In November, FSF members met with Ruth Pimentel, National Director of the Foundation Stage in the Primary National Strategy Team, to talk about the new EYFS framework, and about what it means for the future of early years education.
Ruth Pimentel became National Director of the Foundation Stage earlier this year, having previously been Lesley Stagg's deputy. The Childcare Act came into being in July this year, and the process of combining the Birth to Three Matters guidelines with the Foundation Stage to form a single framework is almost complete. This all-inclusive approach to working with very young children is the main thrust of Ruth's vision for early years teaching and learning. "I want to see learning, education, care and development all in one breath from birth to six" she said. Ruth believes that the EYFS will allow practitioners to have a clearer view of progression in children's learning, and the value of their role in that picture. She is also passionate about the future of ICT in early years education, and hopes that this will attract significant funding: "I want to see early years practitioners leading the way in the use of ICT as a powerful tool for communication with parents and with each other." To that end she appreciates the use practitioners are making of online resources such as the FSF. Ruth sees early years education as part of an ever changing society. "Children have moved on and we need to move on with them" she said.
So how will the EYFS framework support this vision? Ruth emphasised that the main approach running through the EYFS is that of "independent learning and creativity". It will be an inclusive document, bridging some of the gaps that have been left open in the past. For example, it acknowledges that Reception teachers are part of the community of a school as well as part of the EYFS. She believes that it will ease the transition to Key Stage One, as Year 1 teachers will have a clearer overview of where children have come from through the Early Learning Goals at the end of the EYFS. It also recognises the role of childminders as a significant provider area.
Ruth said that the format of the EYFS will be different from the hefty booklet that was produced for consultation purposes. Instead there will be "an accessible package of materials", including a poster to display the key overarching principles, and cards, similar to those in the Birth to Three Matters guidelines, which Ruth intends will "provide a tool to help you in your practice." There will also be a booklet designed to set out the requirements for providers. Ruth emphasised that this would comprehensively lay out exactly what a practitioner would be required to do according to what kind of provider you are. She said that as a result of the consultation process, particularly in response to feedback from childminders, a CDRom will be included in the package. Ruth is enthusiastic about this addition. She hopes that through its interactive material, a particular provider will be able to access information that is specific to them, such as how a childminder can best meet the needs of a 6 month old and a 3 year old in their care, and that "it will allow practitioners to extend their practice and the children's experiences."
The need to cover the diversity of childcare and education provision, from the childminder in their own home to the large day care centre, is a difficult challenge for any early years guidance. In amalgamating the Birth to Three Matters with the Foundation Stage framework, this variety is extended across the age range to include Reception classes as well. How do you produce a 'one size fits all' document? Ruth is realistic about this. "You have to keep it as a whole sector, but recognise that there are differences." She is not afraid to place the responsibility onto the practitioner. "Practitioners do need to use their own judgements" she said. The provision of outdoor play is an example of the difficulty of stretching one document to provide guidance to a number of different providers. A childminder may live in a block of flats with no immediately accessible outdoor area, but they will be following the same framework as a private nursery with a garden play area on site. In these cases, Ruth advocates reflective practice. It is not just about spending hours at the local park or about having the door to the outside space open all the time, she advises. Instead, she said, "practitioners need to ask themselves 'how would having the door open all the time add value to the children's experiences? Will it add more by having the door open and will it hinder them if it is not?'"
One of the key aspects of the new EYFS is that of working in partnership with other providers and with parents to give a more holistic pattern of care, especially for those children who use more than one type of childcare. According to Ruth, this will rely on good observation and assessment. "Observation is so important because it keeps the momentum going in young children's lives. Working in partnership is a conversation with others, and record keeping has to form part of that conversation" she explained. But there is no standard format given in the EYFS on how assessment should be recorded, nor a national basis for showing overall progress towards the Early Learning Goals. In response to this, Ruth said that this should be able to be done locally, through individual providers and LAs. "It is about providers and LAs knowing their children well and getting a full picture of how they have done, and showing over time how practitioners have planned for that learning." She acknowledges that many practitioners will want to be told how to do this, but believes that "if you dictate too much you actually straight jacket." She believes that a better way is to "show people case studies and show them examples of good practice to guide them." She plans that the EYFS will do this. Ruth suggested that any Ofsted worries should be balanced by the good practice that is already going on. "Effective practitioners who take this on board can explain how they do this to Ofsted." Less confident practitioners may feel that this approach does not offer them enough support in their daily practice, or in the face of an Ofsted inspection.
Ruth said that she understood the concerns among practitioners about Ofsted inspections in the light of the changes made by the EYFS. As she explained the process by which Ofsted would interpret the new EYFS requirements, she was respectful, and refreshingly clear, about the role of the inspectors. "Ofsted have a job to do, which is to regulate. They will take the requirements laid out in the EYFS and turn them into an inspection framework." It could, however, be argued that such regulation becomes more difficult without a standard format for record keeping in the EYFS. Ruth is also aware that inspections will have a bearing on how the EYFS will be perceived over time. "The way that inspection happens will really focus people's attention on how successful the EYFS is" she said.
Ruth defined the roles of different types of record keeping within early years education. She said that statistical data, taken from profiles, should be used as a "management tool" by LAs and providers. This kind of record keeping gives an overview of how well a setting is supporting a particular developmental area. What it does not do, she said, is tell a practitioner about the progression of an individual child. This information comes from observational records.
Although policy makers have emphasised that the EYFS will not bring in radical changes to the way we care for and educate young children, there will be some new concepts and approaches to be taken on board. As Ruth put it "there is good existing practice out there that may need to be tweaked." When the EYFS arrives in 2007, she accepts that there will be some practitioners who will work with it immediately, and she welcomes this: "I want early adopters to be champions" she enthused. She is also realistic that some practitioners will need encouragement. She places the responsibility for effective management of the introduction of the new framework onto Local Authorities, saying that "I really want it to be managed through the LAs, through training and through briefing."
This level of responsibility should not come as a surprise to LAs. The recent Childcare Act has now made it a duty for LAs to improve outcomes for young children. Ruth explained that the term 'duty' means that it has to be a high priority. LAs will have to set their own 'Early Years outcomes duty targets' and this will mean they have to "understand their own data, set a vision for the future with regard to early years provision and to plan actions to achieve these." She said that this move should not be underestimated. "This will be the significant thing about the childcare strategy. LAs will have to prioritise funding to the early years."
The duty placed on LAs to concentrate on early years education, is especially relevant to the more disadvantaged in society. As Ruth explains, it is possible to view children in the UK as a bell curve, with 20% of the most disadvantaged children falling outside of acceptable levels of achievement. There is now an explicit obligation on LAs to close the gap between their average score and that of the median population, which gives a clearly measurable goal of improving outcomes for those who most need it.
Ruth is clear about her own role in the implementation of the EYFS. "My function is taking that policy and helping people put it into practice" she said. She acknowledges that there will be disagreements and problems along the way, but sees this as a positive thing: "You need that friction in the system to keep everyone engaged." Her attitude now is that this new framework is a reality, so together with policy makers, LAs, providers and practitioners "we've got to get on and deliver it, and be upbeat."
As one would expect, Ruth is very persuasive and positive about the EYFS. What also came across during our conversation was her faith in the ability of practitioners to do their job well, and to take on board the new requirements set out in the framework. This may place a lot of responsibility onto practitioners who already feel under pressure, but her faith in good practice must also help to raise the profile of early development and those who work in the field. In her own words, "there is some really exciting practice out there, we just need to re-energise it."