Written by Sue Gifford
Consultation on the Early Learning Goals: Are the new reforms based on research?
The government are proposing reforms to the current EYFS Early Learning Goals, the statutory assessment for five year olds at the end of reception (Consultation closed January 2020).
With regard to mathematics, the reforms are intended to ensure a good foundation in numeracy for all children. The new Goals focus just on number: ‘Shape, Space and Measures’ has been moved to the unassessed educational ‘programme’ for birth to five. However, since achievement of the Goals is included in schools’ data, their content can have a significant impact on the educational experience of four and five year olds. For instance, in the Goals’ pilot evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation (2019), teachers reported that they considered they no longer had to teach ‘shape’ and that future teachers would ignore this area.
The DfE (2019) state that the Goals are based on the latest research and predictors, although no references are given. It therefore seems important and useful to evaluate the research basis for the proposed reforms.
Some of the reforms are clearly supported by current research: for instance, there is a new focus on understanding and comparing numbers to 10 (not 20 as previously), on subitising and on pattern, all of which are supported by recent research (Early Intervention Foundation, 2018; Siegler and Braithwaite, 2017). However, there appears to be no evidence that five year olds can achieve some expectations, such as ‘deep understanding’ of ‘the composition of each number’ to 10, or counting ‘confidently beyond 20’ (Johnson et al, 2019). While these may be desirable areas for experience and exploration, including these items as achievable Goals for all children is problematic and risks pressurising teachers and children with unrealistic objectives. This can lead to unfortunate consequences, as shown by the expectation that children will ‘automatically recall’ number bonds. The pilot evaluation reports teachers’ concerns that this focuses on verbal knowledge without understanding and results in practices such as ‘quick fire’ testing:
They’re actually having to just know. It takes the love of it out. They’re having quizzes at lunchtime and snacktime, going, ‘What’s double one? Double two? Double three?’ They’re not able just to play with number at the moment. We’ve lost that.’ (EEF, 2019:23).
The latest version of the Goals does not respond to these concerns, instead explaining ‘automatically recall’ as ‘without reference to rhymes, counting or other aides’. It is worrying if the new Goals result in such practices which seem more likely to produce anxiety than positive attitudes towards maths for young children (Deans for impact, 2019). It would be better if these inappropriate objectives were replaced with experiential aims like ‘explore and represent patterns within numbers up to 10’ which is part of the Numerical patterns Goal.
Perhaps more worrying are the omissions of areas previously included, which are currently receiving more support from research. For instance problem solving is no longer mentioned, despite evidence that it helps children to evaluate strategies and potentially develops executive functions (Siegler & Braithwaite, 2017; Clements, Sarama & Germeroth, 2016). Similarly, there is increasing evidence of the predictive significance of practical patterning (not just number patterns) and of spatial reasoning (Rittle-Johnson et al, 2016; Verdine et al, 2017; Young et al, 2018). The benefits of explicitly teaching these to young children is emerging, with significance not just for mathematics but for many areas of life and learning, including science, technology and design (Hawes et al, 2017). The removal of these broader aspects of maths from the Goals gives important messages, as shown by the pilot. Altogether, the revised Goals do not seem to be entirely based on current research and predictors and, perhaps more seriously, may risk impoverishing young children’s school experiences of mathematics.
University of Roehampton, London
See also Sue’s previous blog on The case for Space in the early years
Clements, D.H., Sarama, J. & Germeroth, C. (2016) Learning executive function and early mathematics: directions of causal relations Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36 79-90. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.12.009
Deans for Impact (2019). The Science of Early Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact. https://deansforimpact.org/resources/the-science-of-early-learning/
Early Intervention Foundation (2018). Key competencies in early cognitive development: things, people, numbers and words. https://www.eif.org.uk/report/key-competencies-in-early-cognitive-development-things-people-numbers-and-words
Education Endowment Foundation (2019) Early years foundation stage reforms: pilot report https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/early-years-foundation-stage-profile-pilot
Hawes, Z., Moss, J., Caswell, B., Naqvi, S. &MacKinnon,S. (2017). Enhancing children’s spatial and numerical skills through a dynamic spatial approach to early geometry instruction: effects of a 32 week intervention. Cognition and Instruction, 35(3), 236-264. https://doi.org/10.1080/07370008.2017.1323902
Johnson, N.C., Turrou, A.C., McMillan, B.G., Raygoza, M.C. & Franke, M.L (2019) “Can you help me count these pennies?” Surfacing preschoolers’ understandings of counting, Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 21:4, 237-264. doi: 10.1080/10986065.2019.1588206
Rittle-Johnson,B., Fyfe,E.R., Hofer, K.G., Farran, D.C. (2016). Early math trajectories: low income children’s trajectory mathematics knowledge from ages 4 to 11, Child Development doi: 10.1111/cdev.12662
Siegler, R. S. & Braithwaite, D. W. (2017). Numerical development. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 187-213. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044101
Verdine, B.N., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Newcombe, N. S. (2017) Links between Spatial and Mathematical Skills across the Preschool Years. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 82, no. 1 (March): 1–150. doi: 10.1111/mono.12285
Young, C.J., Levine, S.C. & Mix, K.S. (2018). The Connection Between Spatial and Mathematical Ability Across Development. Frontiers in Psychology, 04 June. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00755