The attainment gap in EYFS

This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 10/11/16.


It is well known at the attainment gap starts to develop long before children arrive at school. But what can we do in the EYFS to tackle the problem early on? Daniel Sobel offers his reflections.

The notion that the attainment gap emerges during the early years has been proven by educational and sociological researchers the world over, and used for political point scoring and policy formation.

For example, the Bercow Review (2008) says that a large proportion of children start school with limited basic communication skills, which are vital for an effective start to schooling.

The report highlights that there is a direct link between young children’s language and communication skills and their academic achievements down the line. Similarly, the Rose Review (2006) highlighted the importance of developing children’s speaking and listening skills, which are essential for the acquisition of literacy.

The findings of these studies haven’t yet translated into a narrowing of the attainment gap. But I believe we can identify the two biggest barriers that stand in the way of addressing the national challenge of narrowing the gap during the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). These are:

  1. Leaders of primary and secondary schools who are trying to narrow the attainment gap in their own settings fail to communicate with their feeder EYFS settings and fail to offer any support. If you are a primary head and the attainment gap is already there when your pupils are at the EYFS feeder down the road then surely you should get on the phone to them and work out how you can best support them. This doesn’t happen nearly half as much as it needs to.
  2. Most crucially, the leaders of multi-academy trusts (MAT), secondaries and even many primaries simply do not have a sufficiently sophisticated grasp of what help is necessary in the EYFS.

As a result of these two fundamental (and easily addressable) flaws, the EYFS is left to face our country’s most challenging problem alone without any significant support or investment from the broader educational fraternity. No wonder the gap continues year-on-year without much of a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

I must confess that I fall foul of these problems myself. While I have experience and expertise within secondary and primary, my knowledge of EYFS only extends to what I have gleaned from my own children’s experience! I have aimed to remedy this by speaking with two of my colleagues who run the EYFS part of my inclusion team in a bid to share some of their advice.

So the aim of this article is to furnish primary heads with a basic understanding of the problems that commonly foster the attainment gap in EYFS and to give them an idea of the kind of support they might be able to offer.

This is not an exhaustive list of all that is worth knowing about EYFS – rather I aim to offer a checklist of the common mistakes that have the biggest impact on the attainment gap.

In my conversation with experts Dr Sue Allingham and Hilary Solomon, we came up with the following areas:

  1. Importance of parental engagement and participation.
  2. Importance of quality interactions.
  3. Need for well-informed staff.
  4. Need for constructive environment to facilitate learning.
  5. Outside environment versus the inside environment.
  6. Need for simple planning based on learning, not activities.

Parental engagement and participation

I assume this is an obvious point for everybody although there are some nuances that we should focus on.

Home visits prior to the child starting their placement should be prioritised and can set a precedent for continuous positive and active communication. Parents should be encouraged to regularly come in to the school, via activities like coffee mornings (apparently cake works).

Most importantly, it is not just significantly increasing the engagement of hard-to-reach families that counts, but facilitating parents to understand and engage with their child’s development and learning journey. Instead of just passively receiving reports, they should participate in the process.

A good learning journal should not just be full of photos, but should enable parents to understand the significant moments that inform their child’s journey. This is the key: to recognise parents, and what goes on at home generally, as a critical element of the EYFS.

Importance of quality interactions

As Ofsted’s 2015 report on narrowing the gap in the early years (Early Years Report 2015, Ofsted) says, teaching incorporates all of the ways in which adults help young children to learn. Effective EYFS leaders do not think of teaching and play as separate endeavours.

There are some mistakes which are seen on a regular basis. It is quite natural for adults to enable EYFS children to speak with simple, closed questions, and to fill the silences with their own speech. This closes down learning. A “quality interaction” has many facets but for the sake of this article, it means maximising (as opposed to actively minimising) the learning opportunity of every interaction.

Instead of asking “what does it do” or “what colour is this” which can only lead to simple answers, ask open questions.

Give time for children to respond rather than jumping in to fill silences. My team use the nine second rule: allow children nine seconds to do anything before you jump in. Wait, listen and be patient.

Pepper the day with choices to promote thinking. We dominate children with the choices we make for them and this takes away thinking and articulating. Ask “What do you want to read?” rather than saying “Let’s read this”. “What do you want to wear?” rather than “let’s all dress up as pirates”. This is more of an attitude shift that facilitates teaching assistants and teachers listening to children and promoting reflection.

Adapt to the moment rather than getting stuck with what you have prescribed. EYFS children are constantly bringing in surprises to the setting about things they have discovered, want to know about or share.

One example of good practice I saw was an EYFS lead who, when a child came in with a patch on her eye to address the not uncommon problem of lazy eye, adapted the lesson plan to make it pirate-themed.

The above pedagogical approaches are golden, impact-over-time things that cost no money. Interventions at the EYFS level look like this rather than “a this or that type of group” which is the hallmark of boosting learning throughout the key stages.

Well-informed staff (especially the SENCO)

Many SENCOs haven’t got a clue about EYFS and they just don’t know where to start. It is a different way of understanding the relationship between curriculum and learning. The Statutory Requirements for the EYFS 2012 state exactly how teaching and learning must be approached, through the Characteristics of Effective Learning. Ofsted also expects to see this. Heads and SENCOs must be aware of this.

The pedagogical approach is that children should learn through experiences. Children need to develop aural skills before literacy; the Rose Review draws a direct link between language development and dyslexia.

Consequently, the SENCO needs to develop an understanding of EYFS development, in particular the difference between SEN and development. They should understand how the pedagogical approach necessitates an entirely different attitude and strategy for addressing needs, and how getting it right in the EYFS is going to have a massive impact on SEN throughout the rest of the primary school.

EYFS relies on a high ratio of teaching assistants, whose role is very important. However, like in all key stages, teaching assistant deployment is only as good as their management. Helping them understand the cognitive, neurological and physical development of young children is foundational in ensuring their hard work with their wards is meaningful and accurate.

When you walk into a EYFS room, teaching assistants and teachers should be indistinguishable in their action. Their differences should be seen not in who is washing up the paint pots but in who is leading planning.

Assessing children’s starting points should be based on constant reflection about what is deemed typical for each child given their chronological age in months, rather than years. Staff should frequently check and agree their judgements with one another and with other stakeholders. This should include the frequent sharing of information with and between parents and health visitors.

Constructive environment to facilitate learning

For those of us who are not trained in the art of EYFS pedagogy, this is one of the most different aspects of educational management. Environmental set-up is absolutely key to learning: who would have thought that where you put the chairs and tables could have such an impact on the attainment gap?

The aim is to set up areas of continuous provision such as a water area, sand area, discovery area (opportunities for children to mix things), creative area, writing and mark-making area using lots of different types of implements, stage area with puppets, etc. None of this costs a lot of money.

These areas facilitate learning through play and activity. Each area should come with lots of suggestions for staff to facilitate key questions and vocabulary. More importantly, ask the children to feedback and evaluate. The entire EYFS space is a learning opportunity and so this needs to be carefully strategised, evaluated and managed.

An important and common example of the impact of not maximising the environment can be seen at key stage 2 in boys’ writing. We know that boys are generally slower in their development than girls, but the EYFS environmental set up can go against them. Most activities often tend to be on tables. However, in order to write you need core strength and shoulder stability. When boys sit on the floor, they use their arms and legs. Reception and nursery require sitting. But developmentally boys just don’t have it. Therefore they need floor-based activities that involve kneeling, leaning on arms, stretching up and so on, to develop this key core and shoulder stability.

The outside environment is completely different

Both EYFS experts emphasise this point most emphatically as being a classic, common mistake. The mistake? To think of the outside environment just like the inside and adopt the same pedagogical approaches and use the same items from the inside. It is common for staff to bring out the play materials from indoors and conduct the same type of learning. Actually, the outside environment is rich with opportunities for different language acquisition and use as well as types of thinking. Simple questions such as “where are those clouds going?” open up such rabbit holes.

Simple planning based on learning not activities

Teachers tend to look at the EYFS curriculum and plan accordingly. This certainly makes sense from a primary and secondary perspective. However, this is a significant error in EYFS delivery. Instead, staff should be looking at the children and then referring to the EYFS strategies to support their learning.

This upside-down way of thinking about planning is one of the harder aspects for the primary visitors to get their head around. However, without this child-led approach, the EYFS setting will not directly provide for the child’s needs which is at heart the attainment gap in development.

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