UKEdMag: Can we truly promote a play-based curriculum within our education system? by @Ianmullock

While our early years curriculum promotes a sense of play-based learning, can we justly embrace this when faced with an educational culture that places such high emphasis upon testing our children’s abilities?

Even when presented with a play-based curriculum, are we truly eliminating testing from our early years? I’m sure that many educators who work in this area find themselves being torn between the need to gather vital information that informs concise academia versus opportunities that allow children to learn uniquely. Many educators would argue that assessments are embedded within our children’s formative years as practitioners have a duty to highlight areas where learning needs additional support and implement strategies that tackle these and preparing children for formal education. Unlike Scandinavian countries, our education system seems to place a high emphasis on assessing children’s abilities at an early age, which now seems to be targeting children even younger. The two-year-old progress check, which is statutory in England, will identify categories and enforce the need to set identifiable targets. Many practitioners would argue the need to assess this against the development matters, otherwise, they would have no basis for identifying whether children are emerging, developing or secure within their learning. While many critics continue to highlight how the early years foundation stage (EYFS) should not be used in this way, there seems to be an underlying pressure to engage children in this early process of testing their abilities; enveloping them in an imposed curriculum.

With more and more statutory process now in place, such as letter and sound screening, perhaps there is a responsibility to direct children’s learning towards these processes and prepare them for this. While it could be argued that these are the expectations of teaching staff (not necessarily nurseries) if children as young as reception are to have their expected levels of development assessed against the early learning goals (ELG) then they need to be prepared for this, as testing has to take place, identified targets need to have been agreed, development matters have to inform through its finding. While some fully support this type of documentation, it could be argued that this should be done though knowledgeable practitioners who are able to discuss a child’s progress without any form of written evidence. Although, in theory, this makes for good practice, the real concern would come during the transition to formal schooling. Teachers may not have time to visit EYFS settings, yet we have a duty to provide them with evidence-based reasoning documenting children’s development. Hence the need for strategies to be documented that stipulate how learning has progressed.

While this in itself has an opportunity to dilute our play-based curriculum, contradictions seem embedded. Our syllabus is set and delivered by the state. Therefore, critics may question whether the syllabus authors understand how a play-based curriculum should be implemented. Whereas others believe the ultimate goal is to intervene early in a child’s education, meet their needs, have them achieve academically, and progress into the working framework. Therefore, giving back to the state rather than being supported by it.


Ian is level 7 practitioner and has an interest in how the whole UK education system is structured and is keen to share his positive aspirations and challenging situations which show how strategies do not always meet with expectations. Follow him on Twitter at @Ianmullock.

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