The Trials and Tribulations of the Early Years Foundation Stage

By Barbara Isaacs, January 2021

What a lot of learning the early years workforce has done since the introduction of the first nursery voucher scheme 1995! It was designed to contribute to the cost of nursery education of 4-year-olds and later 3 and 2-year-olds.  And was followed with a raft of regulation and guidance designed to justify the millions spent by government on the care and education of the youngest children in our communities and resulted in the creation of the Early Years Foundation Stage framework in 2008 combining the care and education regulation, transferring responsibility for this unique stage of children’s development to the then Department for Children, Schools and Families.

We have certainly learned to navigate the language of government documents and Ofsted regulation. We have learned to explain our practice to the variety of visitors who have come to judge and advise us on our practice.  We have opened our doors to our families and developed deeper relationships with them. And in the past two years we have learned to manage the covid regulations whilst continuing to offer valuable nursery experiences to the children and their families. I am sure each one of you would be able to add more to this list.

We have also learned to manage the ever increasing administrative load, demands of the pension scheme and increases in the minimum wage and national insurance. We have learned to negotiate the complexities of the nursery education grant and various other schemes which help parents to pay the ever increasing cost of their child’s nursery fees.  What we have not cracked is the ongoing shortage of qualified experienced staff and the chronic underfunding of the sector which contributes significantly to the ongoing low wages of everyone in the sector.  Yet despite all this we look forward to days spent with the children and draw energy and enthusiasm from their smiling faces as they enter our settings.

But what about the children?  What are the benefits of the EYFS  reforms for them!

There is no doubt that the funding has provided access to early years care and education and that the majority of preschool-age children now attend some form of provision, benefitting from being supported by qualified adults.  The value and benefits of pre-school education for children and society have been publicly acknowledged. Very few new parents of today could imagine their young child’s life without some form of opportunity to experience interactions with other children and new adults be it in pre-school, at childminders or a nursery.

At the same time the focus on teaching rather than learning has placed extra pressure on our youngest children who are encouraged to work towards the early learning goals perceived to benefit their future success in school.  The value and benefits of a play based curriculum continues to be debated, not only by Montessorians, but also other early years educators. Phonics and mathematics have become part and parcel of reception class children’s  (4 year olds’) daily experience as more than 90% of all 4-year-olds four are introduced to the experience of school routines with shorter breaks outside, school dinners and having to sit on the mat for extended periods of time and listening to their teachers.

But there have been also benefits;  the introduction of Forest schools and outdoors classroom gives young children opportunities ‘to be part of nature’ and engage in gardening, building of dens, making of fire and observing the seasonal changed in ‘their woods and gardens’.  Most Montessori classrooms have also added some form of role play area allowing children to create play scenarios, mirror their experiences of life and socialise informally with peers. Most Montessori classrooms now offer a creative areas with a range of resources for children to create their own works of art, without too many teacher led projects.  We have all come to appreciate the value of these activities, particularly over the past two years when all our lives have been restricted by the pandemic. It is these activities which help us  get to know the children’s ‘stories’ better and  give us an opportunity to support them more effectively.

Following two years of debate over the need and value of the revised EYFS, it was formally introduced last September. The rationale for the review was to simplify the regulation and free teachers to have more time to spend with children. Planning and next steps have been replaced by articulation of intent, implementation and impact. Written observations and tracking of progress have been replaced by the practitioners’ capacity to explain their work with individual children. Focus on hygiene routines has been intensified, as you can imagine following the pandemic, and the importance of oral hygiene has been singled out as one of the requirements of the EYFS.

One of the most significant changes in the new EYFS has been the clear division between the first four years of children’s lives which most children experience within the voluntary and independent provision and the reception year now delivered in school.  This sadly, I see as the undermining of the importance of the first four years of life and undervaluing of what the VIP sector has to offer to children, yet potentially it has also given us more freedom in the delivery of our curriculum. Reception teachers are obliged to focus more on formal learning with significant teaching input in the preparation of children joining year 1 at the age of 5 when the official compulsory age to attend education begins. ‘Self-regulation linked to executive function’ has crept into discussions when creating behaviour policies and is interpreted as the child’s capacity to comply with the school rules, irrespective of their age, despite the very strong research evidence of the wide discrepancy in levels of developmental maturity of this age group.

For almost 25 years the learning framework offered us a structure for our work with young children.  It has been replaced by a Curriculum demonstrating further the ‘schoolification’ of young children’s learning experiences.  Whilst the areas of learning remain the same, our explanations of education programmes and their relevance within the identified curriculum  have become vital to our documentation.   During our Ofsted presentation in the autumn it became clear that each setting will need to explain how they meet the statutory requirement of the EYFS irrespective of the preferred pedagogy.  This puts pressure on Montessori nurseries to ensure they can articulate their practice in the context of the revised EYFS; it also highlights recent Ofsted challenge to Steiner schools, potentially this could be applied to Montessori nurseries and schools – we will have to see.

Despite of all the changes, there has been a feeling within Montessori settings that the revised EYFS  will free practitioners and allow more focus on our main task: to support and facilitate the children’s learning.  In the next webinar for ‘Leaders and Managers’ we welcome managers from several East Anglian Montessori settings who will reflect on their approach to implementing the revised EYFS.  We look forward to their contribution and encourage you to join us for the webinar.

At this webinar, we will also launch our Guide to Applying the Revised EYFS in a Montessori Setting. This guide offers Montessori practitioners the tools and the language to understand how they can and probably already are applying the revised EYFS in their environment and a taster of one of the sections can be found here. The guide, drafted by the Montessori Musings Team, will be available to all, although we invite you to consider making a donation to the Sparkle Malawi Foundation, supporting an organisation that brings a future in which every community has equal opportunity to live a life of health and self-sufficiency in Malawi. A taster of the guide is available here.

We hope to see you at our webinar on Tuesday 18 February at 19.00 (UTC). Register here.

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