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An interview with Julian Grenier: The Early Years Foundation Stage, what matters?

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Friday, 10 July, 2020

Our Pedagogic Lead, Cathy Gunning, spoke to Dr Julian Grenier about the new non-statutory guidance for the EYFS, which he is leading on for the Department for Education (DfE).  The following is a summary of the interview.  


The recent EYFS reforms should be seen as "evolution" not "revolution". This was the terminology used at the first LED event where the reforms were announced, back in July 2019 and by Julian in his article for Nursery World: Development Matters: a good start? (September 2019). The  DfE's objectives for this development were to:

  1. improve early years outcomes
  2. reduce workload burdens
  3. provide specific reception year guidance

As they state in their core principles on slide 4: "This piece of work is not about delivering wholesale change but improving on a familiar structure to meet our objectives".

The reform

The thinking behind the document is not that everything is driven by the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) at the end of the document. Instead, Julian says that the document aims to draw on research evidence and practice wisdom to meet the objectives that were originally set out in July 2019 from the DfE. The end of phase assessments sit at the end of the reception year to see how well children are doing, so Julian sees the end of phase assessment as important for its purpose which is a "snapshot" at the end of the EYFS phase, and not something that is the prime driver of the document. He refers to the key findings from Bold beginnings: the reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools (2017), which say on page 5 

There is no clear curriculum in reception. Most leaders and staff in the schools visited acknowledged that there was little guidance about what four- and five- year olds should be taught, beyond the content of the ELGs. They therefore determined their own curriculum above and beyond the statements in the EYFSP, to prevent staff using the ELGs as their sole framework for teaching. 

Improving outcomes

Julian's concerns are that these early learning goals, in some instances, seem to have replaced the early years curriculum, and that is at the expense of teachers mapping out a curriculum that allows children to build their learning step by step. Instead of this, he believes that teachers begin the year looking at the seventeen ELGs and spend the year amassing the evidence of the children achieving the early learning goals, which is not, he says, a good principle for high quality early years practice.

The themes of attachment, relationships, settling in, transitions, the key person approach, reading and talking are already prominent in Development Matters, and need to continue to be, states Julian.

Reducing workload

We know that workload is a real problem, and this has to be addressed: Julian says there are multiple reasons for this, and one can not oversimplify things by saying that the workload problem is due to Development Matters itself.  It definitely is not what was intended when Development Matters was written. However, in the past Julian recalls that Development Matters was accompanied by Progress Matters, which set out an approach of recording and tracking, that over time as years have gone by, has "got more and more out of hand".

It is completely wrong to put the workload issues on to any one element, Julian says.  "Every part of the early years system has played its part in where we have got to today - everyone from managers to local authorities, to DfE to Ofsted." What he sees, is that "Ofsted have been very clear about a need to ensure that inspection does not drive workload. The DfE, by creating a new guidance document for practitioners that will help reduce workload, and at the same time, will hit those key objectives."

For Julian the key objective is the issue around disadvantaged children, "because we haven't seen any progress being made in terms of reducing some of those gaps for quite some time now, and that must mean that we are not getting this right as a system." He thinks that if you could solve very difficult problem like that, just by writing a guidance document, then the world would not have these problems. This has got to come with the right leadership in settings, schools and local authorities, and it has also got to be supported by high quality professional development for practitioners. One of the important places to look for evidence here is the FEEL study which Iram Siraj has been leading on (link below), which Julian says does a really good job of synthesising everything we know about what high quality professional development should look like. 

However Julian's concern is that professional development can fall very far short of these standards, and this has impacted both on time and money in the system, and it may also do more harm than good he thinks. Better to not have poor quality professional development than have practitioners go back and do ill-considered things in their setting. Julian rejects the view that the early years workforce is a low ability, low skill group of people, because he says when you talk to early years practitioners, they are really thoughtful and have lots of ideas, they are very skilled at what they do. However, overall the system has not helped them as much as it should have done. The guidance and professional development we give people must be as clear and as up to date and helpful as it can be. This is really important, he stresses.

Research and evidence

Julian says that a big change since Development Matters was written is that we have had a lot more research and evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and so there is a lot for us to take in and think about. He stresses that this work will also date in a matter of years, which is no disrespect to any piece of work at any point - the fact is that new findings will emerge, and we have to adapt to these changes. 

Considering what we know in terms of research and evidence and can apply in a practical way can improve things for children. Julian gives this example: there has been a lot of discussion about the early introduction of when children would be holding pencils. Development Matters and Preparing for literacy by the EEF would give a very different account of that. Similarly, he says, there has been some rethinking about some early maths, of which a lot has been reflected in EEF's guidance Improving mathematics in the early years and key stage 1. Julian says it is important that we give practitioners the best guidance that we can.

Early learning

Focus on development and tackling development, Julian says.  Make sure you don't underestimate the importance of curriculum planning and thinking about how children are going to build their learning over time, their knowledge of skills and vocabulary. It is not about watching, noticing and tracking, this is not a good account of early learning. Early learning is much more interactive, and mediated by language than this former model suggests.

Julian gives an example, from the Nursery School and Children’s Centre where he is headteacher

We have been running a project here at Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre looking at Tier 2 vocabulary, and noticed that is not necessarily used in the everyday lives of children. We need to do more to make sure children get this - through shared book reading and very rich first hand experiences, so that children are not only hearing and using that vocabulary, but in a context that is very meaningful. Recently, when rading Handa's Surprise one of the children called every picture on the page, "fruit" and we noticed that many children didn’t have range of words for different fruits like papaya or mango. Our job is so important - in the way we read the story with the children, the way we do role play around the story, go to the shops and buy fruit, explore the fruit and so on - this is all very important for that child’s learning and the development of language. 

We need to think very carefully about how we plan this progress model in the curriculum. Way back when the EYFS was written, we had curriculum guidance - which supported how to design and put a curriculum together.  This has gone now, it is not in Development Matters, and this is a good moment to bring a lot of that thinking back, he says.

In thinking about working with 2,3- and 4-year olds at Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre, we have a system around core books, using a shortlist of books, with core rhymes and songs, so we know what children will know when they are 3, for example. However, we should have focused on what a core book in September and then in July, and can we see the progress in terms of vocabulary, complexity, a song that is more technical, greater melody and rhythm in Sept to July. This has been a positive process, to think much more about what we provide as practitioners to help children steadily make step by step progress though the year.

Curriculum, content and progress

Julian shares his belief that in current practice, far more emphasis is put on assessment than curriculum design and planning, so we need to steer back from this into thinking more deeply about content and progress. This is evolution not revolution, because it has always been there – it is in the statutory framework but has perhaps been lost along the way. He thinks that taking stock like this is good: we are in a good place to look at this again, in the light of new thinking and evidence.

He says, "We know now more about the importance of vocabulary and conversation, so this needs to be emphasised more. Playing and interacting with children from all adults is key, and we know from research from the Institute of Education, as summarised by EEF (Making best use of Teaching Assistants) that a well-trained, supported and supervised teaching assistant can make a real difference in the classroom/setting."

Our context

Julian shared how as a nursery school and children's centre, they work locally with 12 private, voluntary and independent settings (PVIs), a network of childminders and primary schools, and through an EY hub, they link with over 100 PVI settings. He says:

Our recent project called Manor Park Talks, revealed to us about how under-trained many of us are in supporting children’s communication. We learnt a lot about how myths that take hold, for example around bilingual learners, and to only speak in English, whereas research is contrary to this. We also learnt that sometimes practitioners feel so pressured by being busy, that they don’t spend much time in conversation, or there may be hours where no one opens a book. So, we re-visited the importance of conversation, sharing books, giving children time. We noticed that is children aren’t well supported by settling in when they start, then they don’t talk.

Early language and literacy

Julian says that the Nuffield Foundation's project "Talking Time" shows that there is enormous potential and impact in spending small amounts of time with small groups of children sharing books together. He thinks sometimes we have become very focused on continuous provision and free flow play, and perhaps time to spend quietly with a book or a small group has slipped down the list of priorities. Sometimes there is a real need for babies and young toddlers in settings to have a very well-designed key person approach, which is important. If they don’t get this level of emotional support, they might be coping with being in a setting, but not getting the attachment relationships that they ned to thrive and learn. 

Julian stresses the need to be careful, however, that the provision of free flow is not at the expense of a loss of quality time, and a feeling of belonging. In Reception, (see link to article below) he reflects about a small group of children who might be with an adult, trying to write a sentence. Some of these children aren’t yet speaking in a sentence yet, so they require a great deal of scaffolding by the teacher to produce a sentence, which hasn’t come from the child. These children who write one word with adult scaffolding, may then forget, and this isn’t a powerful learning experience for the child. In the meantime, other children might be moving around minimally supported in play, which is keeping them "occupied" whilst doing the activity with the small group. Julian says that both these things are pointless – what some of those children need is intensive help with their communication so that they are speaking in sentences, perhaps also with their small and gross motor skills. However, because there is an early learning goal about writing a sentence, the teacher feels they need to do it and have to have a sample in the book. He believes that this is not a progression model in the EYFS curriculum, nor developmentally appropriate. 

Conversely, he says that there is an opinion that these children might not be ready to write but time goes by and the children don’t ever become ready. A progression model would look at the group of children who need intensive help with physical control and speaking and listening. The way to do this is to give time to listen, have conversations, support their tier 2 vocabulary, a love of books, and motor control. Once these foundations are in place, Julian suggests, the child is more likely to learn how to write quickly, with the right teaching. He says that it is also important to know the language of direction and motion, like up, down, around, backwards, forwards, etc as being able to teach handwriting without this knowledge is compromised, because the key terms that they need are not understood. 

Another difficulty, Julian thinks, is the distinction between prime and specific areas of learning, because for example, a child with English as an additional language, sharing books is one of the most powerful ways to support their communication. We would not want to wait to use the specific area of learning and use books after the prime areas of learning. They have to be woven together. 

Characteristics of effective learning

Regarding the characteristics of effective learning, Julian reflects that you can’t be an effective learner without learning something, and if it is a good use of your time, then someone has designed the curriculum really well. In March and April time, the incubator and eggs are a popular experience, and children are fascinated and talking and learning scientific concepts and someone is spending time in conversation with them, in rich sustained shared thinking. He says the what is really important: what they learn is equally important as how you go about it. It has to have equal focus. If a child is involved dynamically in what they are learning then they will demonstrate connections, and creative thinking and motivation in learning more about it. So, the content and progression is equally important as how they learn it.

Early years play and learning

Julian signposts us to the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child who state that executive function and self-regulation develop both in the context of freely chosen supported play, and also in more structured learning situations. Children need and thrive on both. 

Staff need to know facts, Julian says. For example, when at the water tray, a knowledge of physics is powerful, because the adult can add intellectual content about forces and up thrust (how the water pushes the object upwards) but what a key teaching experience for the child, to feel that force, and providing challenging information linked to this experience, which is highly valuable. We must be careful to give children the learning they need, not just to occupy children and use up their time. 

Every child is individual. The additional value from some families can compensate for what they don’t learn in their early years. However for other children they rely on the setting to give them that vocabulary, and knowledge, or scientific and mathematical concepts, because that might not happen in the home, and this is where early education is vital. When children emerge from the early years behind their peers, evidence shows that it is very hard for these children to catch up. 

Conversely, the early years is the maximum period of flexibility, so children who come into an early years setting, they have a really good chance to make really great progress and so if making this progress within the early years, a child has a really good chance of achievement in that early years window.

Flow, flexibilty and joy

Regarding curriculum, Julian states we must be sensible and remember everything has to be flexible.  We must be careful with planning, sequencing, clarity around vocabulary etc, across the EYFS, from feeding a baby to end of reception, but we must also preserve flexibility. Julian stresses that the joy of the early years is that a child brings in their interest and is fascinated by something he saw on his way into school, and so to capture his captivation and learning must be followed up in the moment. For example, if a child finds a squashed orange on the way to school, and is fascinated, then we explore this and find out more about peel, juice, seeds, and there is so much learning here to go with in the moment, so plans must be flexible!

Challenge and progress

Julian continues, if you have planned the curriculum to meet needs and enthusiasm, it is vital to know the milestones, for example, for 2 year olds, or babies, the types of toys which support progress, and how they are built upon, progressively perhaps progressing from baby push toys to pedals on a trike to steering a wheeled toy. Challenge through building and extending skills and capabilities for children would look different, for example using balance bikes progressing to using 2 wheeled pedal bikes in reception.

Julian explains his thinking about development further, saying reception children won’t need to race around on trikes, as they did perhaps in nursery, however some children might be struggling to balance and ride a bike, because they have not practised enough. So with a progression model, you don’t need to track, and know next steps because in the moment you know how to help a child know to pedal or steer, and then provide additional challenge once mastered. We might provide hills, turns, obstacles, for challenge and practise. Data and next steps are not needed for this. A system of next steps means that 30 children’s next steps ned to be remembered! 

Whereas, if you know the large and small motor skills you want children to have before formally teaching handwriting, then you can trust the direction and trajectory, you know the sequence of resources of challenge and to help move on, and this makes life a lot less depended on plans and tracking. 

Julian says that there are some markers for development, eg first sounds etc, but much of what early years is about, is about how children thrive when they have the right resources and interaction, when achievements are celebrated and when helped to do difficult things. These all need support from adult involvement. In any group of children there are going to be some we are worried about. These must be monitored carefully.

Next steps and data, reducing workload

Julian reiterates that we do not need to spend the time looking at next steps and data. He believes that this is impossible to bear in mind for every child. Whereas, working out and structuring the curriculum offer, he says you have the resources and trajectory for many of the children, which will provide challenge to move on in their learning. Complicated plans and tracking will not be necessary. 

Child development: monitoring progression

Julian shares that there are natural markers of child development where we have expectations, but a very large amount is not about a "natural process of unfurling", it is about how children really thrive when given the right resources and adult interaction, when achievements are really celebrated, when they can bounce back from difficulties. None of these are natural – we are involved all the time, so we must focus on this. But, he says, there will be children whose development we are worried about. We must monitor these children very carefully. We must not throw careful monitoring of progress out of the window, but the majority are making good progress and lots of assessment not needed. Time is better spent thinking about playing, talking, structuring next resources. Some children might need something very detailed to assess their communication, or to pinpoint their difficulties, to bring in colleagues and partners from health to support. So we must not neglect our responsibilities to this group of children. 

If we look at percentages of how children are doing, we can gauge how well they are doing. We must remember the percentage gap of those children not achieving, and to focus our efforts on these children is key. 

Julian cites the Skills for life survey: 15% of adults struggle with communication and literacy. He stresses that we must focus efforts on this group of children in the early years. 85% success does not mean the job is done because many are missing out. He believes that the over emphasis on achievement of the Early Learning Goals (ELG), alongside perhaps a push to achieve these outcomes in our data, with extra support can get children through an ELG. But wider thinking around children needing support to catch up and keep up with the other children is essential. 

He states that we must value child development, and not to get children writing if they are not writing sentences, or if they can not form letters correctly. He says we must focus on the individual child, and think "What am I going to do to gve a child intensive support to move them on?".

Julian also reflects on summer-born children - thinking developmentally, some children might be doing very well, but still might be behind an autumn-born child, because of their age. We must think: is this child making the development and progress I want them to make at this stage?

Play and self-regulation

Julian states that play supports self-regulation. However, he challenges us to think about what we mean by play. Vaguely occupied time with resources is not play, he says, it is just filling time. Particular play that supports self-regulation is thinking ahead, planning in mind and then doing and reviewing. This is also true for pretend play because being in a role is challenging for children – they can do this, accept the rules of the game, and they inhibit their desires to be a character, 

Julian reflects on what Vygotsky tells us, that "a child is a head taller in their play". The desire to be part of play gives children a facility to control and direct their actions for their age. There is a planning element, even in a baby room, where for example a child can pull up, and then make steps and then take the next one. Here, the baby is planning and developing their skills because the environment they are given helps them to do this. Julian says that if these opportunities are not given then a child might be occupied, but this is not play-based learning. 

Reception year

For most children in England in school this is the first year they have a full day with a qualitied teacher and a level 3 EYE working with them, Julian states. This is quite different to what they may have had before. This is an important part of the EYFS. Finnish guidance sits slightly apart, because this year is a bit distinct, and this is a useful model to work on.  Having a secure foundation in communication, early literacy and numeracy is one of the best ways to give disadvantaged children a fair start to life.

People worry about narrowing the curriculum, but there is no education that is narrower for a child than not being able to read. We must hold this in mind - we do want children to have a broad and balanced curriculum in the EY, and there are so many experiences and areas where they can excel, but we also need to be aware that children have to be great communicators, and this could impact their life chances over time.


  • Road testing of the draft document in Spring, Summer and Autumn 2020 (delayed due to Covid-19).
  • Whole document available to sector by Summer 2020
  • Process for settings and childminders and schools to be early implementers of this guidance in the 2020-2021 school year, and then the document will become the DfE guidance document after this process is completed. 
  • Sept 2020: pilot
  • Sept 2021 guidance in place

Dr Julian Grenier is the Headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centres. He blogs at Inside the secret garden. His role for the Department for Education is to lead on the reforms and re-write/develop the guidance to go with the new Early Years Foundation Stage, which has not yet been released after consultation (there were delays due to the December election and requirements of purdah and then the Covid-19 pandemic).

Further reading and links

With thanks

With grateful thanks to Julian for his time in having this conversation - I was grateful to be able to meet with him in person before lockdown and the 'new normal' of Covid-19.

Cathy Gunning, Pedagogic Lead. June 2020