Early Years Education


  • The early years is a unique stage in its own right. Early childhood is recognised around the world as a valuable phase, but in England the Government has come to view the early years stage primarily as a preparation for school. Despite the evidence, Ministers continue to advocate earlier formal teaching of literacy and numeracy and earlier, more frequent formal assessment of children.
  • The Government's focus on children becoming ‘school ready’ during the early years implies an emphasis on the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills. This fails to recognise the importance of the early years in its own right. It also ignores the wealth of evidence about what best prepares a child to succeed at school.
  • Too much emphasis on formal learning and assessment will squeeze out play-based learning from the curriculum. The evidence shows that learning through play must be at the heart of early years education. Through all kinds of physical, constructional and social play, children become more aware and more in control of their physical and mental activities. This allows them to gradually rely less on adult support and become more intellectually and emotionally independent.1
  • A 2004 study of 300 children funded by the then Department for Education and Skills showed that an extended period of play-based pre-school education made a significant difference to learning and well-being through the primary school years.2
  • Research in New Zealand conducted in 2013 which compared children starting formal literacy lessons at age five and at age seven found that early formal learning did not improve reading development, and may even be damaging. By the age of 11, there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups. However, those who started aged five developed less positive attitudes to reading and showed poorer text comprehension than those who had started later.3
  • Starting formal education later is the practice in many European countries, particularly those in Scandinavia. These countries have better academic achievement and child well-being. Children start school at age seven following a play-based Kindergarten between ages 0-6.4 The well-being of children should be higher on the agenda of policy-makers. In both 2007 and 2011, a UNICEF study of the well-being of children in England showed that England compared poorly to other OECD countries for child well-being.5
  • Research by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), in 2013, found that: “For a child to be considered school ready … cognitive and academic skills such as reading and writing are not as important as children being confident, independent and curious. Teachers were the least likely, at four percent, to rate understanding of reading, arithmetic and writing (‘RAW skills’) as of key importance to being school ready. Only a third of childcare professionals and a quarter of parents believe that a definition of school ready should include a child having a basic understanding of RAW skills.” 6
  • The 2015 introduction of Baseline Assessment in England, which focused on children’s level of literacy and numeracy at the time they started school, added greater emphasis to RAW skills as a measure of school readiness. The assessment was opposed by organisations from across the early years sector.
  • The Government launched a consultation on primary assessment on 30 March 2017 which included a proposal to re-introduce Baseline Assessment for the purpose of school accountability. The consultation closes on 22 June and the DfE is expected to respond in September 2017.7  The Baseline Assessment would focus on literacy and numeracy skills in order to make it ‘comparable’ in content domain to the SATs at the end of key stage 2.8 This would be a mistake, with significant negative consequences for early years education: inappropriate tests and unreliable and invalid results would draw teachers' attention away from the all-round development of children towards a narrower set of emphases, a situation highlighted in the research report They are children, Not Robots, Not Machine.9
  • Research by the Education Datalab shows that only one in ten pupils will make linear progress across a key stage.10 This means that pupil progress is a poor measure of school effectiveness, and the argument that testing at either Reception or key stage one provides a ‘baseline’ which can be used for the purposes of school accountability is fundamentally flawed.

1 Whitebread, D. et al. (2005), ‘Developing independent learning in the early years’, Education, 3-13, 33 (1). pp. 40-50. Available at: http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/cindle/news.html

2 Sylva, K. Melhuish, E. Sammons, P. Siraj-Blatchford, I and Taggart, B. (2004), The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Findings from Pre-school to end of Key Stage 1. Available at: http://www.ioe.ac.uk/RB_pre-school_to_end_of_KS1(1).pdf

3 Suggate, S. Schaughency, E and Reese, E. (2013), ‘Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier’, Early Learning Research Quarterly, 28 (1). pp.33 – 48.

4 Dr David Whitebread, Dr Pam Jarvis on behalf of the Save Childhood Movement Early Years Education (EYE) Academic Advisory Group (2013) Evidence to the Education Committee Too Much Too Soon: Reflections upon the school starting age

5 UNICEF Office of Research (2013), Child Well-being in Rich Countries: A Comparative Overview.
Innocenti Report Card 11, Florence: UNICEF Office of Research. Available at: http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc11_eng.pdf

6 PACEY (2013), What does “School Ready” Really Mean. A research report form Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years [online]. Available at: http://www.pacey.org.uk/pdf/School%20Ready%20Report%20FINAL2.pdf

7 Department for Education Primary Assessment Consultation (2017) via https://consult.education.gov.uk/assessment-policy-and-development/primary-assessment/

8 Ibid.

9 Bradbury & Roberts- Holmes, They’re Children, not robots, not machines: The Introduction of Baseline Assessment (London 2016) via https://www.teachers.org.uk/sites/default/files2014/baseline-assessment--final-10404.pdf

10 Education Data Lab Seven things you might not know about our schools p11 via http://www.educationdatalab.org.uk/getattachment/Blog/March-2015/Seven-things-you-might-not-know-about-our-schools/EduDataLab-7things.pdf.aspx