Why the DfE's proposed changes to the early learning goals are flawed


Melanie Pilcher, quality and standards manager at the Alliance, explains the flaws in the government's EYFS consultation. 

The Department for Education (DfE) is currently consulting on proposed changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), with a focus on the proposed new early learning goals (ELGs).

The revised EYFS is due to be rolled out nationwide in September 2021 but the DfE plans to allow schools to adopt the new framework from September 2020 onwards on a voluntary basis. 

It sounds like everything is ready to go, but this consultation is in stark contrast to the process used to develop the original EYFS and subsequent revisions.  

The last major overhaul of the EYFS took place in 2012, when the learning and development and welfare requirements were reformed, as recommended by 2011’s Tickell Review.  

The reforms aimed to radically slim down the EYFS to make it easier to understand, less burdensome and more focused on making sure children start school ready to learn.

At the time, Dame Clare Tickell commented on the reforms: “My terms of reference were clear that I should ensure that my review was evidence-led, building on what works well in the current EYFS and improving those area that are causing problems.” 

The Tickell reforms were generally well received by the sector, who were reassured that the changes made were informed by a rigorous process and a strong evidence base.

This is all very different from the current state of play.

A lack of evidence and sector input

Early years experts are now rallying together to defend what the sector values dearly in the current EYFS and to produce evidence, which is sadly lacking in the current proposals to revise the early learning goals.  

The stated aims of the revisions are to: 

  • make all 17 ELGs clearer, more specific and easier for teachers to make accurate judgements 
  • focus on strengthening language and vocabulary development to particularly support disadvantaged children 
  • strengthen literacy and numeracy outcomes to ensure all children have a good grasp of these areas of learning in preparation for year 1 
  • ensure the ELGs are based on the latest evidence in childhood development 
  • and ensure they reflect the strongest predictors of future attainment.

Few in the sector would disagree with these aims but there are genuine concerns about whether the proposed ELGs can possibly succeed in achieving either.

Early years experts have found flaws in each of the proposed new goals and this can be directly attributed to a lack of input and feedback from the sector.  

Revising the goals is the wrong way around

A prime concern is that the review starts at the wrong end of the process – starting by revising the early learning goals rather than the curriculum.

Surely the curriculum should be the main driving force for assessment, not the other way around?

Starting with the early learning goals was never a logical path to take.

The draft statutory framework reworked the areas of learning and development, combining them with the early learning goals. This turns the goals into bullet-pointed lists that do little to address the worrying trend for tick-box assessment. 

Will changes ensure children are assessed properly?

There are further concerns about the independent survey on the early learning goals pilot run by the Education Endowment Foundation in 2018.

The survey found that on the whole, teachers viewed the changes positively. However, there are mixed views on whether children would be better prepared for KS1 as a result of the changes and whether they are actually more or less challenging than the current goals. 

Other concerns raised in the survey include teachers’ concerns about the accuracy of assessments using the revised goals, particularly for children with special needs, summer-born children and those who are shy, lack confidence or are not naturally forthcoming. 

There have been some further adjustments to the early learning goals that were used in the pilot.

The new version released in October 2019 as part of the consultation ignores the issues raised by the evaluation. The new version includes new aspects added without any justification, particularly in the area of mathematics.

This has led to further concerns, most notably raised by the Early Childhood Mathematics Group, which claims that there is a lack of evidence behind the goals and questions whether the proposals can possibly provide a sound mathematical foundation for children at the end of the EYFS. 

Responding together

A coalition of organisations representing the early years sector, including the Alliance, has been working to increase the level of sector involvement in discussions about the proposed changes. We want to ensure that there is a strong evidence base to explain and underpin any change to the EYFS.

We will continue to work constructively with the DfE to consider whether the proposed goals can meet their aims. 

The Alliance will be submitting a response to the consultation, but it is vital that the wider sector takes this opportunity to have its say too.

Every early years provider will be affected by what happens next.

And, most importantly, every child’s future learning is in our hands now. 

Respond to the consultation

A timeline of the latest changes to the EYFS 

  • In 2018 advisory and expert panels were established by the DfE to advise on changes to the early learning goals, with limited input from early years sector representatives. 
  • During 2018-19 a pilot of the draft early learning goals was carried out in 24 schools. Again, this was with limited input from the early years sector demonstrating a lack of understanding that the revised early learning goals would impact the whole sector, not just reception year. 
  • In September 2019 Ofsted launched a new Education Inspection Framework setting out how Ofsted inspects maintained schools, academies, non-association independent schools, further education and skills provision and registered early years settings. The school inspection handbook appears to reflect the trajectory of the early learning goals, introducing a new inspection framework prior to such a radical overhaul of the ELGs being finalised first, suggests a lack of joined up thinking. 
  • Consultation launched in October 2019, which closes on 31 January 2020.



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