How does the EYFS framework fit into an early years setting in reality? How should early years education now move forward? Abigail Steel discusses

In September 2008 the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework will become statutory for all early years care and education providers in Ofsted registered settings attended by children from birth to five years of age. In theory, what a sensible move to create a framework that replaces the three previous early years documents – Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, Birth to Three Matters and National Standards for Under 8s Daycare and Childminding. These are, in effect, now streamlined into one manageable package with common principles that everybody involved in early years will be working towards:

   ‘The overarching aim of the EYFS is to help young children achieve the five Every Child Matters outcomes of staying safe, being healthy, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, and achieving economic wellbeing.’  
(EYFS Statutory Framework, p7)

RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: For more information on effective early years provision and, have a look at our Early Years Handbook.

The new framework
The physical presentation of the EYFS appears admirably straightforward – a 54-page Statutory Framework booklet accompanied by a 114-page Practice Guidance booklet, a CD-ROM, poster and some Principles into Practice cards (perhaps to appeal to those of us who are more kinaesthetic learners?!).

Merging the previous three early years documents certainly succeeds in giving me a sense of solidarity with my fellow early years providers. I am hopeful that the new EYFS framework will enable reception teachers to feel more included under the early years umbrella after years of being accountable to both the more formal expectations of primary schools as well as the early years play culture.

However, can this ‘one size fits all’ approach realistically support children across the wide variety of early years settings, which includes childminders, nurseries and schools within the state and independent sectors? In a broader sense there is no doubt that we should all strive to provide the best possible care for children but is it really appropriate for childminders to follow the same guidelines as Reception class teachers?

When the EYFS framework arrived in my hands late last summer I felt somewhat down-hearted that after thoroughly conquering the curriculum guidance for the Foundation Stage to the point of being able to recite it back to front and inside out, I was faced with yet another government document that could potentially challenge my rather (dare I say it?) ‘sorted’ teaching practice. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great believer in continuous self-evaluation and improvement, but having managed to achieve the successful juggling of work-life balance whilst ‘ticking the boxes’, ‘playing the game’ and giving the children in my care the very best education and experience that I could, I dreaded being pushed to my limits by yet more dictation from above.

Alongside my anxiety about the impending EYFS nestled a small glimmer of hope that just possibly someone with influence may have come to their senses to recognise that the early years climate is currently one of unnecessarily high pressure, with practitioners struggling to keep their heads above a sea of paperwork, desperately trying to keep local authority advisers satisfied with several hundred cross-referenced, dated, photo-evidenced little sticky notes to prove that on at least three observed, child-initiated occasions ‘little Johnny’ has finally managed to achieve Early Learning Goal PSED DA 2 (Personal, Social, Emotional Development – Dispositions and Attitudes Point 2: Be confident to try new activities, initiate ideas and speak in a familiar group).

Every early years training session I have ever attended has been dominated by whispering practitioners swapping stories about how they strive to encompass best practice and guidance but how, in reality, unrealistic expectations and logistical obstacles overshadow this. Many confess to feeling in constant failure mode struggling to keep up with the persistent pressure to plan, resource, teach, manage, observe, evaluate, assess and then re-plan having been informed by your observations of ‘little Johnny’s’ newfound fascination with spiders. Anyone who actually works with young children knows that your priority lies with their immediate needs and will sympathise with the difficulties of trying to record written observations of one group of children when you have a child hollering from the toilet that she’s ‘had a little accident’, while another hangs off your sleeve asking you to find the end of the sticky tape roll, another asks for a bit of support to complete their puzzle and out of the corner of your eye you are trying to ensure that the two little girls rowing over a dolly in the role play area have developed enough conflict resolution skills to not destroy the post office setting that you’ve spent two days lovingly creating.

Issues and concerns
On the surface, the new EYFS framework aspires to create a more holistic experience for children in the early years. It states that it will help young children achieve the five Every Child Matters outcomes by ‘setting the standards for learning, development and care’, ‘providing for equality of opportunity’, ‘creating the framework for partnership working between parents and professionals, and between settings’, ‘improving quality and consistency’ and ‘laying a secure foundation for future learning’.

Isn’t the EYFS framework, however, rather hypocritical that in its quest to provide the highest levels of care and nurture for children it continues to neglect the welfare of early years practitioners? Where are the promises of ‘setting standards’ for the training and professional development of practitioners? Where is the ‘equality’ in pay and working hours? Where is the ‘framework for partnership’ between practitioners and LEA advisers? Where is the ‘quality and consistency’ of the diverse circumstances we must manage and the treatment we receive? Is there a ‘secure foundation’ for future early years practice? Whilst the content of the EYFS is mostly sound and serves to protect our children’s needs, the management and climate of early years education has been worryingly overlooked.

It has become clear to me that the extent to which you can succeed as an early years provider is largely dependent on your circumstances – or in other words ‘pot luck’. As a Reception teacher I have been fortunate enough to teach in mainly smaller schools with mixed-aged classes, thus resulting in cohorts of no more than 15 reception-aged children at any one time. This has made the management and timetabling of regular formal observations of the children a more reasonable process (although has not altered my resentment for the onerous culture of constant observing and recording). But where is the equality of workload for the teacher with a class of 30 who is therefore expected to produce double the paperwork?

I have also been fairly lucky in my experiences with local authority advisers – the first time I ever had my Foundation Stage profiles moderated I questioned the need to follow ‘little Johnny’ around continuously in the hope that he would display (on at least three occasions and during his 80% child-initiated observations as instructed by the local authority guidance) specific abilities and behaviours in order for me to jot them down, stick them in his file and tick off points when I could categorically confirm he had long surpassed that stage of development. I was reassured that my professional judgement was worthy of acknowledgement and that, of course, it counted as ‘evidence’. How unfair for those practitioners whose advisers have demanded copious written evidence for the Foundation Stage profiles and who scrutinise the paperwork for several hours before even stepping into the classroom/setting to observe the welfare of the actual children. My point is that the experiences of early years practitioners varies greatly as a result of many factors including the adult-child ratio, the personalities of advisers, socio-economic intake, finance, resources and physical environment. Simply reading online early years forums (such as TES early years staffroom forum) gives an insight to the extent of unrest in the early years with many experienced practitioners describing their disillusion and sadly threatening to leave the profession, and many newcomers in sheer panic at the world they have entered.  

Perhaps the most worrying consequence of the EYFS is its soon-to-be statutory status. It sounds commendable that the EYFS strives to improve outcomes and reduce inequalities by being given legal force under the Childcare Act 2006. The cynic in me, however, screams out ‘nanny state’ and ‘invasive climate’. Reading carefully through the statutory framework, what at first appears to be a very holistic, personalised approach to the welfare and nurture of children is overshadowed by the repeated mention of words such as observation, assessment, planning, and documentation. I shudder at the possibility that the statutory weighting of the framework may justify increased pressure place upon practitioners – many of whom already express their fear at the current level of policing. In any case, is it really necessary to make the framework statutory? In literal terms how will it serve to benefit the children?

How should early years education best move forwards?
In reality there need not be upheaval in early years settings as a result of the EYFS. The four overlying principles (A Unique Child, Positive Relationships, Enabling Environments and Learning and Development) are themes that already instinctively guide our practice. The main concern is that we will be susceptible to increased pressure from, and further accountability to, the local authorities. The recently published ‘Open Eye’ campaign calls for an urgent independent review of the compulsory EYFS framework and to reduce the status of its learning and development requirements to ‘professional guidelines’. After all, it does seem somewhat ridiculous that we should have a statutory framework in place for all children who are not yet of compulsory school age.

Surely key questions to ask are what do practitioners and parents think of:

  • the EYFS framework itself
  • the government’s determination to embody this in law.

I suspect people are mainly weary at the constant stream of initiatives and change. Perhaps it was bad timing that the EYFS framework was rolled out pretty much alongside the Renewed Primary Framework and the Letters and Sounds phonics guidance.

Hints and tips/best practice

  • Take the time to become thoroughly familiar with the EYFS. As a result you are bound to feel more confident and less daunted by its imminence. Unless you are completely new to the profession you are likely to find it is much the same as the old guidance. If you are new, you may well find it helpful and it is quite readable.
  • Self-audit your own practice and setting and create an action plan. This pre-empts anyone pouncing on your flaws and you will relish taking control of your own professional development. Beware of local authority self-evaluation forms. They are generally very long and onerous. If you proactively produce one with your own criteria, you may feel more able to decline another ‘version’.
  • Pre-empt advisers’ interference – get organised systems in place to show you don’t need their dictatorship! When you are given lots of contradictory advice, or you don’t agree with the advice you are given, just keep polite but have confidence in your own decisions.
  • Make it a priority to create a well organised, clean and welcoming environment. The difference this makes in terms of practicalities, morale and learning is not to be underestimated. I have been the hub of colleagues’ jokes in prioritising the purchase of numerous plastic tubs with lids but the benefits of organisation, cleanliness, child-ownership and independence, work-life balance and smooth functioning are boundless!
  • There is an increasing move towards early years practitioners becoming more than just carers and teachers. We are required to be all things to all people. In an ideal world, practitioners should have good relationships with parents but, in reality, some people find it hard to relate to other adults. Be honest with yourself. If your people skills are not the best, do something about it and try harder to be more confident to relate to parents.
  • Your planning should be flexible enough to follow the children’s interests but this does not mean that you can’t work from a yearly cycle of skeleton plans. I have gradually designed, produced and refined generic, themed weekly plans but have left plenty of space to scrawl on any adaptations for the children’s current interests and needs. In the long run this has saved many precious hours that I used to spend planning from scratch. This is the best of both worlds – following a structure with plenty of content and yet allowing for personalised learning as appropriate.

In conclusion…
Ultimately, if you are confident in yourself and provide a good setting caring for the children as individuals, you should have nothing to worry about regarding the new EYFS framework – you have done your job.