The Revised Early Years Foundation Stage, September 2021

At a time when the national statutory framework for the Early Years in England is being revised, Barbara Isaacs reflects on if, and how, this might impact the Montessori Early Years Community.

The recent publication of the final version of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), the standards that school and childcare providers must meet for the learning, development and care of children from birth to 5, to be implemented in England in September 2021, brings a period of review of documentation for all Early Years settings in readiness for the Autumn term.  There is no doubt that this revision is timely – the last comprehensive review led by Clare Tickell was almost 10 year ago and introduced the seven areas of learning, identifying the prime areas – Personal, Social and Emotional Development, Communication and Language, and Physical Development, and the four specific areas – Literacy, Numeracy, Understanding the World, and Expressive Arts and Design.  The recent years have given the Early Years community time to understand the framework and embed it in practice. They have also brought a wide range of IT systems and apps, designed to make the recording of children’s progress towards meeting the Early Learning Goals at the end of the reception year easier, providing links with a developmental trajectory identified in Development Matters (BAECE, 2012) the non-statutory guide to the implementation of the EYFS. These digital recording systems offer an opportunity to share children’s learning and progress at nursery with their families.  Like many technological advances, it has speeded up the documentation process and done the connecting and linking across the areas of learning for us; it has also taken away some of the thinking, knowing and understanding of young children’s multifaceted learning and it has reduced observation to an annotated photograph. Yet, despite all these “advances”, one of the reasons given for the current review of the EYFS has been a reduction in paperwork to decrease practitioners’ workload.

The other reasons given were to close the gap in attainment, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to improve outcomes for five year olds.  This has resulted in the new EYFS document identifying and separating learning in reception classes from what happens at nursery or day-care; effectively, the reception year has become a significant stepping stone towards year 1,  with a focus on more formal teaching, especially in literacy and numeracy.  This move takes us even further away from the campaign to extend the early years foundations and begin formal education, as happens in most European countries, at the age of six or even seven, and from the recent changes in Scotland.

The key concern with and critique of the revised document has been the limited consultation on the changes which primarily focused on teachers in reception classes, and also the lack of research evidence to support the revisions. The review of the EYFS was followed by a review of the guidance document, Development Matters (2012).  In response, the main bodies representing the Early Years sector came together to form the Early Years Coalition, writing the alternative guidance Birth to 5 Matters document and creating the Birth to 5 Matters website.

Personally, I do not believe that the majority of Montessori nurseries in the UK which offer provision for children from birth to 4 will be significantly affected by the implementation of the reviewed EYFS; do remember that the EYFS provides for minimum standards required in our practice. I would hope that Montessori settings are able to demonstrate the quality of integrated learning provided by our pedagogical approach and the significant links we can make towards the key principles of the EYFS – the Unique Child, Positive Relationships, Enabling Environments with teaching and support from adults (please note the additional text here in bold) and how they support the children’s learning and development. 

As I have said, the changes are focused on what happens in reception classes; however as we tweak our documents, we will need to think about how we share our unique pedagogy with Ofsted inspectors and parents.  The significant shift in focus from learning to teaching and from learning and development framework to curriculum will require Montessorians to think hard about how to articulate our focus on spontaneous learning, the children’s need for freedom with responsibility in fostering the child’s autonomy and agency, and our responsibility in giving children the tools for becoming “agents of change”. 

As we pride ourselves on the content of our favourable environments, we will need to explain how the activities and their lesson plans (presentations) represent our curriculum. Above all we should focus on the characteristics of effective learning and how they provide the teacher with tools to support the children’s learning and inform their teaching, and how the spontaneous learning and continuous provision (effectively our work-cycle) not only offer opportunities for exploration and involvement, but how investigation, critical thinking and problem solving are fostered by our approach. The characteristics should remain at the heart of our work with young children because they embody the 21st century skills the new generations of Montessori graduates will continue to need as we face not only the post covid challenges but also our environmental transformation and creation of a more human society.  Just as Montessori envisioned – the Child has the capacity to change the world, but we need to help by planting the seeds for this transformation.

I look forward to Melanie Pilcher’s overview of the changes of the EYFS which she will present in our webinar on Tuesday 20 April, 19.00 BST (register here) and which I hope will help you navigate the new document. Do join us again the following week, Tuesday 27 April, 19.00 BST, when we explore how the Characteristics of Effective Learning can help us in preparing for September 2021, whilst remaining true to the key principles of Montessori pedagogy (register here).

Barbara Isaacs, April 2021

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