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