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Early Learning Goals review 2018

Children playing footballIn June 2018 the Department for Education published a revision of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

The new version is currently being piloted in a number of schools. The review includes a revised set of Early Learning Goals and the levels of attainment expected of children by the time they reach the end of the EYFS at age 5 years old.

The first part of this article details some of the major changes that are proposed whilst the second part considers their implications for the EYFS and early years provision in England.

Analysis of the changes

Examining the changes proposed in the draft new version against the existing April 2017 EYFS is not an easy task as the presentation of ELGs has altered. Some goals have been moved into different learning areas, some categories have changed and some disappeared altogether. As a result it is not possible to detail every change, so outlined below is an overview of the major technical revisions.

It is important to note that no changes are proposed to the safeguarding and welfare requirements, although it can be expected that if the new version of EYFS is approved the safeguarding requirements will need to be updated to ensure it is in line with any changes to regulatory requires such as disqualification by association.

Revised format of the ELGs

In undertaking this revision the government committed to not changing the number of ELGs from the existing 17. This has been achieved but in a curious way. The descriptive narrative that supports each Goal in the current EYFS is replaced with a series of bullet points each beginning with the statement ‘children at the expected level of development will:’ In effect the revised EYFS may be considered to have 45 early learning goals, presented in such a way that a teacher can answer whether a child has achieved each with a tick or cross. Each learning area is now introduced by a paragraph explaining the importance of the subject and how the educational programmes should be approached.

Changes to the areas of learning and development

Communication and language

The three goals within communication and language; ‘Listening and attention’, ‘understanding’ and ‘speaking’ have been altered considerably. ‘Attention’ is removed and ‘understanding’ is reworked as ‘comprehension’ within the ‘reading ELG (see below). Similarly the expectation that children will be able to anticipate key events is moved to the ‘reading’ goal as a requirement when they are listening to stories. Taken together it can be argued that the focus is on the child receiving the teacher’s input in a correct manner rather than being enthusiastically engaged with and stimulated by the story-telling process.

Physical development

The ‘moving and handling’ elements of physical development are now articulated as gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Greater detail is outlined for both the activities that children should do to ‘move energetically’ including running, jumping, dancing, hopping, skipping and climbing and that a pencil should be held comfortably using the tripod grip.

Personal, social and emotional development

The health and self-care elements previously in physical development are now moved to personal, social and emotional development. The headings here have changed from the generally nurturing and supportive tone of ‘self-confidence and self-awareness’, ‘managing feelings and behaviours’ and ‘making relationships’ to the more functional ‘self-regulation’, ‘managing self’ and ‘building relationships’. Within these elements there are some troubling changes of emphasis; self-regulation includes a requirement to ‘pay attention to their teacher and follow multi-step instructions’. Similarly the previous broad expectation that children know the importance for good health of physical exercise and a healthy diet and talk about ways to keep healthy and safe becomes simply ‘understand the importance of healthy food choices’ and the ability to work as part of a group or class and understand and follow the rules’ becomes ‘explain the reasons for rules and know right from wrong’ (italics added).


Reading is divided into two dimensions, ‘word reading’ and ‘comprehension’. This draws in some elements from the ‘understanding’ requirement of communication and language in the current version. However, rather than understanding being an essential element of all aspects of communication, the focus is now that children ‘understand what they have read or has been read to them. . .’  The new requirements are more specific with children expected amongst others things to ‘say a sound for each letter in the alphabet and at least 10 digraphs’ (ng, ch, etc.) and ‘write recognisable letters most of which are correctly formed’.


The proposed changes to mathematics have drawn the greatest criticism from specialists particularly the removal of the elements of ‘shape, space and measures’. Early years practitioners know that it is through these everyday applications of mathematical constructs; playing with shapes, positions, time and money and talking about size and weight, that young children develop an understanding of maths. These are now replaced by functional requirements, under the headings of ‘number’ and ‘numerical patterns’ which include; ‘have an understanding of number to 10 (this is reduced from 1- 20 in the current version) linking names of numbers, numerals, their value and their position in the counting order’, ‘subitise (recognise quantities without counting) up to 5’ and automatically recall double facts up to 5 +5’.

Understanding the world

Concern has been expressed about the removal of the technology element from understanding the world which seems to deny the importance that children engage with a range of technologies in settings, at home and schools.

Expressive arts and design

Similar concerns about the limiting nature of the revisions have been levelled at the replacement of ‘being imaginative’ with ‘performing’. Where the former encouraged children to ‘represent their own ideas, thoughts and feelings through design, technology, art music, dance, role play and stories’ they are now required to merely ‘sing a range of well-known nursery rhymes and songs’ and perform songs, rhymes, poems and stories with others and – when appropriate – move in time with music’.   

Implications of the proposed changes to the ELGS

There is concern within the early years sector that the revised ELGs are deeply concerning and threaten to undermine the very principles on which the EYFS is based.

The tone is set by a proposed change to the overarching principle of the importance of learning and development. The current phrase ‘children develop and learn at different rates and in different ways’ has seen the last phrase removed. So it appears the DfE now takes the view that children all learn in the same way but their rates of progress may vary. This ignores all academic and experiential evidence that children learn in a variety of different ways. This reductionist perspective was reinforced by early suggestions that the new EYFS would see the characteristics of effective learning, the expression of how children learn best, through playing and exploring, active learning and creating and thinking critically, were to be made non-statutory. The DfE subsequently confirmed the Characteristics remain statutory but their movement to the section on ‘learning and development considerations’, rather than as one of the core principles of EYFS remains a concern.

Other changes imply a redefinition of the skills and abilities that are considered desirable in young children and by extension the type of people the DfE wants them to become. For example, ‘understanding’ is removed from the communication and language ELG to become ‘comprehension’ under the reading ELG; i.e. children only need to understand what is read to them, not to understand communication in general. Similarly the new ELG of ‘Performing’ under Expressive Arts and Design, replacing ‘being imaginative’ makes no mention of expression, representation on own ideas, feeling, interpretation. Furthermore this arguably introduces the concept that the ELG is directed more at the audience than the child itself.

The DfE’s preference for a more formal approach to teaching and learning is reinforced through the constant repetition of references to books and reading. Whilst this is understandable within the ELGs for literacy, listening, comprehension and speaking; books are also to be a requirement through most of the other areas of learning.

For example within the Past and Present ELG children should (emphasis added):

  • Know some similarities and differences between things in the past and now, drawing on their experiences and what has been read in class,
  • Recall some important narratives, characters and figures from the past encountered in books read in class.

Similarly the People, Culture and Communities ELG proposes children should:

  • Describe their immediate environment using knowledge from observation, discussion, stories, non-fiction texts and maps;
  • Know some similarities and differences between different religious and cultural communities in this country, drawing on their experiences and what has been read in class
  • Explain some similarities and differences between life in this country and life in other countries, drawing on knowledge from stories, non-fiction texts and – when appropriate – maps.

This is not to deny that young children’s engagement with books is important or that stories are a vital part of early learning and development. But the subliminal message is that the central element of children’s early learning should be books. This is wrong. Young children develop best through being active agents in their learning; exploring and experiencing the world, either alone or with friends, reflecting on those experiences with peers and the adults important to them.

The direction of travel towards a more formal early years curriculum is also evident in the changes to mathematics.  The category of Shape, space and measures, which encouraged children to use everyday language about size, weight, distance etc has been taken out completely. In its place are function requirements relating to number and numerical patterns. For example:

  • have an understanding of number to 10, linking names of numbers, numerals, their values and their position in the counting order, and
  • automatically recall double facts up to 5 +5

The presentation of each aspect of the 17 learning goals as a bullet raises suspicions that these could be used to facilitate tick-box assessment of each child and, in effect, introduce standardised baseline assessment via the backdoor.

The effect of the new ELGs, if enacted will be to skew the curriculum in ways that will not support and promote children’s effective early learning and development. The DFE document indicates that a full consultation on the proposals will be undertaken once the pilot is complete.  This will provide an opportunity for the sector to comment and the Alliance will encourage and support it members to make their views known to the DfE.