The datafication of childhood

I am not a test score

A recent blog post reported on a new study for the NUT and ATL of the impact of baseline assessment. It focused on the way in which premature testing was changing children and the way they are seen, as well as restricting teachers’ work with children.

Earlier research by one of its authors Guy Roberts-Holmes, The Datafication of Early Year Pedagogy, shows how early testing has the potential to “subvert the early years from being a unique child centred and play based educational stage in its own right, to that of subserviently preparing children for school (and subsequently employment).” This intensifies the ‘schoolification’ of early years.

Interviews with teachers show the exaggerated emphasis placed on literacy and numeracy, rather than the broader foundations that children need.

We have constant meetings looking at the data. It has become very clinical and children have just become numbers… In this game, you gotta play the game. If you’re being judged on a score – teach to it – you’re a fool if you don’t. You must teach to the test – that’s the agenda. (Reception teacher)

Teachers are being subjected to top-down pressure to act against their beliefs.

Formal learning is now coming down from Year 1, through Reception and into the Nursery class with the three year olds that I teach… We were explicitly asked by our headteacher to make nursery ‘more formal’ which means more direct teaching of maths and phonics… The philosophy and values of the EYFS are being eroded. (Nursery teacher)

An inspector’s report, which included observations of three year old children who had been in school for just two weeks, mentioned ‘phonics’ and ‘teaching letter sounds’ seven times.


A further effect is the ‘triage’ to identify children who, it is thought, just might make it whilst neglecting others who are deemed beyond repair. Children are being slotted into these categories. Here an early years advisor from a London local authority explains the process:

It’s about who’s going to achieve the GLD. So we say “they’re easily gonna make it, thank you very much”. And we say “they’re never going to make it so go over there and have a nice time” and we look at the middle group. We target these children because they are the ones who may make it.

The report concludes that the datafication of early years teachers and children has resulted in “the public and constant hierarchical ranking, ordering and classification of children, teachers and schools” constraining “democratic pedagogical spaces, visions and possibilities.”

This process is undermining the central principles of early years education:

Complex holistic child centred principles, sensitive pedagogies and assessments were in danger of being marginalised as early years teachers were ‘burdened with the responsibility to perform’ and submit to a ‘new’ moral system’ that has the potential to reduce the rich and competent child (and teacher) to a ‘measurable teaching subject’.

Early years education is being converted into a preparation room for formal schooling:

The ‘datafication’ of the early years suggests that it is in the process of becoming the first stage in a ‘delivery chain’.

Guy Roberts-Holmes research adds to widespread concerns about the inappropriate formalisation (schoolification) of the early years. Reducing the significance of this important stage in child development to ‘school readiness’ will undermine activities which genuinely lay the foundations of learning and personal growth, and help children thrive.

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