Reception Year: The Birth to Five Matters Guidance

Written by: Neil Henty | Published:
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With a revised Early Years Foundation Stage becoming statutory in September, the early years sector has united to produce research-led guidance offering a pedagogically sound method of delivery. Neil Henty looks at its implications for primary schools and Reception year teaching

As a senior leader, you need to be sensitive to the needs of the young children in your care and to the foundational journey of their learning. You also need to be aware of the changes that are happening in the early years, both in terms of pedagogy and policy.

Changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage

Last year, the Department for Education published a revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework (DfE, 2020a, 2020b). The statutory framework: “Sets the standards that schools and early years providers must meet to ensure that children are taught and develop well, and are kept healthy and safe from birth to age five.”

Alongside the EYFS, the DfE also published a revised Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage document (DfE, 2020c). This non-statutory guidance supports practitioners in meeting the requirements of the EYFS. Although non-statutory, historically this has been used widely in the sector to support practice and delivery.

While there was agreement in the sector that the EYFS review was welcome, many of the proposed changes were not popular, including those made to Development Matters (for more, see Henty, 2021).

The previous version of Development Matters was underpinned by four key themes:

  • A Unique Child.
  • Positive Relationships.
  • Enabling Environments.
  • Learning and Development.

It also promotes the three Characteristics of Effective Learning – playing and exploring, active learning, creating and thinking critically – and how these, along with the seven areas of learning, underpin and are critical to a child’s learning journey.

However, the 2021 version has caused great concern. So much so, that organisations within the sector joined together to form the Early Years Coalition, with the aim of not only providing a united front to the DfE when voicing their concerns, but also creating their own guidance.

A statement on the Early Education website (2020), on behalf of this coalition, reads: “The new document presents a prescriptive, simplistic, limited curriculum and pedagogy, and does not reflect and respect practitioner expertise and excellent practice in the sector.

“It also fails to recognise all children as active and capable learners and does not provide for the breadth of challenges they will face in a complex and unknown future. As such, this document does not provide a sound foundation for providers to build a curriculum in the best interests of children.”

To address these concerns, the coalition has produced its own guidance and reference materials, Birth to Five Matters.

Birth to Five Matters

Birth to Five Matters grew out of early years sector organisations wanting to take a proactive role in developing guidance that would have a direct impact on how the EYFS is implemented.

Two sets of research were commissioned: a literature review of relevant research and a survey of more than 3,000 practitioners in the early years to ask what they thought of the EYFS and what could be improved.

The research highlighted key messages the sector felt were not being taken into account. Nancy Stewart, the Birth to Five Matters project lead, explained: “What the government proposed was not backed by the research evidence and certainly not by what the teachers and practitioners were saying. The sector felt that there were important things missing and that could be done better.”

Birth to Five Matters brings together the vast wealth of knowledge and expertise in the sector, to bridge the gaps in the DfE’s reforms. Ms Stewart said that it will “spell-out some very core principles and important knowledge about child development and ways that will support people that will help them to understand their role, develop it and work with children”.

There was also a need to change the pedagogic emphasis, as Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education and chair of the Birth to Five Matters steering group, explained: “There were core principles that weren’t well represented in the DfE’s publications and we wanted to ensure there was alternative guidance that focused on things that were getting lost – for example, around the observation, planning and assessment cycle, about the unique child, and how one keeps that central to practice.”

The Birth to Five Matters materials are currently in second draft form with a consultation over their contents due to close at the end of February. The final publication is expected in late March.

What makes Birth to Five Matters important?

The coalition has been determined to produce guidance in a very open, democratic and transparent way, ensuring that the practitioners and teachers have their voices heard and can influence the final guidance.

This is guidance for the sector, from the sector. Reception staff in your school may choose to work with either Development Matters or Birth to Five Matters, or indeed bits of each. But here are some reasons why your staff may want to consider Birth to Five Matters:

  • It builds on familiar guidance that is highly valued by the sector: “The survey revealed that there was no desire for enormous changes to either the EYFS or Development Matters, although it was felt that both could be updated and improved,” Ms Stewart said. “So it was a job of keeping familiar aspects, particularly basing it in the EYFS principles that underpin it, such as The Unique Child.”
  • There is continuity in the “progression of learning”: Development does not depend on the year group a child is in, therefore there are no groupings such as birth to three, or Nursery and Reception. Ms Stewart added: “We’ve kept the smooth continuum. We are making people aware that the EYFS goes up to 71 months and some children will be nearly six and some turning five and that we shouldn’t have the same expectations; you take a child where they are in their learning – not with the expectation that they will all be at the same place at the end of the Reception.”
  • All of the Early Learning Goals have guidance to support them: “We haven’t organised it the way the DfE has because that is confusing and illogical,” Ms Stewart continued. “In the DfE guidance, Personal, Social and Emotional Development includes self-regulation, which is a big jumble and doesn’t explain self-regulation at all; it also includes health and self-care which belongs in Physical Development. We have an entire section on self-regulation, because it is such an important area.”
  • Characteristics of Effective Learning: Birth to Five Matters has strengthened the emphasis on the Characteristics of Effective Learning, unlike the reformed EYFS which has downgraded them. All of the research evidence points to the fact the characteristics are foundational to children’s on-going learning.
  • Play: Birth to Five Matters puts a greater focus on play and how play supports development and learning, as well as the adult role.
  • Assessment: Guidance on assessment will move people away from using a tick-box approach and help them to use practical, summative information around children’s progress.

Practical implications for schools

There is a feeling that the DfE’s EYFS and Development Matters revisions are narrowing children’s learning experiences, effectively bringing the national curriculum down from key stage 1 into the Foundation stage.

“We have tried to give a richer view of education, one that removes some of the mechanistic and rote methods that move children to year 1. We can support children without funnelling them into narrow targets,” Ms Stewart explained.

“The EYFS is a specific phase of education, and Reception teachers in schools are often quite isolated from others working within the early years framework. Birth to 5 Matters offers early years teachers the combined knowledge and wisdom of experts in early education, both in theory and in practice, so it can support them to feel confident that they are implementing the EYFS in a way that will be of most benefit to children's development and learning.”

The DfE is discouraging schools from using the Early Learning Goals as a curriculum, which means schools need to look at how they approach learning and development in Reception. Ofsted is also looking at this.

Birth to Five Matters offers guidance about how you can develop a curriculum based on what you think is important for children to learn, not just using the seven EYFS areas of learning.

“Some of the key messages we have are the same as the ones coming from government,” Ms Merrick added. “You have got to stop the ‘data monster’, stop asking for lots of data, there are ways of monitoring your early years provision that do not result in an explosion of bits of paper or charts on a spreadsheet.

“If you don’t understand how assessment works in the early years then talk to your EYFS lead and come up with a way of satisfying your leadership team and governors without taking staff away from children for long periods to be collecting that data. That’s a really important message and we are joined up with the government on that.”

There are a number of key areas that need to be at the forefront of Reception year teaching. Ms Stewart continued: “If we want children to make good progress throughout school it really is foundational that we look at the Characteristics of Effective Learning, emotional wellbeing and self-regulation in addition to the areas of learning. Research shows that for children growing up in disadvantage, the prime areas of the EYFS and Characteristics of Effective Learning really are key.

“Developing your curriculum means really thinking about what matters most and responding to the children you have in your school.”

It is vital to remember when planning your curriculum that children in the Reception year still need really solid foundations for later learning and that there is no evidence that rushing them into the national curriculum will have any long-term benefit.

“Ofsted will want to know the curriculum intention from early years to year 6,” added Ms Merrick. “What is problematic is that the EYFS reforms try to reshape the areas of learning to look more like the national curriculum – Understanding the World now looks more like geography, history and science – and maybe some headteachers will think, ‘that’s nice, I can track through’. In which case, please talk to your EYFS team about what subjects should look like in the early years, and how they provide a sound foundation for subjects in the national curriculum. Don’t force them into that curriculum too early.”

Birth to Five Matters makes clear the importance of play, of following a child’s interest and building learning around that – building the foundations. Ms Merrick concluded: “Children need time to focus on what they are doing, without interruption, with the support of staff who are not busy gathering data but who are focused on what children are doing in the here and now.”

  • 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.

Further information and resources

  • Birth to Five Matters: A consultation over the second draft of Birth to Five Matters closes on February 26. The final version is due to be published at the end of March. It will be available online in an interactive version, along with background and source materials including the research and evidence. Visit
  • 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: Coalition of Early Years Sector Organisations' statement on the new non-statutory guidance for the EYFS, September 2020:
  • Henty: The Battle for Reception, Headteacher Update Best Practice Focus 4, February 2021:
  • Tickell: Review of the Early Years Foundation Stage, DfE, March 2011:

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