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In the second part of our new series, we take a closer look at the changes coming in the new EYFS and some of the key changes to the Development Matters guidance.

What is the Development Matters guidance?

Sitting alongside the EYFS, is the non-statutory guidance document, Development Matters, first published in 2012. This document supports early education practitioners in their practice, giving guidance on observing and assessing children, and can help practitioners to make summative assessments of individual children, to see if they are on the right track with their development in the key areas.

Professional practitioners will always be assessing and checking up on the children in their care, feeding back to parents and keeping a close eye on how children are progressing, and this is often known as formative assessment or assessments that are made in everyday exchanges on an ongoing basis. In education settings for older children such as primary or secondary school, teachers are often involved in formative assessments such as checking the student’s understanding of the lesson, or giving them some exercises to do to show they can use and spell the words (e.g. English vocabulary) or can do the calculations (maths). These types of assessment allow teachers to see what is being retained (or not), and tailor their lesson accordingly.

Similarly in the early years, practitioners will be looking out for whether children are interacting with them, how they socialise, their ability to mark-make etc, on a daily basis and may record this on IT or a daily log sheet.

Summative assessments are those which essentially ‘sum up’ what children have learned at the end of a designated period. In the example of a secondary school pupil, it could be an end of term test, or ultimately a GCSE. In the case of the early years, the Development Matters document outlines some key assessment points that can be used to see how well children are doing, compared to expected developments.

This guidance. however, was not intended to be a ‘tick-box’ exercise or ‘checklist’ since the emphasis in early years is that all children are different and learn and develop at different rates, but in some settings, it has been used in this way, and some settings have been measuring their success on whether children reach the ‘milestones’ along the way. The danger of this is that you can miss more holistic markers and developments as you focus in on ‘ticking off’ things in the list.

As part of recent changes therefore, the Development Matters document has also been revised (although still called “Development Matters”), and was published in September 2020, but similar to the new EYFS, the revision is not being rolled out nationally until September 2021. Indeed, one of the main aims of updating the document was to address the data-driven workload that was becoming unmanageable in many settings, with a constant need to record data on development almost to the detriment of other areas. Other reasons for updates include a desire to improve children’s communication, especially their spoken language and the need to ‘close the gap’ where children are at risk of falling behind their peers.

It is recommended that practitioners understand the 7 key features of effective practice in depth as a priority.

These are outlined as:

  • The best for every child
  • High-quality care
  • The curriculum: what we want children to learn
  • Pedagogy: helping children to learn
  • Assessment: checking what children have learnt
  • Self-regulation and executive function
  • Partnership with parents

It also recommends that practitioners are familiar with the 3 characteristics of effective teaching and learning:

  • Playing and exploring
  • Active learning
  • Creating and thinking critically

The observation checkpoints under each heading say that children in each age group “will be learning to “ as opposed to saying “will have achieved” so that the emphasis is on individual development rather than getting all children to meet a particular benchmark at a certain age. Settings must develop their curriculums with these things in mind, and then, depending on the ages of the children in the setting, the document can then be read in age-stages, focusing on the needs of different age groups at different times. In the previous version, the demarcation of children’s development included overlapping age bands such as birth to 11 months and 8 – 20 months, 16 – 26 months for example. The new guidance is split into 3 main groups with subdivided “observation checkpoints” at various stages along the way. However, the age ranges are now less-specific with fewer defined periods in the ‘birth to 3’ age range. This is to reflect the research suggesting that children’s development is not linear, but ‘more like a spider’s web with many strands’.

The age ranges are now:

  • Birth to three – babies, toddlers and young children
  • 3-4-year-olds
  • Children in reception

The observation checkpoints are to help staff notice whether a child is at risk of falling behind in their development, and not just data collection points for data collection’s sake. The document instead emphasises the value of ‘professional judgement’ which highlights the need to develop professional, reflective practitioners across the board.

The Early Learning Goals (ELGs) are the goals or targets for children to achieve at the end of their reception year. However, children will be working towards these goals throughout their time in early years and therefore curriculums should be thought-through accordingly. There are currently 17 specific ELGs which span all 7 areas of learning, including:

  • Communication and Language
  • Personal, Social and Emotional Development
  • Physical Development
  • Literacy
  • Mathematics
  • Understanding the world
  • Expressive art and design

Some of the proposed changes to the EYFS affect these Early Learning Goals such as the deletion of the specific need to teach “Shape, Space and Measures” under the Mathematics section, although aspects of this would still need to be taught under the provision of a “well-rounded curriculum”, so there are still grey areas about what the impact of the changes will be for practitioners and how it will change what they do.

It is also important to understand the difference between the ELGs and the provision of a full curriculum when designing educational material for early years, so that it is holistic and wide-ranging and does not just focus on the ELG assessment that is done at the end of the reception year. That would be akin to saying that a secondary school education should focus only on the information needed to pass GCSE exams, which would clearly be very limiting.

There has also been criticism of the new Development Matters guidance from early years organisations and practitioners who feel that far from promoting a more holistic and varied curriculum, it instead creates a narrow and limited view of how children learn and develop which will not serve the children it is designed to help.

What about assessment?

With the emphasis on professional judgement, there is a clear attempt to make sure that assessment of children does not become just ‘something that needs to be done’ and therefore ineffective in promoting progress, or identifying children at risk of falling behind. Children would be served better if practitioners were able to use their professional judgement about which children need assessing, and in which areas, which may result in less assessment for some children and a greater amount of more effective, intervention-driven assessments for those who need it most. Only time will tell if this is a realistic expectation without greater funding, training or practical advice.

For more information and industry comment, see:

Look out for part 3 next month.

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