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A recent survey by Tes1 asked 3,400 teachers and other school staff about their trust in the Department for Education (DfE), motivated by teacher frustration around COVID-19 guidance. They found that in Wales, 19% of school staff said they had no trust at all in their government's education department on coronavirus; in Scotland, the figure was 24%; in Northern Ireland, it was 41%; and in England, the figure was 50%. A further 39% in England had “limited trust.”
Reading about the latest DfE advice or instruction to school leaders – not just related to COVID-19 – often seems to be an exercise in frustration; all too often a trick has been missed or a confusion caused. I’m lucky because I belong to several groups which speak with an informed voice, so I usually feel I have had some say at some point in the decision-making process. However, in the case of continuing guidance around Early Years education I feel that informed voices have not been heard and as consequence the quality of advice has suffered.
I want to focus on one particular aspect – the importance of Shape, Space and Measures (SSM) in the learning opportunities of very small people. I last wrote about this in a blog in January this year, when the consultation on the reform of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) was launched. At the invitation of the DfE, and in the expectation that their responses would be taken into consideration, many expert groups replied, informed by a wealth of research and practical suggestions from classroom practitioners. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)2 conducted an evaluation of the EYFSP pilot which was trialled in 24 schools. There was a plethora of information for the DfE to take on board.
But sadly they haven’t appeared to take any notice of the enormous weight of evidence. The final versions of both the Early Learning Goals (ELG) and the EYFS educational programme3 contain very few changes from the drafts. The ELGs do not include anything about SSM despite consultation replies overwhelmingly expressing concern about its removal. This is not just a matter of opinion – there are many research articles which record studies that have shown that spatial reasoning is indicative of future mathematical attainment: for instance, Hawes and Ansari, 2020,4 and Kyttala et al., 2003.5 Here at Cambridge Maths we wrote an Espresso on the early development of spatial skills. From a synthesis of the research, and also informed by expert consultation, we concluded the following:
A clear conclusion here is that SSM has to be a pivotal part of Early Years provision. The DfE’s defence is that whilst there is no SSM early learning goal, it does have a place in the educational programme. This is like saying that we have a curriculum – but we’re not going to assess one part of it. And the EEF evaluation reported that’s exactly how teachers have interpreted it: as optional.
Others6 have written elsewhere on how short-sighted and potentially damaging these, and other, changes are. Momentum is growing. Caring about Early Years mathematics is, I feel, a responsibility of the whole mathematics community, and so is holding decision-makers to account when they appear to ignore evidence.
4Hawes, Z. & Ansari. D. (2020). What explains the relationship between spatial and mathematical skills? A review of evidence from brain and behavior. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 27, 465-482.
5Kyttala, M., Aunio, P., Lehto, J.E., Van Luit, J. & Hautamaki, J. (2003). Visuospatial working memory and early numeracy. Educational and Child Psychology, 20(3), 65-76.
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