Those against data collection in early years are missing the point, says Jan Dubiel. How else will early years’ practitioners know how they (and the child) are doing?

The appropriateness and value of collecting data on children has been hotly debated over the past couple of years, sparked in part by the introduction of baseline assessment.

As the largest provider of baseline assessment in 2015, it’s unsurprising that at Early Excellence we believe that data collection (or information gathering) has an important role in understanding performance – of children themselves, practitioners and the government. This is the case in early years/foundation stage (EYFS) settings and schools in particular, but the same principles apply throughout a child’s time at school.

Data is simply another word for information, and the reality of life as an early years’ practitioner is that collecting information is a constant feature of what we do. We’re always picking up information about the child as a learner, their qualities and behaviours, as well as about what they know, understand and can do. This informs the decisions we make and how we support their learning from the first day of the school year to the last.

In short, early years’ practitioners, through the very nature of the job and the continual assessment that is part of that, are constantly collecting information on children and using this to achieve the best results for them.

Those who are against the data collection in early years (often labelling it the “datafication of childhood”) miss the point. Without knowing how we are doing and what progress is being made, how can we possibly teach effectively?

We need to document a child’s progress from birth to 5

We can look at the information collected on a number of levels, via what I describe as the “telescope” effect.

At an individual level, it allows practitioners to make interventions that have a positive impact. Move the telescope a fraction and you have information about children in a whole class or school, and their skills and capabilities. Zoom out further and we’re able to produce a nationwide dataset for a whole cohort – rich and valuable information for the Department for Education, researchers, advisers, practitioners and many others to comb through, find the evidence for what works and identify where specific developments and approaches make an impact. This allows us to put in place the principles and pedagogy that really will improve the life chances and opportunities for success of the children in our settings.

A numerical score is a useful starting point for summarising and understanding each “zoom” of the telescope. It is not a means of defining a child and I know of no teacher who would describe one of their children purely in terms of the numerical score they attain at baseline or in any other assessment or test.

At Early Excellence, we argue for more data and more information. This is why we have spent the past two years building a new assessment system known as the Early Excellence Assessment Tracker. This allows for the ongoing collection of information of children, from birth to age 5, and will produce the rich levels of data we require to build effective teaching techniques. It will also allow use over time to monitor the success of key government interventions such as the pupil premium, as well as allowing researchers to identify gaps in attainment by using data on demographics, gender and ethnicity.

The debate around the role of data in early years is about much more than on-entry assessment. To truly understand the effectiveness of early years we need a complete, continual approach that documents a child’s progress from birth to 5 years.

With the increasing government interest in early years, the free childcare pilots and our new prime minister’s emphasis on meritocracy, this is a vital opportunity for the early years’ sector to work together and secure the funding and political support required to develop a system that truly delivers for all children. Theresa May says “I actually look at the evidence, take the advice, consider it properly and then come to a decision”. In this context, having data on children can only be a good thing.

Jan Dubiel is national director at Early Excellence