The EYFS reforms: Priorities, opportunities and myths

Written by: Dr Julian Grenier | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Development Matters guidance is supporting schools to implement September’s EYFS reforms. Dr Julian Grenier, who led on the writing of Development Matters, looks at the four priorities that are driving the reforms and responds to our recent coverage of the ‘rival’ Birth to Five Matters guidance


The changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which take effect in September, offer a great opportunity to schools to reflect, rethink, and check that our priorities are right. In this article, I am going to outline some of those opportunities, and also tackle some of the misconceptions which were reported in a recent article in this magazine (Henty, 2021).

The changes (DfE, 2021) to the EYFS are focused on four key priorities:

  • A stronger focus on children’s early communication.
  • Tackling excessive workload.
  • Promoting more equal life chances.
  • Putting more emphasis on children’s health.

The EYFS Statutory Framework sets out what we are legally required to do. The Department for Education’s non-statutory guidance, Development Matters (DfE, 2020), supports us in putting those changes into action. I was a member of the advisory group which oversaw the changes to the EYFS, and I led on the writing of the new Development Matters.


Priority 1: Communication

Like many school leaders, I have been increasingly focused on all four of the themes outlined above. There is considerable evidence that many children are coming into early years settings with communication that is less-developed than we might expect.

Yet, as the Education Endowment Foundation usefully reminds us, communication is foundational to children’s thinking, play, and literacy (EEF, 2018). Children who can communicate well are more able to make friends, play together, and solve conflicts without resorting to lashing out or becoming withdrawn.

In fact, evidence from the Centre for Inclusive Education at the UCL Institute of Education suggests that promoting children’s communication in Reception and key stage 1 has a more positive impact on their emotional wellbeing than interventions which are targeted at supporting children’s emotional wellbeing (Bakopoulou et al, 2019).

That’s why the revised Development Matters has more guidance on communication than its predecessor document. The communication charity ICAN worked closely with the team to help us get this right. For the first time, the guidance specifically addresses the issue of children learning English as an additional language (EAL).


Priority 2: Workload

Workload has also been a serious problem in the early years. Much of that has arisen from an excessive focus on assessment and data. Ofsted, in its Education Inspection Framework (2019), has clearly signalled that this workload should not be undertaken in preparation for inspection.

As Ofsted said in its briefing about the new framework (2019): “Over time, the main thrust of the typical inspection conversation has come to be about recent outcomes, assessment of current ‘pupil progress’ and expectations of future progress. Schools have responded to this with workload-intensive management models that focus on data and prediction.

“Perhaps, most important of all, these distortions have the greatest negative effect on the pupils we should care about most: the most disadvantaged – the poor and those with SEND – and the least able.”

For that reason, the revised EYFS takes a new approach. First, the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) have been simplified (DfE, 2021). The independent evaluation by the EEF (2019) reported that “teachers say changes to ELGs have made them clearer and reduced their workload”.

Second, there is more focus on curriculum in the revised EYFS, and less of a focus on the collection of unnecessary data. It beggars belief that Reception teachers in some schools have been asked to assess and report data on all their children, across seven areas of learning, once or twice a term. Is any other class assessed that much?

As we move into this increased focus on curriculum design in the early years, it is important that we take a balanced view. Much of children’s learning, rightly, is driven by their interests, and through their play and independent exploration.

Alongside that, schools will be thinking carefully about the children on their rolls and their local communities. We will be setting out our “big picture” – what we want our children to learn, know, experience and be able to do in our early years provision.

How will that be appropriate for them today, and prepare them for their learning in key stage 1 and beyond? Those decisions will, rightly, vary from one school to the next.

As UNESCO has said, a well-designed early years curriculum will “lighten the pedagogical role of the educator by providing him/her with guidance in the learning activities” (Díaz, 2016). That focus helps us tackle workload, and also ensure that children get the carefully sequenced and structured teaching and support they need to become secure in key skills like counting and using numbers up to 10.


Priority 3: Equal life chances

Good curriculum design, coupled with effective pedagogy and care, is important to all children – and especially those who may be disadvantaged by our current educational system. It is an unfortunate fact that while overall outcomes as measured by the EYFS Profile have improved since the last revision of the EYFS in 2012, the gap between children eligible for free school meals and the rest has stayed more-or-less the same. There are also serious inequalities in outcomes for cohorts of children, like those from Black Caribbean and Pakistani backgrounds.

When we tackle excessive workload, we can free up time to get our curriculum and provision right for those children who most depend on us. Taking endless photos of children on iPads to create “evidence” and “data” does nothing to improve learning. Instead, we should be spending time with the children, listening to them, having conversations, playing with them, giving them helpful feedback.

The revised Development Matters has been designed deliberately to shift the focus away from being a long assessment checklist, and towards being “curriculum guidance” to help schools and teachers to put together an appropriate, enjoyable and ambitious curriculum that meets the needs of every child. It is deliberately shorter and easier to read, to free-up space to make the decisions that are right for our individual schools.


Priority 4: Children’s health

The revised EYFS puts a stronger emphasis on children’s health. There is a specific requirement to promote oral health – which is vital to many children, especially those who are disadvantaged. Here in Newham, many children have cavities before they even start school. Dental pain is very unpleasant. It makes children feel miserable. It also affects their ability to speak clearly. By promoting toothbrushing here with our community dental team, we have been able to reduce the rates of dental decay significantly. I would recommend this priority to others. The revised Development Matters also has a stronger focus on children being highly active physically and developing their skills, fitness and stamina.


The right priorities

I am confident that these are the right priorities for our children and schools. But right now, they are especially pertinent. We know that the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the poorest children hardest. Lockdowns have significantly affected many children’s communication, health, and fitness. Our teachers and early years educators are well-placed to support children to bounce back from this difficult time. But we need to have time to focus on the children, rather than collating excessive assessment evidence and data. We need to use assessment to help children to learn, not play “data games” for Ofsted and senior leaders.


Dispelling some myths

Unfortunately, a number of myths are being propagated about the changes to the EYFS which are potentially confusing to us as school leaders.

These have been reported previously in Headteacher Update (Henty, 2021). In that article, the Early Years Coalition is quoted saying that the updated Development Matters “presents a prescriptive, simplistic, limited curriculum and pedagogy, and does not reflect and respect practitioner expertise and excellent practice in the sector”.

In fact, Development Matters builds on much of our work as a school team, leading an Early Years Hub that connected more than 100 private nurseries, schools and child-minders. We are the only Research School in the country that is led by early years specialist teachers.

Nancy Stewart from the coalition is reported as saying that the updated EYFS is “not backed by the research evidence and certainly not by what the teachers and practitioners were saying”.

In fact, the updated Development Matters was written by a team of frontline early years practitioners, teachers and leaders. The lead school is rated “outstanding” by Ofsted and is both a Teaching and Research School. Our practice is informed by, and reflective of, robust and critically evaluated research.

The team which wrote Development Matters also worked in close collaboration with health experts and leading researchers.

I have previously questioned whether we are too dependent on a narrow range of voices in the early years, like the Early Years Coalition (Grenier, 2021). Is the research and evidence they promote as robust as they claim? Or maybe it is time for us to lift our game in the early years and value robust, practice-informed research rather than what sometimes feels like a superficial and populist narrative.


Unhelpful

The Early Years Coalition has, correctly, pointed out that Development Matters is non-statutory guidance and therefore schools can choose whether to use it or look elsewhere. They have developed their own guidance – Birth to Five Matters – and argue that it is positive to have more options to choose from.

I agree that schools, teachers and early years educators should be trusted to exercise their professional judgement and make the choices which are right for them. But I do not think that it has been helpful to present the sector with rival publications and approaches. This is not helping the whole sector to work collaboratively or supporting us to make the statutorily required changes constructively.

No document or framework is perfect: sensible compromises have to be reached between different viewpoints. No-one will ever be completely happy with every aspect of the result. As Voltaire argued, we must not make the perfect the enemy of the good.


Conclusion

Teachers, leaders and practitioners in the early years have worked with remarkable dedication through a very difficult year and it has been heartening to see that almost all of the Early Adopter Schools, who have already been piloting the revised EYFS, have embraced Development Matters as guidance and have found it helpful as they navigate along this new path. The Reach Academy in Feltham provides a good example of this (Browne, 2021).

We have a sound new EYFS framework, supported by non-statutory guidance, to help us to keep improving the quality of our early years education and care in England. We need to redouble our efforts where they will have most impact. We need to work together to support teachers and practitioners with these changes and the opportunities that come with them.

  • Dr Julian Grenier is headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre in east London. He led of the revision of Development Matters for the Department for Education. He has also independently written a book to support schools and early years settings in implementing the new EYFS, which you can download for free via http://development-matters.org.uk/


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