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Opportunities for reflection with the new EYFS reforms

Forthcoming changes to the early learning goals and the new EYFS reforms provide teachers and leaders with the opportunities to really open the discussion around our practice and approaches to teaching, learning, assessment and the curriculum in early years. It’s important that we embrace this opportunity but also that we don’t rush into changing everything. It’s also essential to remember that the goals are the end point of EYFS and are not the curriculum. The educational programmes offer a lot of additional support which can help to shape our thinking in this area.

In their 2005 study on transition, NFER found that it was most effective when it was planned as a gradual process. The move from the current Early Learning goals to the new assessment reforms and educational programmes is best approached in the same way. Whether you are an early adopter or thinking ahead to September it’s important to plan sufficient time to think and reflect.

The discussions you have with your team in early years, and with those in your school outside the EYFS will help to shape your practice going forward.




Since 2008 the DFE has been undertaking a study into the impact of early education use and children’s outcomes up to age three. The SEED study (Study of Early Education and Development) has provided some fascinating insights into what makes a difference to outcomes for our youngest children. In 2017, as part of this review Callanan et al. found that strong leadership, where those in charge had a clear vision of what they were aiming to achieve,  was considered vital to effective early years practice. Other features of good practice were an ethos which placed the child at the centre of good practice, skilled and experienced staff who accessed high quality training and development opportunities, and an open and reflective culture where practitioners felt able to ask for support when they faced challenges, were outward looking and sought to continuously improve.

We can learn much from this research, and it is worth taking a moment to reflect on where you feel you are in terms of your current practice.


Do you feel that your vision for the children in your care is clear?

What do you want the children to know and understand by the time they leave you?

How do you want them to be?

What skills, knowledge and experiences do you consider essential to prepare them for the next stage of their education?


If you were to ask everyone involved in your team, would they share that vision with you?

If you’re not sure whether the answer is yes, it might be worth starting with that discussion. A clear understanding of what you all want to achieve together is an important starting point for any team. It will also help you when you need to make decisions about the curriculum and your provision later on. You will be able to look at your decisions through the “lens” of your vision and ask yourself “Does this support what we’re trying to achieve for our children?”

How about your knowledge and your team’s knowledge of child development? Are you confident you know how young children learn and develop different skills? Do you know how writing develops from babyhood, about early mark making and the development of gross motor skills and how they link to the development of distal control, about the progress from mark making representation to writing?

If not, then it’s important to be honest and seek out professional development opportunities. Whether that’s wider reading or accessing some training. One of the positive outcomes of the current situation is that it’s now easier than ever to access training online at your own convenience.

What about the rest of the team you work with? Would you say they were confident in their knowledge and understanding of child development? What would they say?  Remember it’s important to foster a culture where all staff feel able to ask for help and support. Different members of the team will be at different stages in their development in this area. If team members feel able to ask for help, they can improve their knowledge skills and understanding, and this will impact positively on the children in their care.

Over the last six months I’ve been working with leaders, advisors and teachers to look at the reforms. I always start by having these honest conversations so that we can be really clear about what we are trying to achieve. I reiterate the importance of revisiting your vision frequently, to ensure that decisions are made with your vision and values in mind. I also use a technique called appreciative inquiry, to identify current strengths. Too often when reforms are introduced it can be easy to forget what already works really well and try to change all of our practice.  Let’s not throw the toddler out with the tuff spot! There is much good practice to celebrate. Be very clear about what is working well and already resulting in the best outcomes for children.

Remember that the goals are not the curriculum. The EEF report from the pilot schools highlighted that there was some confusion about this and stressed the need for more advice and support for practitioners to ensure that they didn’t see the curriculum as being purely about the goals. The planned training will no doubt cover this in detail, but the educational programmes are really helpful to use here when thinking about the curriculum you intend to provide.




Just as the National Curriculum provides the skeleton on which schools build their own unique curriculum, the educational programmes provide a basis for schools and settings to consider what they need to provide for children. It is pleasing to see that the consultation response very clearly states that, “The EYFS does not prescribe a particular teaching approach. It recognises that effective teaching in the early years requires skilled use of a teaching practice repertoire which responds appropriately to the age and needs of the children being taught.”

Initial concerns about the reforms leading to an approach which we would expect to see with older children are further dispelled by the inclusion of the definition of teaching currently included in the Ofsted handbook (page 80 in the Ofsted handbook and page 4 in the EYFS reforms document). I find this definition of teaching a powerful tool to use with teachers and practitioners. We use it to reflect on the many different approaches to teaching and learning that we use when working with young children.

I am often asked “How much child led and how much adult led should there be in Reception?” and my answer is always, “I don’t know your children, your context or what your provision is like, so I can’t say.” There are no definitive answers. Teachers and practitioners use their professional judgement to make these decisions.  They decide what the most effective way to teach a particular subject or skill is.  There are so many different interactions which happen in the Early Years setting, and it’s important that no one approach is seen as any more valid than another. We need to value children’s exploration and play in child initiated learning, and seek out teachable moments when children are using the continuous provision which we have carefully resourced and arranged as part of our long term planning, and we need to value adult directed input as an effective teaching tool.

The balance between the two shifts and changes according to the needs of the children. The false dichotomy which some like to present around early years is something of a myth in my experience. It is not an either/ or, but more of a continuum. I am lucky enough to be able to visit many schools and settings all over the country (and sometimes in different parts of the world) and the idea that in some schools children are doing whatever they like with no adult input is not something I have ever come across in a school in my 30 years in the sector.  I’ve also only come across a small number of schools where Reception doesn’t allow time for child initiated and play based learning. Most schools and settings find the balance which is right for their children and are constantly reflecting on whether their provision meets the needs of their children.

Going forward there are challenges when implementing the changes to the EYFS, but by holding on to the vision for children,  thinking carefully about how young children learn best and those key developmental milestones for young children, and considering how to provide rich, meaningful experiences which build on what the children already know, and set firm foundations for the next stage of their learning, teachers and practitioners can provide a rich, diverse and meaningful early years experience for the children in their care.

We have an exciting opportunity to reflect and refine; we need to embrace it.



Callanan et al. Study of Early Education and Development: Good Practice in Early Education Research report, January 2017 , NatCen Social Research

DFE  Early Years Foundation Stage Reforms Government consultation response  July 2020 Department For Education Government Publications

Hussain et al. Early Years Foundation Stage profile (EYFSP) reforms Pilot report, NatCen Social Research

Ofsted  Handbook for inspecting schools in England under section 5 of the Education Act 2005 Reference no: 190017, November 2019 , Government Publications

Sharp et al. Study of the transition from Foundation Stage to Key Stage One , 2005  NFER

Ruth Swailes
Ruth has more than 25 years’ experience in primary education, over 20 of them in senior leadership roles including headship. Passionate about education, particularly Early Years, Ruth has taught every year group from Nursery to Year 6 and has worked in a variety of schools in different contexts. Ruth has worked as an Inspector, School Improvement Advisor, Trainer, Early Years consultant and Moderator in several Local Authorities; supporting leaders and teachers to improve outcomes for pupils. She currently advises 34 LA schools, supports several MATS and TSAs and is the Lead International Early Years Curriculum consultant for Oxford University Press.

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