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What happened to curriculum in the early years?

Written by: Julian Grenier
9 min read

Ofsted’s consultation about its new education inspection framework, with its focus on the curriculum, is leading Early Years practitioners to wonder what a curriculum for the youngest children might look like.

Yet the notion of a curriculum for young children is not new. For example, Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (QCA/DfEE, 2000) was the main reference document for Early Years practitioners from the year 2000 up to 2008. According to research (Taylor Nelson Sofres with Aubrey, 2002), this Early Years curriculum, covering the nursery and Reception years, was very positively received. However, since the replacement of the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage by the various updates of the Early Years Foundation Stage, the word ‘curriculum’ has vanished. Instead of curriculum guidance, we now have Development Matters (Early Education, 2012). This sets out hundreds of examples of children’s development, organised into overlapping age bands (for example, 22–36 months and 30–50 months).

Nancy Stewart, one of the authors of Development Matters, has commented that the document is often ‘used as a tick-list of descriptors of what children must achieve’ and this ‘can sadly limit both children’s development and the professional awareness and skills of practitioners’ (Stewart, 2016). Certainly, Ofsted (2017, p. 4) reported in ‘Bold Beginnings’ that ‘many of the teachers devised tasks simply to tick off elements of the early learning goals so that they could provide evidence of children’s achievement. By default, these tasks – and ticking them off – became the Reception curriculum, with a significant loss of focus on learning, step by step.’

So, how might teachers and Early Years educators emerge from this landscape?

It is, perhaps, useful to begin the discussion by outlining some of the things that we do not yet know – despite ongoing research into early learning. For example, we do not know much about how young children learn tricky concepts of time, such as how long ago things occurred, or even that things happened in the past and not the present. The child who is obsessed with dinosaurs is just as likely to think that they exist somewhere else today as to understand that they existed an unimaginably long time ago.

Practitioners sometimes comment that this is a consequence of the nature of child development: young children are simply not ‘ready’ to understand such notions, until they reach a higher stage of development. Yet this ‘stage theory’ has long been rejected by psychologists. As Usha Goswami, professor of cognitive developmental neuroscience at the University of Cambridge argues, ‘children think and reason largely in the same way as adults. However, they lack experience, and they are still developing important metacognitive and executive function skills.’ (Goswami, 2015, p. 25)

What we once assumed to be the limitations of a child’s ‘stage of development’, we now assume to be the result of their lack of life experience. Children are not deficient in their ways of thinking and solving problems, but they are inexperienced. They are still finding out how to identify which of their learning strategies are effective, and how to maintain their attention in order to reach a particular goal. As a result, their approach to solving problems will often vary from one day to the next, despite the teaching they have received.

So helping children to develop their metacognitive and executive function skills should be central to an Early Years curriculum. The available evidence suggests that play, carefully supported by adults, can help children to develop in both of these areas. One example of that adult structure is the careful organisation of resources so that children know how to select more complex jigsaw puzzles once they have mastered easier ones. Another is ‘scaffolding’, where the adult gives the child just enough extra help to overcome a challenge. Another example is the use of pre-prepared resource packs to help children – for example, in the ‘Tools of the Mind’ programme (Bordrova and Leong, 2006), educators use a ‘Dispute Bag’ as a way to help children to think about and solve conflicts. There is also evidence that less structured and freer play also helps children (Whitebread, 2019).

Then, there are aspects of early learning where typical development is being mapped out – for example, how children develop their attention, speaking, listening and understanding. The adult strategies to help children develop their communication have also been well-evidenced: creating episodes of joint attention and putting a focus on developing conversations, for example. Even so, as Dockrell (2001) has argued, it is extremely difficult to make the sorts of assessment that accurately identify whether children in the Early Years have typical or delayed language development. That is not to say that we should not try. But we must acknowledge the difficulties. It means that we should put more emphasis on developing pedagogical practices that help children, and planning learning experiences that will encourage them to communicate. We need to reconsider our understanding of the interplay between assessment, pedagogy and curricular planning. Ofsted (2017, p. 4) may be right to observe that thinking about the curriculum in the Early Years can be muddled: ‘two thirds of the staff inspectors spoke to confused what they were teaching (the curriculum) with how they thought they were supposed to teach it’.

Returning to the tricky concepts of the past, a reconsideration of Bruner’s notion of the ‘spiral curriculum’ may be helpful. Bruner (1960, p. 33) recognises the relationship between curriculum content and the pedagogical strategy of scaffolding when he argues that ‘any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’. As Brown et al. (2014) argue, ‘knowledge is sticky’: in other words, to consider just one aspect of their proposition, once you have grasped some concepts about time, it becomes easier to develop a more complex mental schema about past, present and future. Knowing more helps you to know more – remember Gosawmi’s argument that children learn like adults, but have less experience and less-developed metacognition. So it is through repeated discussion of ideas about the recent past and long ago, family history and national history, that children slowly develop their understanding of these difficult concepts. This points to the importance of effective curriculum design: we need to offer children engaging experiences that encourage them to explore the concept of the past, and we need to offer them regularly. We also need to bear in mind that just because children in the Early Years do not know as much as older children, they are not deficient versions of pupils higher up in the school system. The young child has an exceptional capacity to learn and can be viewed as ‘the most powerful learning machine in the universe’ (Gopnik et al., 1999, p. 1).

We also need to think about widening the horizons and life experiences of children as they arrive in Early Years settings, as well as building on their interests. In my current role, we plan carefully for children to have progressively richer experiences beyond the nursery school gate. We start with simple trips to the local park, shops and on buses – unfamiliar experiences for some children. As the year progresses, we visit different places of worship, the Olympic Park and the great museums in central London. Finally, there is our summer trip to the seaside. This had particular meaning for Ruby, a four-year-old who spent considerable periods of her time in nursery playing with baskets of shiny stones and shells, arranging them differently to create designs and pictures. She was first overwhelmed and then absolutely fascinated by all the stones she saw on the Essex shore. She spent almost a whole day holding them, stacking them up, throwing them into the sea and talking about them.

We have a responsibility to design an Early Years curriculum that meets the needs of the particular children we are working with. A finding from the EPPE Project (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2002, p. 65) that I often reflect on is that ‘children who were described by their teachers as “struggling to learn” experienced more creative and PSE aspects of the curriculum and less literacy and knowledge and understanding of the world’. It could be argued that those practitioners were helping to meet children’s social and emotional needs through appropriate adaptation of the curriculum. But my concern is that some of the practitioners in the study were keeping children away from the curriculum they needed because it was hard for them to engage with the barriers to their learning.

In conclusion, I think that it is unhelpful that the main guidance we have for early education in England includes a large number of bullet points about children’s development. We simply do not know enough about children’s development for this to be meaningful and effective. It has resulted – against the stated intentions of its authors – in the creation of an unsustainable workload for practitioners.

All that work ultimately ends up in collections of observations and data, which are neither robust nor useful. This prevents practitioners from doing more beneficial things. It would be much more sensible to focus our assessment efforts on the smaller number of children who are struggling to learn, so that we can help them to overcome the barriers to their learning, or refer them for more specialist assessment and support.

Practitioners may depend so heavily on Development Matters to guide their planning for children’s learning because there is so little else for them to draw on. The conclusions of Siraj et al. (2017, p. 5) about the Early Years workforce in Australia are worth reflecting on in England, too: ‘many current early years educators may not be familiar with key content knowledge, child development theory or the kind of high-quality interactions that children require for their learning… a skilled workforce is needed to deliver a high-quality curriculum in a way that involves pedagogical approaches which are sensitive, engaging and include challenging interactions with children’. If we are going to develop our thinking about the curriculum in the Early Years, we must provide better support through professional development.

We need to put more emphasis on curriculum and pedagogy, and less on the collection of data. The 1990 Rumbold Report (p. 10) on early education proposed that ‘curriculum planning is not a once-and-for-all operation: it is a continuous cycle involving planning, observing, recording, assessing and returning to planning in the light of the intermediate stages’. We could usefully shift the emphasis in English early education towards this approach to curriculum design, considering how young children learn, along with the particular strengths and needs of the children in our local communities, and maintaining a focus on ambitious goals for every child.


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