Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Assessment in the EYFS: why I think Margaret Edgington is mistaken

The exchange of letters between Margaret Edgington and Nancy Stewart in Nursery World brings to life a debate about assessment in the EYFS which I find really important.

Nancy Stewart from the
Early Learning Consultancy
Nancy Stewart is the co-author of Development Matters [PDF]the non-statutory guidance that accompanies the revised Early Years Foundation Stage in England. She argued earlier in November that "a child's individual file filled with photos and observations may be a lovely record and appreciated by parents, but an early years practitioner's job is not as an archivist. Ongoing observation/assessment/planning is the core of early years practice, but this does not mean this it is written. This process happens thousands of times a day when we interact with children, with only a tiny sample recorded."

I'm not sure those words are well-chosen. There is plenty of robust research from around the world that supports the use of exactly those sorts of individual files, from Learning Stories in New Zealand to Documentation in the Reggio Emilia preschools. It could even be argued that this approach has a stronger basis in research than Development Matters itself, which - as far as I know - has never been validated in any sort of trial with a randomised selection of children from all backgrounds. 

Furthermore, Nancy Stewart's argument might also seem to imply that an archive is a kind of respository of information which is no longer relevant. Wouldn't that be something more like a time capsule buried in the school grounds, with pictures of this year's X Factor finalists? The whole point of an archive is that study and knowledge of the past is continuously relevant to the present. In just the same way, recording a child's significant learning over a period of time and making those documents available for reflection, both with the child and family, and for the purposes of practitioner planning, can be a very fruitful process.

All the same, I take her main point, which is that it had become a tradition, exacerbated by the previous EYFS and EYFS Profile, to build up folders of information about children, of huge size and of questionable worth. There was a strongly-held belief, which I heard repeated only last week in a primary school, that it was necessary to have three pieces of "evidence" to support every scale point in the old Profile. 

Just in case anyone has already forgotten, there were 117 scale points in the old EYFS Profile [PDF]. That means technically, with a class of 30 children, you could be looking at 3510 assessments. Using the "three pieces of evidence per scale point" rule of thumb, that might mean up to 10,530 pieces of evidence.

This approach, which privileged record-keeping over every other activity, became more and more crazy. Right now, there are practitioners in schools and settings who are either seeking to redesign whole new complex systems that fit the new EYFS, or are buying them off the shelf. In arguing so fiercely against that way of working, Nancy Stewart has made a point of great importance and immediate relevance to everyone working in the early years in England. 

Margaret Edgington, Independent
Early Years Consultant
Margaret Edgington, the independent early years consultant, replied in Nursery World that having worked with "thousands of practitioners over many years" she is confident that practitioners "enjoy putting together unique learning journals, and sharing these with each child and families ... what they have found onerous is trying to match each observation to points on the the non-statutory grids in Development Matters." I am sure that Margaret Edgington would make exactly the same arguments against the old EYFS Profile, and also the even older Stepping Stones from the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage [PDF].

(Incidentally, Margaret Edgington and I worked together on a small section of that document in 1999, in the old Picadilly Offices of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) whilst trying not to watch the London Eye being lifted into position for the second time. Who then would have thought that there would be three separate curriculum frameworks for the early years in just 12 years? Isn't it perhaps that very pace of change that has got in the way of practitioners developing systems which are proportionate and appropriate to their schools, settings and communities?)

I don't doubt the shortcomings of the new Development Matters, or of any of the previous frameworks. I still think that Development Matters, whilst improving on its predecessor,  is too long. There is no real need need to look at so many areas and statements of learning, or put so much focus on children's formal literacy and numeracy skills in the early years. 

All the same, I think there is another perspective that is worth taking as well. Without any sort of framework, it becomes all too easy for practitioners to collect together heaps of information about children, without actually analysing what they have got for the purposes either of evaluating how well their curriculum is working, or picking out those children who are not making much progress. Historically, with the expansion of early years education, this has led to serious problems of inequity - we have plenty of evidence to suggest that the gap which opens up between different groups of children is huge by the time they leave the EYFS. 

As a headteacher now, I put a lot of focus on Learning Stories and on being able to share observations and assessments with both children and parents. I couldn't do that if all the evidence was just in the various heads of members of the staff team. The valuable process of developing children's metacognition cannot be supported unless their learning is made visible, and made available for discussion.

But I also put a lot of focus on trying our best to make sense of the assessment data we have, to open up the conversation about why some individual children, or groups of children, are not making much progress. Sometimes the answer to that question is that Development Matters is to crude to show progress, or to value other aspects of children's learning. Other times, we pick up that something is seriously amiss, and we respond to that. Without any sort of consistent framework, and just hundreds of pages in folders about children, this would not be possible. Going back to a notional class of thirty children, if one kept 20 pages of observations and other documents about each child and had no overall framework or way of summarising development and progress, it would be necessary to undertake some sort of qualitative analysis of 600 pages of data - that's the research to underpin a PHD thesis, not something a team of early years practitioners can fit into their working days and lives.

I would argue that for many practitioners - myself included, for many years - those folders, files and portfolios of information about children serve another function. In essence, they express the view that early education is about creating a space that facilitates the child's development. The job of observation and assessment is, therefore, to record that development as, in a sense, it unfolds "naturally". I am increasingly convinced that this is the wrong way to look at things, and I think that Robin Alexander makes the point most eloquently:

"contrary to the misapplied legacy of Plowden and those who still view teaching as no more than applied child development, education is about intervening in and accelerating development, not merely ‘facilitating’ it, otherwise why do we need schools? Education is a cultural process, not a biological one." [PDF]

We need manageable and systematic ways of recording children's progress across early years settings and schools. We need ways of ensuring that practitioners do not just collect information about children, but are also prompted to think very carefully about what that the information means about learning, and how to make it inform their teaching. Pragmatically, I cannot see how every setting and every school could have the capacity to develop their own system to do this.

Without any such system we will end up again with huge "stories of unfolding" about children's development. That will not be good enough, because if we cannot accelerate the progress of the most disadvantaged children, then early education will not just replicate social inequality: it will actually intensify it.