Assessment in the early years: what does the research tell us?

The first in a series looking at assessment in the early years, this resource describes three trends from research and considers their implications for schools and for classroom practice.

Future articles will discuss some of these themes in more detail within the context of accurate assessment, with a look at more recent research into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.


1. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are behind their non-disadvantaged peers, but we can do something about it.

Key findings

  • Internationally, children from disadvantaged backgrounds showed lower educational outcomes than their non-disadvantaged peers by age five[i]. In England, this gap was measured at around four months in 2017[ii].
  • Five-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are consistently behind in different subjects and across a range of holistic measures, from emergent literacy to emotion identification[iii].
  • In 43 of 58 countries with available data, UNICEF found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to achieve relevant milestones in literacy and numeracy.[iv]

What can we do?

Disadvantage is a multi-faceted issue which requires collective and collaborative challenge from different stakeholders. High-quality early childhood education [ECE] is well-established as a means of improving outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds[v]. Whilst this is an overarching consideration, evidence-based strategies for schools include:

  • involving families as partners; in particular through providing practical strategies to support home learning and tailoring school communications[vi]
  • increasing access to books and encouraging reading at home 5-7 days per week[vii]
  • increasing children’s participation in extra-curricular or community-based activities[viii].


2. Summer-born children show lower levels of development, but shouldn’t we expect that?

Key findings

  • Summer-born children showed lower levels of development in literacy, numeracy and emotional measures in comparison to their older peers[ix] and were less likely to achieve a Good Level of Development [GLD] on the EYFSP in the UK[x].
  • Evidence suggests the mix of children’s ages in a Reception class may cause inconsistencies in the way practitioners’ assess summer-born children[xi].

What can we do?

When assessing summer-born children, we need to consider the accuracy of saying that they are not achieving a GLD when compared on the same scale as older children. Assessments which enable age-standardised scores, track progress or offer age-related development stages can support practitioners’ accurate assessment of summer-born children.


3. Girls show a greater level of development than boys, specifically in areas involving fine and gross motor skills.

Key findings

  • In 2019, girls achieved higher than boys across all Early Learning Goals [ELGs] on the EYFSP; the gap was widest for writing, and smallest for technology[xii].
  • International data supports this: girls had a greater level of development than boys across a range of measures in England, Estonia and the USA[xiii]. In England the largest gap was in physical development[xiv].
  • Across both of these data sets, girls generally achieved higher in measures of social-emotional skills[xv][xvi][xvii].

What can we do?

A child’s development across different areas in the early years is interrelated and significantly predicts their later achievements, ongoing levels of happiness and well-being[xviii]. As such, accurate assessment should consider multiple areas to build a holistic picture of children’s development; for example, efforts to assess and improve emergent literacy and numeracy should consider children’s fine and gross motor skills too. As children in the early years bring a range of experiences to their learning, assessment should also consider the diversity in how children may express themselves in these areas which may have implications for the assessment contexts practitioners provide.