DfE Guidance for Early Years: Change and Continuity

Heewoon BaeEarly Years

DfE Guidance for Early Years: Change and Continuity

On 3 September, the Department for Education (DfE) released an updated edition of Development Matters, its non-statutory guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). This publication is aimed at supporting EYFS practitioners in implementing the revised EYFS framework, which will move from being statutory for early adopter schools to all providers in 2021.

As the first update to the DfE’s non-statutory guidance in nearly a decade, EYFS providers may well be interested to read its contents. However, whilst some of the new emphases and formatting might be welcome, at over 70 pages it is a long read to discover that much has stayed the same.

Curriculum guidance

Last year, the main author of the new Development Matters (2020), Dr Julian Grenier, complained that the previous Development Matters (2012) was not the curriculum guidance that practitioners needed in planning how to support children’s learning. He argued that “more emphasis [should be placed] on developing pedagogical practices” and “planning learning experiences that will encourage [children] to communicate”.

The problem with the previous Development Matters (2012), according to Dr Grenier, was that it contained an enormous list of examples of children’s development organised into age bands when not enough is known about their development. There was danger that EYFS practitioners would use the examples as a checklist of what skills children should learn and what practices adults should use to aid them. He ended with the suggestion that it would be better if English EYFS providers focused on a curriculum design that incorporated a “continuous cycle involving planning, observing, recording, assessing and returning to planning in the light of the intermediate stages”.

"Development Matters (2020) highlights the importance of “careful” and “flexible” curriculum planning "

  • The new Development Matters (2020) certainly emphasises these points that Grenier made in 2019. Unlike Development Matters (2012), Development Matters (2020) includes a list of the 7 key features of effective practice, which include curriculum and pedagogy as two core pillars. Development Matters (2020) highlights the importance of “careful” and “flexible” curriculum planning and goes on to define effective pedagogy as “a mix of different approaches”.

    At the same time, these principles were already present in the previous Development Matters (2012). Its authors, Helen Moylett and Nancy Stewart, did point out that every individual child is unique and has their own development pathway, in which they “develop and learn in different ways”. They therefore laid out a cyclical, adaptive planning schema to support children’s learning through observation, assessment, and planning – much like Grenier stated was crucial for successful curriculum planning. Furthermore, Moylett and Stewart provided ample examples of different pedagogical approaches through their suggestions of what adults could do to support various aspects of children’s development, although granted it was not explicitly stated that practitioners should use a mix of various pedagogies.

Self-regulation and Executive Function

Development Matters (2020) also introduces a new focus on self-regulation and executive function as key aspects of child development, which form another pillar of the 7 key features of effective practice. This is perhaps not surprising given Grenier’s argument that “metacognitive and executive function skills should be central to an Early Years curriculum” in his article last year, citing recent research by Goswami (2015).

Executive function, according to Development Matters (2020), “includes the child’s ability to: hold information in mind; focus their attention; regulate their behaviour; [and] plan what to do next.” These are then related to the child’s capacity to self-regulate, i.e. “focus their thinking; monitor what they are doing and adapt; regulate strong feelings; be patient for what they want; bounce back when things get difficult.”

These concepts have consciously been woven into the new guidelines on what children are expected to learn in the early years and the examples of how practitioners can support them. For example, in the characteristics of playing and exploring, there is now the inclusion of how to “plan and think ahead” regarding play that clearly relates to the executive function of planning actions, which was not in the old version. Similarly, the new document explicitly states that free play helps “babies, toddlers and young children to develop their self-regulation as they enjoy hands-on learning” in the section on active learning.

The former Development Matters (2012) did make references to many of these skills and several of the examples of practitioner support were also already given. To take just a couple of examples, opportunities to play and explore were also promoted by the old version, and “maintaining focus” was on the list of what children learn to do through active learning too. However, it is true that the conceptualisation of these functions is a new focus in the recent publication, which may help to guide practitioners more generally.

"One issue that we could take with the new stress on execution function and self-regulation, is the limited elaboration of what they look like, or how to support their development"

One issue that we could take with the new stress on execution function and self-regulation, is the limited elaboration of what they look like, or how to support their development in young children within the new document. Within the 2020 publication, there is very little reasoning provided regarding how suggestions relate to these skills and there is no reference to any theory or research. Given Grenier’s own insistence on the importance of pedagogy and the need for more understanding of children’s development, more will be needed to support EYFS staff in adapting their approach. Without better tools and support in understanding the evidence and developments in research, the risk remains that practitioners will implement some of the suggestions in a more tick-box approach, rather than in a reflective and creative manner that is more suited to differentiation and adapting to an individual child’s needs.

A new approach to assessment?

Practitioners may welcome the new Development Matters (2020) for its discussion of assessment and the regard made for related staff workload. With recent research showing the stress caused by levels of paperwork, which is particularly related to observing and assessing children, there is a clear attempt to ensure that assessment does not become an overwhelming and ineffectual task. Practitioners are advised to reflect on whether assessments will actually be useful in helping children to develop, and that assessments are “not about lots of data and evidence.” Instead, it is about “noticing what children can do and what they know.”

This sounds all well and good, and it certainly does not hurt to have support for this direction regarding paperwork made at the top. However, it remains to be seen whether these statements will have much impact on practice, especially given the fact that the current EYFS statutory framework already states that assessment “should not require excessive paperwork … [which] should be limited to that which is absolutely necessary”. In order to change workload and assessment practices, much more will be required than the publication of non-statutory guidance.

"there is a clear attempt to ensure that assessment does not become an overwhelming and ineffectual task "

Nevertheless, the new Development Matters (2020) does appear to give some better guidance on how to assess development. Previously, there was a somewhat confusing demarcation of children’s development into six overlapping age bands from birth–11 months, to 8–20 months, 16–26 months etc. Now, this has been simplified to three bands: birth to 3 years, 3 and 4 years, children in reception. There are now also a range of “observation checkpoints”, such as “towards their second birthday, can the child use up to 50 words?” In addition, the document is interspersed with notes to identify potential causes for concern, like “watch out for children whose speech is not easily understood by unfamiliar adults”.

This seems to reflect the concern made at the start of the document regarding the need to ensure equity in education. With such guidelines on how to identify expected levels of development, this may help practitioners to provide interventions to support children who are at risk of falling behind their peers, or who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), more quickly. At the same time, efforts have been made to streamline some of the suggestions made in order to avoid them becoming a check-list exercise. The document emphasises the importance of “professional judgement” instead.

All in all

In the end, the question remains as to how useful this new publication is for practitioners. There have been some clear changes in emphasis regarding assessment, self-regulation and executive functions. However, it is perhaps not surprising that the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, Neil Leitch, stated that “experienced early years practitioners will find little in the new document to help improve their practice”. Many of the points on learning characteristics, skills and knowledge for EYFS and examples of how to support children’s development have remained very similar, albeit reformatted and cut down. Given the similarities to previous guidance contained therein, it might have been worth including an executive summary of what has changed and what has not.

If the core aims are to change EYFS practice in curriculum planning, assessment, and pedagogy, then it seems to give more of an overall direction than detailed guidance – which makes the document seem somewhat lengthy for its worth for experienced professionals, but also somewhat wanting for those new to the profession.


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