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Assessment ticklists in the early years

by Helen Edwards on September 24

I started teaching in 1990. The National Curriculum had just arrived, and as an NQT I had plenty of help in planning my curriculum from all those colourful folders. They told me what I needed to teach, not what I had to assess the children on.

For all sorts of reasons, assessment grew into the big beast it is today. It took over many aspects of provision, particularly in early years settings: how the children were developing, what their next steps were, curriculum coverage, provision and activity planning. Everything we did was based on the non-statutory guidance Development Matters. Every statement was identified as a learning intention. Many settings used the statements as a ticklist, to show what children had achieved and what their next steps were – very often the next statement on the list. Spreadsheets and data grew until staff were often completely overwhelmed.

There has been much discussion over the last year about this increased workload.

Following the primary assessment consultation in early 2017,the Department for Education (DfE) proposed reforms to the Early Learning Goals and EYFSP assessment process, with the core aims of reducing the workload and time burden for early years staff and improving outcomes for children, particularly in Language, Literacy, and Maths.

The DfE announced that the Education Endowment Foundation, working with NatCenSocial Research and Action for Children, would commission an independent pilot evaluation. The objective was to assess the implementation of these proposed reforms in the 24 pilot schools in order to provide evidence and insights prior to national roll-out.

One of the key conclusions was:

The reduction in the burden of recording observations combined with the understanding that schools could use their own judgements meant that in general schools reported that their workload in relation to the EYFS Profile had been reduced….Overall, schools reported being less fixated on evidence-gathering and being more selective over what they recorded. Teachers reported that they were spending more time with children (as a result of the reduced administrative burden) which they felt improved the quality and accuracy of their observations. Teachers welcomed using their own judgement and felt empowered to do so’.

We all know that there is a very clear statement on every page of the original DM document:

The development statements and their order should not be taken as necessary steps for individual children. They should not be used as checklists’.

It’s important here to distinguish between two groups of early years educators: those who didn’t use the original Development Matters statements as a ticklist, and those who did.

Tapestry is used in 18,000 schools and settings (with over 150,000 staff) to share the learning and development of children with their families. That was, and still is, its primary function. However, as more settings decided to use the DM document for assessment, and in particular the DM statements for tracking purposes, the Tapestry team received hundreds of requests each month for the platform to offer an easy way of ticking statements – to view the ones that hadn’t been ticked in order  to identify children’s ‘gaps’ and then to use those gaps to plan their next steps.

Anyone who contacted Tapestry with that request received this reply:

As the Development Matters Document specifies, the statements were not designed as a ‘tick-list’, where each child is expected to achieve them all.  They are just examples of the kinds of behaviour and knowledge that children exhibit within those age bands.

The author of the Development Matters Document, Nancy Stewart, actually wrote an article about this for us on the Forum, which you may be interested in reading.

We’re very keen to support this view and to discourage settings from treating the statements as learning targets or objectives.

You might also find the links below, to further articles on how to effectively assess using the EYFS, helpful to read through.

I hope this helps. Please do let us know if you have any questions or comments.

Sometimes we engaged in lengthy discussions with our Tapestry ‘weavers’ and it became clear why some settings were reliant on the ticklist approach. It offered a straightforward recipe-type format for inexperienced and under-qualified staff. This, of course, is a huge area and not one I can cover here, but this is the crux of the problem. Experienced, highly qualified staff don’t need the DM statements to tell them how their children are doing, or what their next steps are. They use their professional judgements every minute they are working with children, to determine how and what they are learning and how they can be supported to take their learning forward. These staff have a sound understanding of child development and how children learn. Yet in some schools, they are still required to produce tracking data, either requested by the SLT or by the Local Authority.

However, the early years is a sector where some staff are underpaid, undervalued and underqualified, with little or no opportunity for professional development to support them in feeling confident to make professional judgements about how well their children are doing.

One conversation has stayed with me. A nursery owner who contacted us was adamant that he wanted his staff to be able to tick statements – to follow a prescribed recipe. I explained that the DM statements were examples of things children might demonstrate at different stages of development, and that his staff should be using their professional judgement to decide whether they were making progress, possibly using the age bands as a guide. I will never forget his reply:

‘I don’t pay my staff to have a professional judgement’.

In my work with our 18,000 schools and settings, I have often had conversations with staff about SLT expectations on data. SLTs and governing bodies want to know children are progressing well and want data to prove it. LAs and Ofsted have added to this pressure to produce excessive data. We’re all in a perpetual cycle of creating data because some people seem to want it.

But we now have an opportunity to do something about this.

Ofsted have been very clear that they will not be requiring data to prove that children are doing well. A high quality curriculum with good staff and a stimulating learning environment will lead to good outcomes for children. Staff are going to be trusted to make those professional decisions.

Along with settings and other organisations, The Foundation Stage Forum (creators of Tapestry) waited with interest for the arrival of the 2021 non-statutory guidance – the new Development Matters – which was published on 3rd September 2020. The new guidance reiterated the message that excessive data to demonstrate children’s learning is not required:

The document is not a tick list for generating lots of data. You can use your professional knowledge to help children make progress without needing to record lots of next steps. Settings can help children make progress without generating unnecessary paperwork.’ (page 3)

Within hours of the document being published, the Tapestry team started to receive requests for adding the new DM statements to Tapestry.

We responded with our usual reply.

Here are a few of the responses we received, or viewed on social media:

We would love the statements to be tracked in the same way as the old curriculum. We need to show incremental progress so any tracking will need to show this if possible.

…where you can select the ones that are appropriate for that observation within the different age bands. We find this informative and not a burden when tracking children’s learning.

At the moment we would be ticking the statements from the Development Matters please so if the whole of that is available with all the statements for us to tick against that would be brilliant. We may think of other ways but at the moment it would be that way. This is how we did it before with the other and it worked well.

I think we would like to have all of the statements available to ‘tick’ against our obs for Nursery and Reception as before. We found this a useful way to check our coverage and show progress.

We are thinking of baselining them with an emerging, developing, secure style for the whole area of learning rather than the individual statements but we will still need a way of recording which statements they have achieved I think for when we move on to the rest of the year.

We would like to tick the statements individually for two reasons. Firstly, to get to know the curriculum, and secondly to be able to note the gaps in children’s learning.

I actually lead the nursery in our school, so from my perspective we would use the statements for tracking and identifying gaps in learning. Up until now we have used paper copies.

It might be helpful to have the statements available to click on for an observations so they can be linked to specific points on the new Development Matters. Also being able to use this as next steps would also be great.

I do know that DM should not be used as a tick list and that we should look at each area holistically but as it is all so new, and published after we started school, I actually think we would find it useful (even if it is only for this Early Adopter year) to have all the statements listed as it will make sure that we are covering all of the curriculum and, from a practical point of view, it will help us all learn and remember them!

I understand trying to avoid a tick list situation, however our staff prefer this method for the observations and are able to use it to support other learning that is encouraged throughout the day. It will also help with our assessment tracker that is used across the school, as it is used in a similar format.

We are keen to be assessing the children against the statements from Development Matters and have worked on dividing the statements from the areas of learning into the strands in line with the new Early Learning Goals. Our plan is to not use Development Matters as a tick list but do find it useful to be able to link observations to age bands as well as statements.

It is good for the parents to see what skills they are developing. We need to use the new DMS as the old ones don’t match the new ELGs. I am not using it as a tick list, I just want to tag my observations like we have always done.

…will just have to wait for Tapestry to put them on if they don’t we will just have to go with a different system next year.

In the week following the publication of the new DM guidance, we received over 1000 messages like these – from educators who know statements should not be used as a ticklist, but all the same want to use them as such, or feel they should.

Teachers, practitioners and SLTs are confused about the new DM guidance and unsure whether to stick with their methods of assessment; they don’t really believe Ofsted won’t be asking for data.

The education and development teams here at Tapestry would like to take this opportunity for change. We would like to help early years educators have more time to do what they are best at; being with the children and supporting their learning rather than contributing to vast amounts of assessment data. We contacted Dr Julian Grenier, author of the new Development Matters, and asked to discuss the guidance with him. We asked how we might be able to reassure early years staff that they really can ditch excessive tracking. We told him about the hundreds of messages we were receiving and we asked him if he thought Ofsted might be interested in us helping to get their message across. To reassure settings that Ofsted inspectors would not be asking for tracking and assessment data.

The result of this discussion was a ‘vodcast’ recording (Part 1 here) with Dr Julian Grenier, Gill Jones (Deputy Director at Ofsted) and Wendy Ratcliff (HMI) which confirmed these messages:

The new DM document is not a ticklist for tracking assessment.

Ofsted inspectors will not be asking for tracking data.

Our FSF website at  has forum areas for you to discuss your views (all Tapestry logins work for the FSF too), and there is a Tapestry Support Group on facebook.

What would you like to see?

  1. The DM statements on Tapestry as a ticklist, ignoring all the guidance and knowledge about best early years practice?
  2. A new approach to observation and assessment- working with the early years workforce to discard excessive assessment and tracking processes, and with Dr Grenier and Ofsted to get this message across?







Helen avoided full-time work for many years, following her ambition to be a perpetual student. After a degree in Linguistics, Music and Astronomy (probably the only person to have studied this particular combination of subjects) she gained a D.Phil from Sussex in Experimental Psychology. At the grand old age of 28, she thought she'd better get a proper job, so completed a PGCE and became a primary school teacher. After the birth of her second child she opened her own nursery, which she managed for ten happy years. She was amongst the first to achieve Early Years Professional Status (EYPS), and tutored students on early years courses at Brighton University. She has also been a local authority EYFS advisor and an early years Ofsted inspector. Helen is part of the Education Team, and she organises the Tapestry Education Conferences (TECs), bringing together educators, academics and LA advisors for lively discussions about teaching and learning.