Is there a ‘right’ number?
It is incredibly easy to become obsessive about the number of observations you are recording about a child. Whether you are an educator, leader or manager, it is an easy path to go down. It is almost subconscious to feel that it is essential to have documented evidence for every statement from an assessment framework or to justify the intent and impact of every decision you make.
As discussed at the end of Part 2, despite the shift in the narrative of the day being that data collection and documenting supporting evidence really isn’t essential, it can still feel that way on the ground. So that means the question of ‘how many’ is as relevant today as ever.
Firstly, let me clarify, this article will not give you a definitive answer at the end. There will be no you should be completing ‘x’ number of observations per term per child. Instead, I hope you will reflect on your current approach based upon the variety of factors considered throughout Part 3 and adapt your observation and assessment process as a result.
The first consideration is your answer to the question: who are your observations for? Once you’ve answered this then you can begin to explore ‘what is the right number for you and your children?’
The reality is that everyone’s ‘right’ number will be different. It will differ from setting to setting, from educator to educator. But if you are like me, it is a constant debate you have both internally and amongst your team.
The way you plan and the paperwork you use when planning (that’s a whole other topic!) will influence how reliant you are on documented observations to support your planning. If you use observations to document your planning journey for example, to justify your intention and subsequently evaluate its impact then clearly you are going to be documenting more than if you don’t.
Some leaders and managers prefer to be able to follow the observation, planning and assessment cycle in a documented manner too. Both as evidence that the educator is supporting a child’s learning and development to improve their outcomes and also to help assess the performance and effectiveness of their provision and curriculum they have implemented.
Another factor which will contribute to the number of observations you document will be the child themselves. For example, the observation of a child with learning differences is crucially important, and we should do this very carefully and thoroughly. However, it is worth noting that as with all children, we will only be documenting moments of learning for that child, regardless of whether those moments happen more or less often.
If you have children who are vulnerable, 2 year funded or who receive Early Years Pupil Premium, you will most likely be documenting observations to evidence the extra support they receive or show where the additional funding has been used to improve the provision you offer them which will, in turn, improve their outcomes. As the changes to the EYFS come into effect in September 2021, local authorities may change their expectations regarding evidence they require to align with the shift away from a data-centric approach. It is worth considering this and consulting with your local authority when you are reflecting on the number of observations you document.
With this in mind, the next question that often gets asked probably answers itself. Does each child need to have the same number of observations? At the beginning, I explained how the number of observations documented will differ from setting to setting and educator to educator. However I would go further and say it alters from child to child. For all of the factors discussed above.
Whilst I don’t believe there should be a limit on the number of observations documented, I do think we have to be cautious they don’t become an obsession. We have all witnessed educators walking around with a notepad or tablet glued to their hands photographing every movement a child makes or noting down everything they say. As an adult I find nothing more intimidating than being shadowed by an adult with a clipboard, feeling like I’m being watched, and my every move judged. Now, think about how it must feel to be a child in that situation, not understanding what is happening or why. In addition, consider the discussion in Part 1 concerning whether observing children in such detail in the moment has an impact on the quality of the interaction and the teaching and learning experience of the child.
Is there a minimum number of observations that should be documented on a child?
Your answer to this question will be linked to your reflections on who do you document observations for and why. For example, it depends on whether you are focussing on how you share each child’s learning with their family, or if you are using them to inform your provision for each child by documenting their learning. Or if you are a Private, Voluntary, or Independent setting who may be thinking about how to demonstrate the quality of the service you offer and the experiences the children receive.
Naturally the more reasons you have to document observations, the more you are likely to gather.
Irrespective of what you believe the ‘right’ number is, it is vital for individual educators, leaders and managers that they do not become overwhelmed by the volume of observations they are expected to document. The more observations you collect, the easier it is to fall behind, and the more pressure that is added for all. And the greater the potential for staff well-being and the quality of interactions to be negatively impacted.
Therefore, I would argue it’s best to not put a number on it and to instead consider what you have read in parts 1, 2 and 3 of this observation series to reflect on your own observation and assessment process. To build a strategy which works for you, for all. Children. Parents. Staff. Use your professional judgement. Trust what you decide. As long as you are able to justify it when you are asked then you have made the right decision.
Part 1 When to document an observation of a child?
Part 2 Who are they really for?
Recording learning, not tracking progress (Part 1) by Helen Edwards
Recording learning, not tracking progress (Part 2) by Helen Edwards
Recording learning not tracking progress (Part 3) by Helen Edwards