We put play at the heart of assessment

The Learning Academy Partnership hasn’t let lockdowns derail its skilful tracking of children’s progres

American educator and TV host Fred Rogers once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood!” – and it’s true!

Early years learning is driven by children’s opportunity to play and explore the world around them. Our assessment of children’s progress must mirror this and ensure the wheels of learning continue to move in the right direction.

Formative assessment is key. Catching learning as it is happening, responding and adapting play to fit children’s needs ensure that learning is consistently moving forward.

Child-centric assessment
Julian Grenier, the author of Development Matters 2020, says that learning journeys and assessment are important, but that educators need to be proportionate. That way, practitioners can focus on supporting and extending children’s learning in the moment.

After all, we know our children, we know their next steps, and we design our curriculum and environment in such a way that we innately know what we need to do next, whether that’s put in a little extra support or adaptations to challenge and stretch.

The Learning Academy Partnership is one of the leading multi-academy trusts in the South West. It’s rated the best academy trust in the country for the performance of disadvantaged children and is amongst the top 10 trusts nationally for the progress that children make.

The Partnership is a family of schools that benefit from best-practice sharing and a strong central leadership team who support all the schools.

Early years leaders across the trust have been considering where their practice has adapted to support the changing landscape of monitoring and assessment in their early years settings and whether, as practitioners who meet the child where they are, they were already set up for adapted and child-centric assessment.

“We have been using focus children this year to help direct adult focus in our continuous provision and keep up our picture of learning at home and how this ties in with what we see at school,” says Alice McKnight, an early years leader and nursery teacher from the Learning Academy Partnership.

“We feed this into our weekly planning by adding a section which gives space to reflect on these children and what their next steps are before we plan any learning.

We review our lowest 20% each half term [those children who are making the slowest progress] and ensure these children are focus children more frequently. This has meant more time in the moment moving learning on and consolidating learning with children, and less time writing up observations!”

Learning opportunities
Ultimately, high-quality assessment is all of the high-quality practice and professionalism we in the early years sector pride ourselves on: observation and interaction; a carefully designed curriculum built upon a progress model; listening and responding to our children; building lasting and trusting relationships with parents; and developing a rich, enabling environment that allows all children to thrive and succeed.

But what does that look like when learning and assessment has to be achieved remotely? Across our trust, we’re committed to providing a carefully designed early years remote curriculum with opportunities for responding to our children and families; keeping relationships and communication between home and school is vital.

Using an online learning platform enables the curriculum to be accessed by families, but the keys to assessment are the responses and the interaction teachers have with both children and parents.

Providing learning opportunities that range from phonics to cooking to maths games reminds parents that learning can happen in many different ways. But, as every early years professional understands, vocabulary is at the core of what we do, to ensure our children are provided with a curriculum rich in language.

So how can we provide children with the same language opportunities at home? How can we assess this to ensure the word gap isn’t getting wider? It’s impossible to have all the answers. However, what we can do is ensure we provide our children with activities and interactions that get them talking.

Through the online learning system used in our schools, we can assess this by listening to the children’s discussions and noticing the language used by both parent and child. This provides us with the information we need to tailor our planning and feedback to the children.

Laura Ferran, Ilsham English Hub literacy specialist and early years leader at the Learning Academy Partnership, said of her experience of remote learning, both in live sessions and through observations recorded by parents:

“What I have seen so far is children retelling stories using story language, children [who are usually unwilling to speak out in class] using descriptive language to show and tell their favourite toy, comfortably in their own home, and children proud to use their new ‘wow’ word of the week in a sentence.

This is a fantastic time to draw to parents’ attention the importance of early language, and ensure that the word gap is not widened, whilst we continue to learn in a virtual world.”

Trust leaders have reflected that the success of practitioners monitoring and assessing in the moment and moving learning forward, whether in the classroom or remotely, is built upon the fact that said practitioners deeply understand the children they are working with: who they are and when they may need further support or challenge.

This understanding relies heavily on communication and relationships with both the child and parents, and supports personalised learning that ensures every child has what they need to flourish every step of the way.

This article was written by Julie Edwards, Verity Kingston and Elizabeth Blakesley – Trust Early Years Leads across the Learning Academy Partnership.

We put play at the heart of assessment