The early years is a unique educational stage in its own right. Early childhood is recognised as a valuable phase around the world, including in England where governments have established the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) as a distinct phase of education, with specific values and approaches.

However, education ministers have repeatedly sought to undermine the EYFS, and have tended to promote the early years stage primarily as a preparation for school. Despite the evidence, Ministers have advocated earlier formal teaching of literacy and numeracy and earlier, more frequent formal assessment of children.

The Government's focus on children becoming ‘school ready’ during the early years implies an emphasis on the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills. This fails to recognise the importance of the early years in its own right. It also ignores the wealth of evidence about what best prepares a child to succeed at school. Playful activities are crucial for children’s emotional well-being, their language development and their development of metacognitive and self-regulatory abilities - abilities which underpin academic achievement, creativity and problem-solving.

This principle has been explained by many researchers and educators, as summarised in Whitbread et al: “A study by Pellegrini and Gustafson in which three to five year olds were systematically observed over an entire school year, demonstrated that the amount of playful exploration, construction and tool use in which children engaged predicted their subsequent performance on physical problem-solving tasks. Play with objects is also particularly associated with the production of ‘private speech’, with children commonly commentating on their activity. This appears to have the function of helping the child to maintain their attention, keep their goals for the activity in mind, monitor their progress, make strategic choices regarding ways to proceed, and generally regulate themselves through the task. As a consequence, construction and problem-solving play is also associated with the development of perseverance and a positive attitude towards challenge.”

This research suggests that learning through play must be at the heart of early years education.

However, its findings have been challenged by Ofsted, which in November 2017, produced a report entitled, Bold Beginnings: the Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools. As Early Education (The British Association for Early Childhood Education) pointed out, the Ofsted report, “contains an underlying agenda of downward pressure from KS1 to narrow the early years curriculum. The report implicitly praises schools that have based their literacy and maths curriculum in the Reception year on National Curriculum expectations for Year 1”.

Early Education argues that the Ofsted report ignores “established evidence on the role of self-regulation in forming strong dispositions for later learning and successful lives, and how to encourage those. The characteristics of effective early learning and teaching (playing and exploring, active learning and creating and thinking critically) are based on this research evidence, have been part of the EYFS since its first iteration in 2008.”

Early Education also points out that the “report ignores children with English as an Additional Language as well as those with SEND, summer-born children, and those who face other forms of vulnerability. The type of Reception curriculum emphasised in this report would exclude many children who, for a range of reasons, may be working at earlier levels of development and a premature focus on reading, phonics and formal maths will lead to a great number of children being unnecessarily identified as SEND”.

In 2018, the Government issued in draft form a revised set of Early Learning Goals. The revisions were widely criticised as an attempt to change the character of early years education by stealth. Although portrayed as a way of reducing workload and improving children’s communication skills, it was argued that the revisions would do neither: “The wording of the new ELGs will add to workload in some cases through the excessively specific nature of the wording (e.g. “Say a sound for each letter in the alphabet and at least 10 digraphs” could require a tick list of 36 items, for just one sub-section of an ELG) …“The revised ELGs will not improve children’s communication and language, nor practitioners’ understanding of how to support this.  The new version puts increased emphasis on Literacy by increasing the number of Literacy ELGs, at the expense of Communication and Language. The draft goals in their current form are not based in the extensive research evidence about how young children learn language.”

The revised ELGs will not improve children’s communication and language, nor practitioners’ understanding of how to support this. 

Pressure on established practice from Government policy will not only come from the revision of ELGs. The planned re-introduction of Baseline Assessment in England in 2020 will create further pressure on early years educators to focus on a narrow range of activities which it is thought can easily be tested – language and literacy, early mathematical skills and ‘self-regulation’.

Early Childhood researcher Pam Jarvis has pointed out that the tests proposed by Government do not rest on a sound basis of knowledge about children’s mental development. She stated: “If the politicians and civil servants who create education policy were more aware of the intricate, organic human development process in which physical, social, emotional and intellectual factors continually transact, we would not have stumbled into this situation”.