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Guest blog from Di Chilvers: Development Does Matter...

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Monday, 2 December, 2019

Over the years Development Matters has become an integral part of the early years sector’s everyday practice; the “go to” for practitioners, teachers, childminders and parents as an indicator of children’s development and progress. Having originally being brought together from the Practice Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage: Setting the Standards for Learning, Development and Care for children from birth to five (May 2008) it showed the way in bringing the EYFS principles into practice; outlining how the four key themes would come together to create our play-based curriculum to meet the diverse needs of children; whilst at the same time viewing quality improvement as a continuous process.

The section on Learning and Development included the headings Development matters, Look, listen and note, Effective practice, Planning and resourcing and assessment (2008. p.3) with a clear mandate for use in practice:

The Learning and Development sections are split into four columns that represent the ongoing cycle of thinking about development and assessing children’s progress. These will support and enable practitioners to provide opportunities for children to play, learn and succeed in an atmosphere of care and feeling valued. The four columns are Development Matters; Look, listen and note; Effective practice; and Planning and resourcing. (2008:11)

The Development Matters column makes this crucial point which still appears on every single page of the current version in 2019 along with a reminder that “They should not be used as checklists”:

It is important to note that children will not necessarily progress sequentially through the stages, since these do not represent age-related goals. Some elements may appear to have been achieved very quickly, others take much longer. As children move from one element to another, they take with them what they have already achieved and continue to practise, refine and build on their previous development and learning (2008 p.11).

Development Matters was set in the wider context of implementing the EYFS with a clear purpose of providing “guidance on children’s development” and how it could be best supported starting with Personal, Social and Emotional Development and crucially children’s Dispositions and Attitudes. It was a staggeringly robust, well researched guide having brought together experts on child development from health, educational and developmental psychologists, speech and language therapists, SEND specialist in their field, pediatricians, experts in mathematics, communication and language, physical development, behavior and many more. Then being rigorously shared with the whole of the early years sector, with full consultation and pilots.  

Whilst this would never be a definitive guide to young children’s development, as that would be enormous, it gave the sector some help in seeing children’s developmental journey from birth to 5+.

Development Matters in 2019

Through the years we have seen many changes to Development Matters which have reduced it to the much thinner document of today.  Changes which were mainly driven by government and policy makers often as a result of feedback from the sector that it was too onerous, created a heavy workload and “time away from the children”!  Unfortunately, this was driven by the growing practice of using Development Matters as a tick list of statements for assessment purposes (A Unique Child); using Positive Relationships and Enabling Environments for planning; and seeing the Early Learning Goals as the reception curriculum. 

Development Matters became an assessment tool rather than the child development guidance it was originally intended to be. As it reduced in form it also reduced in its wider perspective of children’s development and by default it became a narrow view of children’s potential. This would not have mattered so much if the tick list culture had not taken over through highlighting paper versions of Development Matters statements and then using iPads to tick superficial statements all based on a narrow view of child development.  In effect early years practitioners and teachers became a profession of list-tickers, as Nancy Stewart pointed out in her informed analysis of Development Matters:

When 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 (2016).

Ofsted and the Department for Education have been at the centre of this misinterpretation of Development Matters and the EYFS through their relentless focus on assessment for accountability and measurement. In effect they have impelled the tick list assessment approach through their demand for data, especially in schools. Hopefully the new Ofsted Framework will keep its promise to “get beyond the data” (281) and return to the informed process of assessment for learning and how this underpins the EYFS curriculum.

So how do we reclaim Development Matters and return to its original purpose?

Development Matters is now under scrutiny by the DfE along with the EYFS Statutory Framework and the Early Learning Goals. The difference being that Development Matters is not a statutory document and can be used by the sector as practitioners decide. 

However, there are strong concerns across the sector about how the Development Matters statements are being used for tracking progress as recently reported by the TES (Gibbons, 2019); more as a race to the finish rather than a professionally informed process of ensuring young children’s development is progressing as it should be.

If we take away the “tick-list” issue, it is a very helpful guide, bringing key messages about children’s development: the Themes and Principles of the EYFS; the Characteristics of Effective Learning; the key role of observation in supporting the unique child and making informed assessments to support and extend learning. As long as we remember that it is not the definitive guide to children’s development – it is just one part of the early years professional’s repertoire of understanding, interpreting and supporting their progress and learning.

On page 4 there is a clear explanation of “Using this guidance to support each child’s learning and development”, based on this familiar diagram which unpicks the EYFS statutory duty of assessment (2017, 2.1, p14) using formative and summative observations and information about the child. This is the process of assessment for learning using professional knowledge, understanding and experience of children and their development and making a professionally informed judgement about where they are in their progress through the Early Years Foundation Stage.

However, Nancy Stewart a co-writer of the current version of Development Matters says:

The summative judgement, however, must be as true as we can make it, and basing it on whether or not a child has matched every statement in an age/stage band is not a valid approach.  There may well be statements missing, and statements demonstrated across two or three bands. 

The best-fit approach answers the problem by acknowledging that although not every child will have moved along in the same way, there is a typical movement.  Identifying the band which most closely describes the child, based on what you know and have observed  whether or not it has been recorded, will enable you to describe the child’s development in terms of whether or not it is typical for their age in the various areas of the EYFS.

Development Matters is just one part of the process which we can use to support our professionally informed judgements about children’s progress; there are other crucial tools which we must engage with but none of them require you to tick reams of lists or overload on paperwork.

Seeing Development Matters in the wider context of child development and HOW children learn should look like this:

As skilled early years professionals we draw on many aspects to support children’s development and learning including:

  • Development Matters which gives a quick guide if we need to touch base with an informed, well-researched pathway of development. It also gives us a “map” on which to plot development through the overlapping age/stage bands remembering that “these are not fixed age boundaries but suggest a typical range of development” (see below)
  • The Characteristics of Effective Learning; Playing and Exploring; Active Learning and Creating and Thinking Critically which explain HOW children are learning
  • The "Observation Tool Kit" which is your key set of skills grown over the years through experience and training, including the following:

All these tools help you to make a professionally informed decisions about children’s development through:

  • taking a broader look at children’s development not just Development Matters
  • using what you know about child development to make a decision about progress
  • making sure that you are observing children regularly in their child-initiated play and activities so that you can see what they know, understand and repeat without the direction of an adult
  • using other child development theories to help you understand progress eg schematic development, wellbeing, involvement levels and sustained shared thinking
  • thinking carefully about the development of speech, language and communication (ECAT – Every Child a Talker etc)
  • recognising and understanding the importance of the Characteristics of Effective Learning and the impact they have on children’s learning
  • listening to children’s ideas and interests and understanding how this underpins their wider development and learning

(Chilvers, nd:10)

This can all be undertaken without using Development Matters as a tick list; it is about using your professional knowledge and not being afraid to use the evidence of what you observe, talk about with your colleagues and parents (formative assessment).  However, it may take a while to build your confidence having spent years of relying on a tick list and not engaging brain. This can, and has, undermined professional wellbeing and belief in some individuals as skilled practitioners/teachers.

Development Matters gives us the scaffolding on which to make these decisions through using the following taxonomy:

This taxonomy of the areas of learning and the overlapping age and stage bands gives us a framework on which to plot children’s progress from their starting points; which is also, a requirement in the new Ofsted Inspection Framework:

The progress all children make in their learning and development relative to their starting points – readiness for next stage of their education (Schools 279/Providers 139)

It is a bit like having an x and y axis on a graph and using the evidence and information you have to plot the child’s development holistically.  In the following example we can see that Akifah has made good progress from her previous summary. However it is the story underneath this that is important and which her key person/teacher will need to articulate and explain to her parents. It looks like this:

There is no need to use Development Matters as a tick list if we are engaging our professional brains with all the other rich information, we have about a child through our observations and through talking together about what we have seen. This involves looking at development in a holistic way we can quickly see where a child needs support and also where they are flying. We then avoid:

  • underestimating the developmental potential of young children – if what they do, say and think is not in the list where is it acknowledged as part of their progress?
  • becoming a profession of “list checkers” always looking for something to tick off rather than focussing on what children are actually involved in, often at quite a deep level.
  • looking for the superficial rather than the complex nature of HOW children are learning and deeper levels of engagement (think Characteristics of Effective Learning here)
  • minimising our own professional knowledge of children’s early development, thinking and learning and making informed decisions about their progress and next steps (early years professionals often know far more about children’s development than what is on the tick list!)

In conclusion there are some important questions to ask about the current rewriting of Development Matters, which is being led by Dr Julian Grenier, headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School:

  1. How will it be ensured that a revised Development Matters that has been robustly informed in the same way that it was originally (2008) created so that children’s development is accurately represented and not “manipulated” to reinforce Literacy and Numeracy etc?
  2. Will the Government restore the required level of funding for high quality training across the sectors (maintained and non-maintained) to enable practitioners and teachers to build their own “Tool Kits” starting with a firm focus on child development?

Di Chilvers is an advisory consultant in early childhood education; Early Education Associate and writer


Chilvers (nd) Getting Started with the Development Map - A good practice guide

DCSF (2008). Practice Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage.  London: DCSF.

Early Education (2012). Development Matters. 

Gibbons, A. (2019, November 22). 'Early years learning harmed by progress obsession'. TES. 

Stewart. N. (May 2016) Development Matters: A landscape of possibilities, not a roadmap,

More information about the Development Map and Observation Tool Kit