Thursday 24 September 2020

Assessment beyond levels in the early years: improving learning for all children

The DFE published the revised Development Matters in September 2020 so that the sector has a full year to get used to the new document before the changes to the EYFS Statutory Framework come into effect in September 2021.

This blog looks at two important areas of change: the focus on the curriculum, and changes to guidance around assessment. The purpose of the blog is twofold. Firstly, to support those schools who are early adopters of the revised EYFS Statutory Framework. Secondly, the blog aims to prompt dialogue and discussion across the sector on these important issues. But, unless you’re an early adopter, it’s best to stick to your existing approaches during the year ahead. 

There is no need to make changes now. It is much better to implement changes in a careful, measured and unhurried way. 

Early years assessment

Feedback from across the sector, and especially the findings of the Early Years Alliance report Minds Mattertell us that there is a real problem around the workload involved in gathering ‘evidence’ of children’s learning, and creating and inputting tracking ‘data’. 

But the problem with many current approaches goes well beyond the serious issues of workload and stress. 
For many of us, the EYFS has become all about ensuring that children ‘cover’ everything in Development Matters and progress regularly from one age band to the next. As a headteacher, I take my share of responsibility for this situation. 
We got ourselves into a way of working which was something like this:

  • Assess all children on entry, using the age bands – often broken down into ‘emerging’ and ‘secure’. So a child might be assessed overall as ’30-50 emerging’ on entry to a nursery at three years old. 
  • Plan in the next steps of learning needed to move them from ’30-50 emerging’ and onto ’30-50 secure’
  • As the weeks roll on, look at the evidence collected about the child’s learning and make sure any gaps are filled. So if there is no evidence for some of the statements in Understanding the World in the 30-50 month band, the child will be encouraged into activities so that evidence can be recorded and gaps filled. 
  • Over time, practitioners are held accountable for progress. It is expected that the children they are responsible for will move up the bands.
  • Reception teachers in particular are held accountable for checking that children are ‘on track’ to achieve a Good Level of Development. Sometimes they are given targets e.g. 70% to achieve a GLD.
  • Where children might have a special educational need or disability, requests for extra help or funding are often be supported by assessments using Development Matters with summative comments like ‘Maisie is four-years old, but she is working at the level typically expected of a child aged 8-20 months.

What’s wrong with this way of working?

First, it’s important to recognise the great efforts that practitioners have always made to make sure that every child gets a high-quality, rich and stimulating experience in the early years. The approaches outlined above were motivated largely be a desire to make sure that individual children, or groups of children, didn’t get ‘left behind’. We wanted to make sure everyone made progress. 

So it’s not as simple as saying there is something ‘wrong’ with this. 

But there have been serious drawbacks with this approach. 

It has been very time-consuming, and as a result all this work around assessment has taken practitioners away from what we do best: playing with children, having conversations, and helping them to learn new things. 

When we’re with the children, we have often put a lot of focus on making sure they are progressing up through the age-bands, or covering bullet points in Development Matters. We have wanted ‘evidence’ that children’s play or activity exemplifies a particular bullet point in a particular age-band.

That’s taken over from a more important aim: ensuring that children have secure understanding, before we start introducing them to new activities or ideas. I think it’s well understood that a big part of our role is to make sure that children have strong foundations in their early learning and development. But we’ve been taken away from that by the focus on age-bands, levels and data.

Here is a brief, practical example. In the 2012 Development Matters the 22-36 month band in Number says ‘recites some number names in sequence’. Next, the 30-50 month band says ‘recites numbers in order to 10’. 

That might lead a practitioner to notice that a three-year old is saying ‘1-2-3’ and so plan, as a ‘next step’, that the child should be able to recite numbers in order to 10. 

Once we have the ‘evidence’ of the child reciting from 1 to 10, we move onto the next bullet point in Development Matters.

The problem is that learning to count is much trickier than that. You need to be able to recite the counting sequence. You also need to be able to match one number name to one object. You need to know that the last number you say, represents the full number of the set. Children need to have many opportunities to repeat and practise this and they are likely to find it extremely difficult at first to keep all of those things in mind. That’s why we see children being careful to match 1:1 and at the same time getting the number order mixed up. They are struggling to remember and act on everything they know at the same time. They need plenty of time and practice. They don’t need to be rushed onto bigger numbers. 

What does this mean in practice?

So if that particular approach to assessment and planning is unhelpful, what might we be doing instead?
In this blog, I am arguing that we need to switch our main focus away from tracking, assessment data, and levels. Instead, we need to focus on designing a curriculum for the children we are working with, which has a ‘progress model’.

We’re not very used to talking about curriculum in the early years any more, so I am aware this may seem like a daunting aim.  But it actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it practically – and it takes us back to the starting point of the Early Years Foundation Stage, which is the 2000 document Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage. Somehow, that focus on ‘curriculum’ got went missing in action over the last 20 years. I wrote about this earlier, in a piece for Impact (the journal of the Chartered College of Teachers).

Here are a few practical examples. You might decide that one goal in your nursery curriculum is for all children to be able to make a cake independently. To achieve that goal, children will need to be able to do lots of things which include (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Having the physical strength and dexterity to mix ingredients using a wooden spoon
  • Ability to count accurately (e.g. 2 eggs)
  • Ability to measure liquid and solid ingredients accurately
  • Ability to follow a sequence (a recipe card which illustrates each step in pictures, for example)

Sequence Books from Cowgate Under 5s Centre 

Children will need plenty of experience and adult help along the way to get to the point where they can make that cake independently.

Likewise, you might have a goal that all children will learn to ride a two-wheeled bike by the end of the reception year. So, you might start with simple push-along wheeled toys for your two-year olds. Children might graduate from these, onto a small trike when they are ready. After they have plenty of practice (and fun!) on the trikes, they might be confident enough with their balance, pedalling and steering to ride a two-wheeled balance bike with no pedals. After some months of wobbling around, they’ll soon be quickly negotiating the outdoor space and picking up speed because they can scoot with both feet, then balance with their feet off the ground. Then, they will be ready for a two-wheeled pedal bike without stabilisers. They already know about balance and pedalling; but they will need plenty of time to combine those skills together and pedal off happily on a bike. 

This is what I mean by the curriculum being a progress model.
Some children will need a lot more help and scaffolding to access that curriculum. That’s always been a huge strength of early years practitioners. We notice what children can, and can’t do. We’re good at deciding when it will be helpful to step in and support, and when it’s best to be encouraging but hang back. We know that some children will learn something tricky like using scissors by watching, copying others, and trial and error; and others will need some focused direct instruction about which fingers to put in the two holes, etc. 
Once you have that ‘big picture’ curriculum, it makes sense to focus assessment on the key milestones on the way to those curricular goals. So, instead of focusing on the age bands in Development Matters, you might be focussing on when a child moves from trike to bike. If a child is a skilled trike rider, you might need to encourage that move – it may not happen naturally. Accurate assessment helps us know when to step in and encourage the child onto the next milestone in the curriculum we have set out. 
So, it’s advisable to make the focus of your assessment something clear and specific that a child needs to be able to do, or needs to know. In turn, that means practitioners need to understand how the different elements of the curriculum fit together to help children build their learning over time. 

We also need to have a secure understanding of child development. We need to understand the features of effective pedagogy: judging when to get involved and when to encourage; knowing how to scaffold children’s learning so we support them to keep trying without over-helping them. This is, frankly, going to be a big challenge for us – whilst a great many early years practitioners have that secure understanding of child development and pedagogy, others haven’t. They may, for example, have been let down in their initial training. Leaders and managers need to prioritise high-quality, sustained professional development for our team. We need to have in-depth professional knowledge as well as practical experience and passion. 
It's important to be sensible about not going too far with the curriculum model. If a group of children have just found hundreds of woodlice teeming under a log, it will be time to get down with them to observe the woodlice. We will be getting the magnifying glasses, encouraging children to talk about their ideas, and linking what they are seeing to books or videos on YouTube. Plans must be flexible, and go with children’s fascinations and interests. 
In summary, we need to create a curriculum for our children which is built on a progress model. We need to focus our assessment on the key milestones in that model. We need to be sure that children are secure in what they know and can do, before introducing them to something new. You wouldn’t expect children to follow a recipe sequence card if they’ve never measured anything in a jug, or if they can’t accurately count the number of eggs shown. 

Following children’s interests

At this point, you may be saying – isn’t it better to help young children by following their interests? Can’t we teach them everything they need to know by extending on their play?

The brief answer is that encouraging children’s self-chosen play is, indeed, really important. Children learn a huge amount through the play they choose. We can help maximise that by making sure we provide a high-quality learning environment. Sometimes, we might sensitively get involved and extend their play. For that to work, I would argue that we need a systematic approach to evaluating the quality of that environment, and those interactions, so that we can build on what we do well, and improve where we need to. An example of that approach is the suite of Curriculum, Leadership and Interaction Quality Rating Scales (CLIQRS): the UK family of rating scales published by the UCL-IOE Press, and the ITERS-3 and ECERS-3 scales. 

Play is central in the EYFS. Nothing in this blog is intended to question that. 

But children can’t learn everything they need, to get that secure foundation in their early learning, unless the adults also offer guided experiences and engaging teaching sessions with clear learning intentions as well as supporting their play.  

This is explained neatly in a 2018 paper called Myths of Early Math by the American researchers Douglas Clements and Julie Sarama. Here are two of the myths. You can follow up the evidence for each of their claims by clicking on the links. 

6. “Math Centers Are All You Need.”


Fact. Math learning centers, such as a table with a variety of manipulatives or a building blocks center, if well designed and supervised, probably contribute to children’s mathematics experiences.

Myth. Centers are insufficient by themselves. At no age level is it recommended that education should be entirely “child-centered” or “teacher-directed” [29]. Interaction with adults is key in all domains [30,31,32] and activities in small groups appear particularly effective [33,34]. However, mathematics, more so than other content areas, builds—concepts and skills are connected, abstracted, and curtailed, and become the object of thinking at a new level of mathematical thought e.g., [1,4,35,36,37]. Centers, as usually implemented, promote incidental learning at best and rarely build one mathematical idea on the next. Finally, only intentional activities focused on mathematics appear to make significant contributions to children’s learning [23,38].


7. “The Best Way to Teach Math is through “Teachable Moments.”

Fact. Teachable moments, handled well, can be wondrous and satisfying, e.g., [4,13].

Myth. However, teachable moments alone are far from adequate [12]. The teacher must carefully observe children and identify elements in the spontaneously-emerging situations that can be used to promote learning of mathematics [39]. However, there are serious problems with depending solely on this approach. For example, most teachers spend little time on careful observation necessary to find such moments [39,40], and spend little time with children during their free play [18]. Most teachers have a difficult time engaging children in tasks at their mathematical level [41]. Most teachers do not have applicable mathematics language and concepts at the ready, such as relational terms in mathematics [39,42]. Finally, even if professional development could address all of these issues, it is unrealistic for any teacher to see opportunities for multiple children to build multiple concepts consistently over the year [39].


That’s why the diagram at the start of the 2012 version of Development Matters is both helpful, and limited:


The diagram is helpful because it’s so important that we observe carefully what children can do, and then build on that. If we aren’t clear what children know and can do, we can’t be much help to them.
But it’s unhelpful, because it misses out the ‘big picture’ of what we want children to learn. If we always ‘start here’ observing the child, we might do a good job of noticing and building on their interests. But what about things they have never seen, or done, or been part of? If we never see a child taking part in maths-rich play, we need to make sure we introduce them to those important concepts about shapes and patterns (for example). Otherwise, some children will miss out. Often, the children that miss out are those who are disadvantaged or vulnerable in other ways. 
The updated Development Matters encourages practitioners and settings to develop a curriculum which is both appropriate for the children in their care, and is ambitious. That’s why it’s a shorter document (the 2020 version is around two thirds of the length of the 2012 version). With less guidance, there is more freedom to do what’s right for the children we’re working with. 
Development Matters exists to support practitioners and settings as we develop that curriculum. It helps us to reflect on whether the curriculum we are designing is broad enough, and to check that we’re building in a progress model. For babies and toddlers, that notion of ‘curriculum’ should be pretty light-touch. We might consider the key experiences we want babies and toddlers to be introduced to, like Treasure Basket and Heuristic Play. There may be particular outdoor experiences on our curriculum map, too, and a range of songs, rhymes and books. These are just some examples, not a comprehensive list. I also think it’s important to think of Development Matters as the floor, not the ceiling. We don’t want children to experience anything less than what’s suggested; but we also don’t want adherence to the guidance to cap our expectations or limit what we think children can do.
It is especially important to note that the Early Learning Goals are not the curriculum for the reception year. They are just 17 checkpoints to help us summarise what a child knows and can do, and where they might need more help. If the whole effort of the reception year is focussed on the goals, then children will experience a very narrow curriculum. If vulnerable children miss out on a rich early years curriculum in reception, who else will provide it?
A rush towards the goals also risks depriving children of the foundational attitudes, skills, knowledge and confidence they need to be successful learners throughout their schooling. It’s meaningless to say that a child has a ‘good level of development’ if in reality they have just been coaxed through 17 hoops. We end up with positive data, and with children who haven’t received the sort of curriculum they were entitled to, and who are not ready for Key Stage One either. 

Feedback is important

The observation-assessment-planning diagram from the 2012 Development Matters can also be usefully extended by thinking about the importance of feedback and scaffolding. 
Whilst some observations are written down, analysed, and acted on in planning, there is a second, more powerful and more immediate cycle. That’s when practitioners notice something about what a child is doing, or saying, and they give the child helpful feedback there and then. They might point something out: ‘I think that block there is a bit wonky, perhaps that’s why your tower is shaking?’  Or they might encourage a child to notice something whilst they draw: ‘can you see that the petals aren’t quite that colour? You’ve done a really good job, but maybe it’s worth another try at mixing the paints?’
Helping children to reflect on their learning and to refine key skills is much more important than writing things down and giving them a level. By showing our confidence that they can keep getting better when they try hard and persevere, we reinforce the important idea that we don’t have ‘fixed’ abilities. We can all get better at what we do if we get the right support, encouragement, and help. Effort matters. 

Measuring progress from children’s starting points

We need to think differently about children’s progress. We need to get away from over-complicated systems which tie up too much of our time, baffle parents, and don’t help children. 
On the other hand, we need approaches which can be used sensibly and help us focus on what children need. 
Here is an example of how children’s development might be assessed on entry to Reception. This is a suggestion only – it’s not meant to be prescriptive, and it’s clear that the responsibility for both the design of the curriculum and the assessment alongside it sits with schools and settings. 
On entry to Reception, the main focus of the teacher and early years educator will be to settle the child into this new, exciting and demanding place they’re in: ‘big school’. 
Checking children’s development in the prime areas of the EYFS will undoubtedly be useful – both to help them as they settle, and to give an indication of their starting points. 
So that could involve:

  • Noticing how the child communicates. Are they saying mainly one or two-word statements, or speaking in sentences? Can you generally understand what they say? What languages do they speak? Do they appear to understand what you say to them? A few telling examples will cover this. Note down the exact words they spoke whilst they played with you. Find out more from their parents. 
  • Observing the child’s confidence. Do they get stuck in and start to play from day one? Are they sociable and quick to make friends? Or do they struggle to separate from their parent? Again, a few telling examples will cover all you need. What happened the first time when their parent left? Is there an example of them playing with another child? What do parents say?
  • Noticing the child’s physical competence and also their self-care. This will include how they manage hand-washing and toileting, snack and mealtimes. How do they manage steps and equipment for large motor skill development like slides? How do they manage equipment for small motor skill development like construction kits or colouring pencils? Once again, teachers and early years educators will quickly get a sense of the child’s development in this area, which can usefully be supplemented by parents. 
These assessments will inform an early discussion with parents about how well their child is settling, and if any extra help is needed. 
There isn’t any need to turn these assessments into levels with numbers attached. It is also important to bear in mind that things change quickly for young children: the child who seems very shy and withdrawn in September might really ‘come out of their shell’ later in the term, once they are used to coming into school. 
Based on this information, teachers can quickly identify which children are starting at a level which means they’re ready to take part in the reception curriculum, and which children are struggling to start school and join in with the other children and the activities because of difficulties in one or more areas like communication, understanding, confidence and self-care. 
Those ‘vulnerable starters’ will quickly need extra help. It will be important to get to know and understand them. What are their interests? What exactly do they find hard? How can their parents best offer them extra help? Is there important information from their previous setting or from their health visitor to take into account? (By the way, I am sure someone can think of a better term than ‘vulnerable starters’).
For the majority of children, the assessments above will give starting points which it’s simple to show progress from. Maybe they were speaking in a simple sentence, like ‘I want lego’ in September. By November, in story sessions where you are encouraging the children to comment on the story and give their own ideas, you might notice a child say ‘the caterpillar ate the leaf because he had a bellyache’. The progress model in the curriculum (introducing dialogic story sessions) supports the child to speak in more complex sentences. As they access the curriculum, they make progress. 
There are a few important issues to bear in mind about these starting points:
Children in the ‘vulnerable starters’ group need lots of support in their early days in Reception. For example, if their language is a concern, the main support you will give is extra attention when they are playing to encourage conversations. You might also use an evidence-based intervention like the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI). It’s important to give the children the help they need quickly.
  1. Those ‘starting points’ are not anchors. Many children with low starting points will do really well in their reception year – they just got off to a shaky start. It’s important to offer the children the scaffolding and support they need so that they can access the whole rich and stimulating curriculum that’s on offer. Otherwise, a ceiling will be placed on their potential. Assessment and curriculum design should be ambitious and inclusive. 
  2.  It is not true to say that children with SEND are learning ‘like younger children’. It does not make sense to give them a level like ’16-26 months’. Instead, precise assessment needs to focus on what the child can do, and what the barriers to their learning are. If a child has specific difficulties with their communication, for example, they may need to have aids like a core vocabulary board so that they can make choices and share their ideas. All children are entitled to the whole of the early years curriculum. Of course, they won’t all manage to do and know everything that’s mapped out: but some who appear vulnerable at first may thrive later in the year. So it is important that levels and grouping do not become self-fulfilling prophecies that hold children back. It’s important that we focus on support, scaffolding, and helping children to overcome barriers to their learning. 
  3.  It makes sense to focus on progress from starting points through a well-designed curriculum. A summer born child, or a more vulnerable starter, will benefit hugely if they can make secure, steady, step-by-step progress so that they can access a broad curriculum in the early years and key stage one. Looking at the medium-to-long term like this is much more helpful than racing to get a child to a Good Level of Development’ regardless of how secure their learning is. 
  4. When the Early Learning Goals become a ‘high stakes’ accountability measure, they become an inaccurate measure of a child’s readiness for year 1. In turn, that stops them from being a useful way to reflect on the quality and impact of the early years curriculum. 
My final point is this: let’s remember why we all went into working in the early years. 
We’re here because we want to give every child a great first experience of playing and learning outside their home. We want to play our part in giving them the best possible start to their learning. 
Should we be putting so much effort into creating masses of unhelpful tracking data about children? I’m arguing that that it’s time to stop that. Instead, let’s put our efforts into improving learning for all children. 

Join in and stay in touch: sign up for more information about the updated Development Matters.  

Please note that these updates are offered independently to encourage discussion and debate across the early years sector. They are not from the DFE.  


  1. Thank you for this article Julien, it explains succinctly how the implenentation of the 'new' Development Matters will be an 'evolution' to best fit the needs of each cohort but with a solid core of skills and experiences for an rich curriculum. I do wonder though, if the generally accepted expectations to track-assess-track-assess relentlessly and the customary over-collation of 'evidence' will ever get diluted to what the new document envisages. There is a significant gap at present in terms of what is required and manageable and what is 'expected ' in many settings. I fear an opportunity to set out the 'model' for EYFS assessment has been missed and unfortunately there seems to be a plethora of time consuming, self-created tick lists doing the rounds. The guidance was a bit late in the day to unpick for many practitioners who were eager to see the reforms and the uncertainty of recent times has swept many practitioners back to their safe place- the tick list. I really do hope that the changes are dmbraced across the sector and more significantly, understood by head teachers and management to allow the formulation of a developmentally appropriate curriculum rather than a trial by assessment and tick list.

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