Teachers may question the purposes and techniques of assessment at EYFS. Jan Dubiel, Programme Leader for the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile at the National Assessment Agency, discusses the practical reality of assessment at this level

It would be fair to say that the word ‘assessment’ has acquired something of a negative reputation. For many practitioners, it conjures up notions of measurement, statistics, graphs and external scrutiny. In some cases it can even create a sense of disempowerment and frustration; that the process, practice and outcomes of assessments are something wholly separate from the day- to-day reality and purpose of early years settings, and that assessments are being undertaken for no apparent purpose other than they have to be. Worse still, it can be felt that assessments reflect and promote an agenda of forcing children inappropriately up the developmental scale. There were certainly times when this was the perception of the Foundation Stage Profile (FSP); so, when the word ‘assessment’ is applied to children from birth, it would appear to be an even more unwelcome activity.

However, there is a need to redefine the word for our own purposes, to reclaim its meaning so that it does make sense it terms of what we do, that it does have a distinct reality and purpose and that is recognised as a vital aspect of effective practice and provision throughout the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

Assessment in the EYFS
The EYFS Practice Guidance glossary defines assessment like this: ‘Through observing children… practitioners can make professional judgements about children’s achievements and decide on the next steps in learning’. As a generic description for working with children from birth to five, this clarifies the purpose of assessment. Furthermore:

  • assessment is not an end in itself or an isolated activity for its own sake
  • assessment is about observing and understanding the uniqueness of children at any age or stage and in any setting
  • assessment is about a practitioner making sense of that understanding, acquired predominantly through observation, and using that information to support children’s development
  • assessment is a vital, vibrant and dynamic tool that enables practitioners to identify that uniqueness and ensure that provision supports, challenges and extends children’s development and learning.

The EYFS goes on to state that the implementation of the four key themes will require practitioners to:

  • recognise children as competent and influential individuals who need to be involved in their own assessment
  • work with other adults who are important to the child
  • recognise each child’s individual route to learning
  • build a broad picture of the child – this should range widely, incorporating and interconnecting all the areas of Learning and Development.

The EYFS also states that practitioners should:

  • make systematic observations and assessments of each child’s achievements, interests and learning styles
  • use these observations and assessments to identify learning priorities and plan relevant and motivating learning experiences for each child
  • match their observations to the expectations of the early learning goals.

This means that practitioners must implement clear, principled approaches and a seamless continuum of assessment from the child’s first days in a setting to the end of the EYFS. These approaches should take into account the transitions that children make from setting to setting.

What this means in practice
In the everyday reality of early years practice, this is a practitioner noticing that a nine-month-old child is responding differently to new objects and textures and providing different materials to support their exploration. It is the practitioner in a nursery watching the 18-month-old child use a cup for the first time and praising them to enhance their self-esteem. It is also recognising when a young child is experimenting with new words and supporting this by giving him time and praise, or engaging in a conversation about how a model was made or why the colours for a particular pattern were chosen.

As practitioners, we do this every day, hundreds of times. With every interaction, every moment that is seen or heard, every gesture, action or word spoken, we ‘log’ (often subconsciously) information about individual children. This knowledge and collection of information drives and determines our future interactions with them, and how we modify, adapt and refine our provision to enable this to take place. This is what assessment really is and this is what needs to be acknowledged and reclaimed by practitioners.

The recent publication Creating the Picture (2007) establishes a set of principles for early childhood assessment, creating a clear framework for practitioners to use. (These principles of assessment and how they can enable practitioners to fulfil this vitally important aspect of their role were explored in detail in ‘Putting the principles for observational assessment into practice’ Early Years Update 57.)