Thursday, 2 February 2017

Monday, 30 January 2017

Celebrating children's learning

The large majority of early years practitioners use the non-statutory Development Matters as a guide to planning for children's progress in the EYFS. But there has bee a longstanding problem: whereas a range of exemplification materials have been produced for the Early Learning Goals, there is nothing equivalent to support Development Matters. That means that there haven't been the materials to support training and development in this area, or to support moderation of assessments.

This is particularly important when it comes to transition. If children are going to build their learning over time as they transfer from, say, a preschool into a primary school, or from a childminder into a nursery class, then it is important that the assessment information about them is accurate and robust. Otherwise, the receiving school or setting may well simply ignore all the information that transfers with the child. That's why the East London Partnership worked with a group of nursery schools across London on the Celebrating Children's Learning project.

These observations were contributed by the group to help practitioners to assess children’s learning and exemplify the progress they make, using the Development Matters guidance. They were particularly selected to show the Characteristics of Effective Learning in action. Every aspect of the seven prime and specific areas of learning is illustrated by real observations of young children’s learning in action, using a wide range of different styles and formats.

We hope that these materials will be useful for training and development purposes, both to develop the quality of assessment, and to improve the accuracy and robustness of assessment across the early years. If early years settings, childminders and schools come together for training and for moderation, that will improve transition arrangements and will help to ensure that children can build on their learning and deepen their interests. Higher-quality assessment information will also engage parents more, and prompt more discussion: fostering early learning is a partnership between parents and practitioners.

As we worked on the project, we identified four features in the most effective practice in 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.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Early years assessment in schools: time the game was over

The government’s decision to scrap the unreliable, time-consuming and expensive baseline assessment scheme for reception classes was widely welcomed, as was their decision to retain the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. As there are no further planned changes to the system, surely this is an ideal time for us to re-consider some of our practice in the early years?

Assessment in the early years should be principled and responsible: it should promote the best interests of children. The Statutory Framework for the EYFS promotes a play-based approach to early education with a focus on the Characteristics of Effective Learning – and so should our systems for assessment. We should call time on some of the more unsavoury practices in early years assessment which take place in schools.

Firstly, we need to stop playing games with the assessment system. Children’s attainment on entry is still, in far too many cases, artificially depressed. Schools all over the country – even those in affluent areas – continue to report that on entry, children’s levels of development are below the expected levels. It cannot be true that the development of more-or-less every child in England is below the level expected for their age. Depressing assessment levels on entry – whether children start in nursery or reception – makes it easier for schools to show their “value added”. But it also has a corrosive effect: it lowers expectations. When I recently heard that a school leader had asked staff to be less generous in their assessments so that the children had “room to grow”, it struck me that those children were unlikely to get the sort of challenging provision they need in order to become more engaged, creative and persistent learners.

Secondly, we should consider how we might refocus our practice in the early years so that we develop higher-quality, more in-depth assessment. That means discouraging the tick-lists and the impulsive grabs for the iPad to photograph every little thing every child achieves. Each time practitioners focus on recording what children can do “for evidence”, they lose time to interact with children, encourage their efforts or develop their thinking. There is no value in recording assessment for its own sake: what makes a difference is giving children attention, time, and the teaching and provision they need. The endless recording of every child’s progress against every single descriptor in Development Matters is just a deadening chore.  Nancy Stewart, who co-wrote the non-statutory guidance to the Early Years Foundation Stage, has recently argued that when Development Matters is “used as a tick list of descriptors of what children must achieve, it can sadly limit both children’s development and the professional awareness and skills of practitioners.” That sad limitation is happening in schools all over England. Instead, why not focus on improving the quality of assessment information whilst reducing the quantity? Then we could use those high-quality assessments for something useful: developing better teaching and richer provision.

Read on: Nursery World's Early Years in School supplement, page 17

Find out more about the East London Partnership's work to improve assessment in the early years

You can find out more about effective approaches to assessment, which also meet the requirements of Ofsted's Common Inspection Framework, in my new book Successful Early Years Ofsted Inspections: Thriving Children, Confident Staff 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Newham's Early Years Conference, 2017

One of the excitements of working with a network of schools and co-leading the East London Partnership Teaching School Alliance is that there are great opportunities to bring people together. I loved seeing well over 200 practitioners from across East London coming together for our annual Early Years Conference.

Seeing such a diverse group of teachers, early years educators, and others who are committed to offering young children the very best experiences in the early years made me feel optimistic for the future.

You can get a bit of a flavour of the conference from all the day's tweets which have been published here as a Storify.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Celebrating young children's learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage

I'm sharing the PowerPoint from my keynote to TACTYC's 2016 Conference, considering what we might learn about assessment from the work of some of the pioneers of early education, and discussing a project led by a group of Maintained Nursery Schools in London called "Celebrating Young Children's Learning". There's more to come from that project in the New Year ...

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Safeguarding - professionalism and reflection

Safeguarding and ProtectingEvery Child, a one-day national conference organised by Laura Henry, left me with lots to think about – so I’m delighted to have the chance to host an #EYTalking Twitter chat on the theme of “Safeguarding – professionalism and reflection” (Tuesday 6th December, 8:00pm-9:00pm).

Left: talking with John Carnochan before the conference opened. Right: me, Laura and John

As conference chair, I had a perfect opportunity to listen and to think about lots of different issues throughout the day. Perhaps my single biggest reflection was about how we tend to think a lot about safeguarding in terms of having the correct policies and procedures. 

We focus on being compliant.

When things go terribly wrong and a child is seriously injured or killed, there will be a formal investigation called a Serious Case Review. These are often published. Reading them, whilst harrowing, is a good way to find out how things can go wrong and think about what individuals, or the system, might do differently in the future so that children are better protected.

In general, the shortcomings identified which are relevant to the early years and school sector are about professionalism, training, safer recruitment, and communication. No-one believes that just having good policies is an effective way of keeping children safe, though certainly having robust recruitment procedures, e-safety policies, and good protocols for picking up on and reporting suspected abuse are essential. It is often the case that if only professionals had felt more confident to state their concerns, more able to be assertive and to speak up for a child, and better at sharing information, then a serious injury or even a child’s death might have been prevented.

So, whilst we are inclined to get tied up in ever tighter knots as we try to be ever more compliant, we should not neglect the importance of focussing on staff professionalism, the culture of our settings, and the overall quality of what we provide for the children.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Successful Early Years Ofsted Inspections: "what the **** did you spend your time writing that for?"

I've had a fair amount of feedback from the usual sources about my new book. It's ranged from a lovely "ooh look what's arrived" tweet from Laura Henry when she opened the Amazon box, to a DM on Twitter asking "what the **** did you spend your time writing that for?".

That direct message, without the ***s, was from someone whose opinions I respect. Generally.

I guess I'm the sort of person who dwells more on the second comment than the first, so here's my answer.

Why did I spend all that time writing it?

I'm not afraid to say that I am passionate about my work with early years practitioners at all levels. The workforce is not only remarkably dedicated, but also growing in its professionalism and confidence at a staggering rate. It's why I spent the best part of seven years engaged in doctoral research with groups of early years practitioners in London.

So it saddens me when I hear from practitioners that they dread Ofsted. Or that are doing something they don't believe in, and don't think will benefit the children, because they think it's "what Ofsted want".

My book is all about Ofsted inspection, but I'm looking through the telescope from the other end.

How can we work together to support the growing professionalism of the early years workforce, and develop effective practice that works for the children and their families?

How can we do that in such a way that when Ofsted inspect, they validate what we are doing.

We know just how much the early years matter (here are just a few reasons). So, I  think that all the early years teachers, educators and practitioners - all of us, despite our different job titles and backgrounds - must focus on developing practice that is supported by the best available evidence.

It is no good saying that we "believe" in a certain approach; we need to demonstrate that it works. We need to argue for high quality early years education, based on the best evidence bases. That's especially important now that public finances are so tight. One of the things I've tried to outline in my book, is how teams can go about doing that.