Sunday, 1 July 2007

Does assessment matter?

When you get a few people together who care about the education of young children, the discussion soon turns to complaining about the tiresome chores that go along with the job. It isn’t difficult to see why. Quickly scan the new Early Years Foundation Stage and you will see that there are hundreds of things which we are expected to “look, listen and note” about the babies, toddlers and young children we care for and teach – I make it more than 350 assessment points in total.

So the new EYFS is far too long, detailed and complex – in this respect, it’s worse than the old Foundation Stage it replaces. Fortunately, government curriculum guidance comes and goes fairly regularly, and this is not where any discussion of the rights and wrongs of assessment should begin.

I am going instead to start with something fairly obvious, and often stated: early education begins with the child. Logically, there is no alternative. Education cannot begin anywhere else. Teachers may begin with all sorts of ideas, themes, topics or interest tables. Children always start learning from their own position.

So we must begin by getting to know each child. Research shows that the strongest predictors of how well children will do later in school, are not certain skills or aspects of knowledge, but qualities which are individual. What matters are strong interests, dispositions to learn, and the capacity to persevere when things are difficult.

By getting to know each child, a skilled early years educator is able to manage the resources, the curriculum content, and the conversation, in order to develop just those qualities.

This planning cannot come out of thin air. Nor can it come by repeating what worked last year. But it can come from careful observation. I was first taught this type of observation by a nursery nurse I worked with in Sheffield, who showed me a “narrative observation”. This was a detailed account of everything a child had done for a short period of time, when that child was deeply involved and interested. To be useful, narrative observation needs to be followed by thinking “what next?” Any of Tina Bruce's books will give you a thorough explanation of this way of working.

Without good assessment, we cannot know what we should plan next. We also cannot know much about the effectiveness of the curriculum. When we have fifty observations of children’s spoken language but only three of their understanding of science, we know where the planning is lacking.

Finally, good assessment practices provide a medium for parents and professionals to consider the child’s development and learning. What might have been seen as just another half hour in the home corner can be illuminated as the child’s developing language and exploration of mathematical ideas through finding the right clothes and bed for the smallest of the dolls.

If we are concerned with the quality of each child’s development, learning and knowledge, we need observation, and we need assessment. Nothing else can illuminate the child, and the quality (or otherwise) of the learning environment that is on offer. Without good assessment, early education turns into a waste of everyone’s time.