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The early years foundation stage (2021): Challenges and opportunities

Nikki Fairchild, Senior Lecturer, University of Portsmouth Louise Kay, Lecturer, University of Sheffield

The Department for Education’s reforms to the early years foundation stage (EYFS) (DfE, 2020a) and its non-statutory guidance Development Matters (DfE, 2020b) have received a mixed response. They have been driven by the desire for a knowledge-rich curriculum and as a way of bridging the curricular gap between the end of the EYFS and key stage 1 (KS1). Some of the concerns are that the end-point goals are narrow measures of a child’s attainment akin to a ‘best fit’ with KS1 rather than the broader, developmentally appropriate current offer. The EYFS sets the standards for the learning, development and care of children from birth to five, including non-compulsory early childhood education and care (ECEC) provision and compulsory schooling, and the challenge is how to encompass the breadth of age ranges and maintain equality and diversity.

Debate and critical conversations are a key part of any democratic society that enable us to explore points of view from a dialogic perspective (Pascal, 2019). The contested space of the EYFS reforms prompts us to ask a number of questions. The most pressing, extensively discussed by Professor Peter Moss, is ‘what is the purpose of ECEC?’ Professor Moss is one of the many advocates for viewing the child as holistic and multidimensional. The ‘universal’ child is a myth that relies on narrow definitions of ‘child as future worker’ that can be shaped for economic benefit as they grow to adulthood (Moss, 2014).

‘The “universal” child is a myth that relies on narrow definitions of ‘child as future worker’ that can be shaped for economic benefit as they grow to adulthood.’

As part of wider democratic conversations into the purpose and function of ECEC, the Early Years Sector Coalition commissioned a research review in 2019 focusing on evidence of early learning from the last 10 years (Pascal, Bertram, & Rouse, 2019). The findings of that review include the following.

  • Early learning is multimodal, multi-sensory and active, viewed holistically rather than in a linear or compartmentalised way.
  • Effective early years pedagogy incorporates a balance of adult-led activities with play-based, relational approaches to learning focusing on quality interactions.
  • The curriculum should value the diversity of children’s lived experiences where ‘being, belonging and becoming’ are interconnected (Pascal, Bertram, & Rouse, 2019, p. 41).

Underpinning this understanding is the recognition that children are competent and capable learners, and that teaching the skills and dispositions needed for lifelong learning is a vital part of ECEC. Building on this review, the coalition is currently consulting with the sector to develop alternative guidance to the new Development Matters non-statutory curriculum guidance for the early years foundation stage (DfE, 2020), to be known as Birth to Five Matters. This is in response to calls from the sector to provide alternative pedagogic guidance that considers a wider body of evidence and learning that spans the age ranges of birth to five. Key priorities will focus on ‘children’s wellbeing and key skills and knowledge for every child growing up in the 21st century such as digital literacy, sustainability and citizenship’.

We need a dynamic view of children as competent social actors brimming with potential, with play and democracy as core features of the curriculum and with a focus on children’s rights of play and learning (Unicef, 1989). The conviction within the sector demonstrates the desire for children to have access to a broad, developmentally appropriate ECEC where they develop knowledge and mastery, and their multiple and unique experiences are valued. Democracy calls for us to value all people and to embrace the cultural capital they bring; this is important if we want to move away from ‘deficit’ perceptions which amplify difference and social othering (Moss, 2009), and discussion and debate in these contested spaces allows us to consider our own positions in this process. If we truly value children as more than an economic unit we must provide access to ECEC, and this includes curriculum guidance that encompasses all children’s needs, otherwise we run the risk of not providing them with the building blocks for the remainder of their life.