The minister for Early Years, Nadhim Zahawi, has today announced a pilot of the new draft Early Learning Goals (ELGs) for the autumn with the stated goals of reducing unnecessary workload for teachers and improving children's language and communication skills, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.
Both these goals are entirely laudable, but unfortunately there are real concerns about whether the new version of the ELGs will succeed in achieving either.
On the issue of workload, it was never the ELGs and the way they were drafted which caused the problem. If done properly the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile only requires teachers to summarise what they already know about children's learning and development at the end of Reception, based on the formative assessment and observation carried out throughout the year. The workload problem has arisen from teachers feeling pressured to gather excessive amounts of data to support and "evidence" their observations - sometimes this has come from beliefs about what Ofsted wants, sometimes from the leadership within a school, or from advice given by local authority moderators, and it has been exacerbated by the use of online tracking tools which encourage collection of such data. It has never come from the EYFS Statutory Framework itself, and reiterating the need to avoid excessive data collection again in that document will not in itself make a difference. What could make a difference is a wider culture change and clearer messaging from DfE. If the minister is now getting behind the message, and stating that Reception teachers' professional judgements should be trusted, that is very welcome, and it could impact on workload immediately without having to wait for new ELGs to be trialed and implemented.
If workload is a driving force behind these reforms, then we hope the DfE are thinking about the workload impact of revising the ELGs. These will require not only every member of staff teaching in Reception, but those throughout the Early Years Foundation Stage who are shaping their practice to enable all children to reach those goals, to familiarise themselves with the changes to all 17 ELGs and to revise their practice accordingly. Because although the assessment is not the curriculum, we all know the reality is that the assessment drives what is taught. So is a root and branch revieiw of every single ELG necessary, and are the benefits to be gained from the changes proportionate to the workload for the entire early years sector in introducing that change? We believe in many cases the new ELGs are not an improvement on the previous version and in some cases the reverse - eg the loss of space, shape and measure from mathematics.
Returning to the minister's priorities, will the changes proposed to the Early Learning Goals improve children's language and communication? Again, we are not convinced. The draft goals in their current form are not based in the extensive research evidence about how children learn language, for instance the ELG for "Listening and attention" has lost all reference to attention, and the ELG for Understanding has disappeared altogether. Speech and language experts have shown that these are vital components to children's development of language, but this understanding is not reflected in the new draft.
As with all reforms, the devil is in the detail and we have extensive concerns about the drafting of the new ELGs - many of which we have already shared with DfE officials in conversations over recent weeks. It is vital that the ELGs reflect likely development for a child at the end of the Reception year. Some years ago DfE commissioned Early Education to produce Development Matters to give practitioners guidance on how children typically learn and develop, and how the adults around them can support and extend that learning and create enabling environments to support it. It is surprising they did not consider that vital expertise to include in their Advisory Panel. We remain willing to provide any support and expertise needed to ensure the final version of the ELGs are not only fit for purpose, but based on the very best and latest research evidence and understanding of practice.
Next week we wiill issue our detailed comment on the draft ELGs as a focus for discussion within the sector. As the only early years sector body representing the schools sector, we will continue to represent the views of our members in working with government to ensure that the revised ELGs are fit for purpose and appropriate for children and reflective of what we know about how young children develop and learn, and we invite all those who share our concerns - or indeed who wish to challenge them and ensure we represent a plurality of views - to join us and participate in that debate, prior to the eventual public consultation from the DfE.
Early Education (The British Association for Early Childhood Education) is the leading independent national charity for early years practitioners and parents, campaigning for the right of all children to education of the highest quality. Founded in 1923, it has members in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and provides a national voice on matters that relate to effective early childhood education and care of young children from birth to eight. The organisation supports the professional development of practitioners through publications, training, conferences, seminars and access to a national and regional branch network. For more information on the work of Early Education visit www.early-education.org.uk