional development, and more creative activities. These activities may be worthwhile in themselves. But the unfortunate side effect is that children miss out on learning in important areas, like early literacy and mathematics. My own daughter is dyslexic. She needed extra help in Reception to match the sounds to letters, to support her phonological awareness and decoding. She did not need more time at the art table.

What might high-quality assessment look like?

We should use assessment to improve children’s learning: it should serve our work, not drive it. Looking broadly at all phases of education, feedback is the type of assessment that makes the biggest difference to a child’s learning. I am defining feedback as giving information to the learner about their progress towards a goal or outcome to help them improve. Where the curriculum sets out the key skills, concepts and attitudes that we want children to learn, this can provide a scaffold for the feedback that we give.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit (2021) shows that feedback has the most impact on children’s progress out of all the approaches listed. However, this evidence relates to children over the age of five. Little is reliably known about effective uses of feedback in the Early Years. Perhaps the best evidence that we have comes from the EPPSE Project (Sylva et al., 2004), which found that a technique they termed ‘sustained shared thinking’ (SST) was consistently associated with the highest-quality settings and the best outcomes for children. In SST, a child and another person (generally an adult) ‘work together in an intellectual way to find a solution for a problem, clarify a concept, extend a narrative, evaluate activities, etc. Both parties should contribute to the thinking, and it must develop and extend the understanding.’ (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2002, p. 8) SST implicitly includes feedback because of its focus on exploring solutions to problems.

For an interaction to be feedback, it needs to make a difference to the child’s learning. Generally, that would mean that the practitioner interprets what a child says or does in terms of the child’s learning needs. As a result, the feedback changes the child’s approach, leading to the child progressing in their skills or understanding, for example. However, as Dylan Wiliam argues (2006, p. 287), citing Bailey and Drummond, ‘early years teachers can generally identify which students are struggling, but are less skilled at identifying the causes of the failure to progress’.

Both this type of feedback and SST are time-consuming and complex. It would be impractical to suggest that practitioners working in Reception classes could offer them regularly to all children, for example. Fortunately, the EPPSE Project found that SST was important, but it was still relatively rare even in the best-quality provision. Similarly, most children do not need frequent diagnostic feedback. In high-quality provision, with a carefully planned curriculum and staff who interact well, most children make sound progress. It is only the children who are struggling with their learning who need the type of feedback that Wiliam advocates. We need to be curious about why a child is struggling to do something, and offer them sustained support and feedback. That way, we can identify the causes of those struggles with precision and offer children the help that they need.

Metacognition and self-regulation

The strand of the EEF Toolkit that has the second most impact is metacognition and self-regulation. There is some promising research in this area linked to effective assessment practice. For example, Tania Choudhury’s small-scale 2020 study, reported in Impact, found that discussing children’s thoughts about what ‘thinking’ and ‘learning’ are led to increases in metacognitive awareness and regulation. The children became more aware of how they approached their learning and became more independent as a result. Choudhury used children’s learning journals as a focus for these discussions. Her study built on an earlier project by a group of London nursery schools, Celebrating Children’s Learning (Grenier et al., 2017), which suggested that the following qualities were found in high-quality Early Years assessment:

  • You can ‘hear’ the child’s voice or ‘get a feel’ for their play
  • There is keen observation of the child’s exploration, play and thinking
  • The practitioner has noticed that the child is learning a new skill or is making new links between aspects of knowledge
  • There are examples of sustained shared thinking or a response from the child showing their feeling of awe and wonder.

We need to find out more about which types of Early Years assessment make a difference to children’s learning. We need more research into feedback and types of assessment that help children to develop their metacognition. We also need to develop assessment approaches that work hand in hand with the curriculum that we have specifically designed for the children with whom we work. When we have selected a small number of important milestones to assess, those assessments do not need to be levelled by age. What’s important is that the children’s understanding is secure, and their learning is broad, satisfying and enjoyable.

A metric in the background

I am not arguing that we should throw out all measures of progress. For example, in the nursery school that I lead, we collect standardised assessment information about all the children twice in the year, using an app-based system called Early Years Toolbox (Howard and Melhuish, 2017). We use this data as a safety net. It provides a metric in the background for checking and sometimes challenging our judgements, helping our work rather than ruling over everything we do.

We need new thinking on assessment in the Early Years, to improve children’s learning. We also need it, urgently, to boost our practitioners’ wellbeing. Just urging practitioners to do ‘less paperwork’ will only address the symptom of mushrooming workload. We need to tackle the cause. We need to rely less on the production of ‘evidence’ and become more confident in our understanding of child development and curriculum planning. That could help us all to recover from this period, which I have found the most difficult of my 30 years in teaching.


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