Changes to early years education from September: Are you ready?

Written by: Neil Henty | Published:
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The early years is changing. From September, we will have a revised Early Years Foundation Stage framework, updated Development Matters guidance, and full implementation of Reception Baseline Assessment. Neil Henty looks at what we need to know

The government has confirmed that a revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) will come into effect from September 2021 (DfE, 2021b).

This follows the 2018 draft version of the framework and a period of consultation from 2019 which assessed revision to the educational programmes, the Early Learning Goals, the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), and changes designed to promote good oral health under the statutory safeguarding and welfare requirements. The government’s response to the consultation was published last year (DfE, 2020b).

The reformed EYFS makes a number of changes to the current framework, most notably in language, literacy, and numeracy. The government says that it has followed research evidence in revising the framework and that the changes will improve outcomes for all children, while reducing teacher workload “so that teachers can spend more time interacting with children in their care”.

Approximately 3,000 schools chose to become early adopters of the framework from September 2020 (DfE, 2020a). Feedback from the early adopter trials and from the consultation that followed have been incorporated into the final version of the EYFS which comes into effect from September this year.

This article focuses on revisions made to the EYFS following the 2019/20 consultation regarding the 2018 draft EYFS reforms. For a more detailed look, Early Education has produced an annotated version of the early adopter EYFS framework which highlights key areas of change (see further information).

What has changed?

As with all revisions to the EYFS, there are no sweeping changes. Changes have been made to the Educational Programmes and Early Learning Goals, while the exceeding judgement will be removed from EYFSP criteria. The programmes provide activity summaries to support teachers in offering engaging and appropriate daily practice across the seven EYFS areas of learning.

Development Matters

Further help is provided in the non-statutory Development Matters guidance which was revised in September (DfE, 2020) and made available to early adopters. An alternative Birth to 5 Matters guidance document was produced in March by the Early Years Coalition (see further information and also Henty, 2021).

The main changes to Development Matters can be summarised as:

  • Communication and language will remain as originally proposed in the draft reforms in 2018.
  • Personal, Social and Emotional Development now include information on self-care and healthy eating, which used to come under Physical Development.
  • Physical Development includes a greater focus on the link between gross and fine motor skills and development from birth to Reception.
  • Literacy will include a stronger emphasis on pre-Reception literacy learning. Of greater interest to Reception teachers, there is also more information on the link between language comprehension and later reading and writing.
  • Maths provides a focus on helping children develop a stronger grounding in number, as well as greater detail on the importance of shapes, spatial reasoning and measure as part of early maths learning.
  • Understanding the World will include wider experiences for children, including visits to the local area.
  • Expressive Arts and Design will include a wider variety of ways children can develop their creative skills.

Early Learning Goals

For teachers in Reception, the changes to the Early Learning Goals are likely to have a big impact. All 17 of the goals and their descriptors were reviewed and revised in 2018 before being piloted in 2018/19. Feedback from these trials was used to make further revisions which then formed the proposed learning goals in the recent consultation. The draft proposals will go ahead with the following changes:

  • Communication and Language will include focus on adult-child interactions, and the word “accurate” has been removed from the Speaking learning goal when referring to tenses.
  • Mathematics will include greater clarity to counting and comparing quantities in the Numerical Patterns learning goal. Government will proceed with its focus on number and numerical patterns within the maths learning goals as the strongest predictor for later maths outcomes. This also reflects the government’s continued commitment to strengthen the teaching of early numeracy so that all children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are able to start year 1 with a strong and confident foundation in number. Practitioners and teachers will still be required to teach children about shape, space and measures, as part of a well-rounded curriculum, as set out in the revised mathematics educational programme.
  • Understanding the World will include a change in relation to the Past and Present learning goal to further clarify the expectation of children understanding the concept of “past”.
  • Expressive Arts and Design will include reference to a greater variety of tools, materials and techniques that children will need to demonstrate for the Creating with Materials learning goal.
  • The goals for Personal, Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, and Literacy will remain as proposed in the 2018 reforms.

Sector concerns

The changes have been met with some criticism from the early years community.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, explained: “The recent update to the EYFS, though long overdue, would have benefited from much greater consultation with the sector to ensure that the needs of the developing child remain at the heart of the foundation stage. Any child-centred framework must include a commitment to learning through play, which early years professionals know is of the most benefit to children's early development.”

He continued: “Reception children, though already in a school environment, are at a unique stage in their lives, and still taking vital early steps in social, emotional and physical development. When using the new framework, early years teachers must keep in mind the important role of play in developing a young child's understanding of the world, and remain guided by their detailed knowledge of children's overall development as they prepare children for life, and not just the upcoming transition to key stage 1.”

Meanwhile, Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, cautioned: “One of the early years sector’s key concerns about the EYFS reforms was that they appeared to continue a drive towards excessive formalisation of the Reception year. However, the Reception year remains part of the EYFS and should provide continuity of pedagogy from nursery: plenty of play and focus on the interests of the child.

“The weakness in Reception year provision is often not the need to be more like key stage 1, but rather that it needs to build on the level of challenge compared to nursery.

“In the best nursery provision, children are confident, active, independent learners. Sometimes these attributes are then lost in Reception, as children spend more time in adult-led activity. It’s key to keep a balance between the children maintaining motivation through following their own interests, while being supported by knowledgeable adults who can extend and enhance their learning. This is something which is emphasised in the Birth to 5 Matters guidance, which aims to give practical examples to support teachers in their practice.”

Baseline assessment begins in September 2021

It has also been announced that the controversial Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) for four-year-olds will be introduced at the same time as the revised EYFS – having been postponed from September 2020.

The RBA has proved unpopular with parents, teachers, early years professionals, and teaching unions.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, sums up the views of many in the sector: “The answer to the challenges of educational recovery is not more testing, but this is a lesson that the government is finding hard to learn. Research into Baseline pilots has suggested that it will disrupt children's settling-in period in their new school and that it will provide no useful information to teachers.

“Its main function will be to hold schools to account for their test results. Like the rest of the panoply of statutory assessment in primary schools it will work to damage the quality of educational experience, in the name of principles which most educators see as irrelevant to their current priorities.”

Advice for headteachers

There are a number of changes to the EYFS that headteachers and their Reception staff need to understand and adopt. With changes to the Early Learning Goals and revised guidance available, it can be hard to know where to start.

Dr Sue Allingham, early years expert and founder of Early Years Out of the Box Consultancy, offers this advice: “Be completely clear what is in the statutory framework and what is not, as there is much myth out there. It is very clear what must inform teaching, but it does not state how it must be done. Early years pedagogy can be informed by the non-statutory guidance, (and) Birth to Five Matters, which will give an informed basis for pedagogy and practice.”

  • Neil Henty writes about early years education for Headteacher Update. He is an education writer, the former editor of Early Years Educator and Childcare – sister magazines to Headteacher Update. He was formerly an advisory board member of early years training organisation, NEYTCO. Read his previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • Birth to Five Matters: The early years sector has come together to publish on March 31, 2021, Birth to 5 Matters, rival guidance which is a response to the government’s reforms to the EYFS in England:
  • DfE: Statutory guidance: Early years foundation stage (EYFS) statutory framework (current version), last updated April 2021a:
  • DfE: Guidance: Changes to the early years foundation stage (EYFS) framework, March 2021b:
  • DfE: Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage (early adopter version including updated ELGs), July 2020a:
  • DfE: Early Years Foundation Stage Reforms: Government consultation response, July 2020b:
  • DfE: Development Matters: Non-statutory curriculum guidance for the early years foundation stage, September 2020c:
  • Early Education: An annotated version of the early adopter EYFS framework (DfE, 2020a – above):
  • Early Education: Advice for headteachers from Early Education, July 2020 (note: this refers to the early adopters, but covers the key changes to the EYFS and sector concerns):
  • Early Years Alliance: Changes to the EYFS 2021 (page last updated) March 2021:
  • EY Matters: In conversation with Elaine Bennett and Kym Scott, a video explaining more about concerns that the revised EYFS will not make life better for children in Reception, July 2020:
  • Henty: The Battle for Reception, Headteacher Update Best Practice Focus 4, January 2021:
  • Henty: Reception Year: The Birth to Five Matters Guidance, Headteacher Update, February 2021:
  • Standards & Testing Agency: Reception Baseline: Information about the new reception baseline assessment for schools and local authorities, last updated February 2021:

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