Pen Green Evidenced Based Practice: Making Children’s Learning Visible

Making Children’s Learning Visible is a ‘way of working’, a whole team approach to engaging with assessment data and improving outcomes for children by making their learning and their progress clearly visible to their parents and workers so that all children can be supported most effectively, including the most vulnerable.

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Schools and Communities
  • Families, Parents and Carers
  • General resources

Basic details

Organisation submitting example

Pen Green Research Base, Northamptonshire

Local authority/local area:


The Idea

In ‘Making Children’s Learning Visible’ we have developed an in-depth and comprehensive way of looking at children’s progress with parents and reflecting on the pedagogy that will meet the needs of each child. Making Children’s Learning Visible is not an exercise in ‘tick-boxing’ children’s attainments. It is a way of working which involves parents and practitioners engaging with each other in dialogue and jointly reflecting on their pedagogy and the ways in which they support and facilitate children’s learning, both in the home and in the setting. It uses a project approach to reflect on assessment within a staff team, which encourages practitioners to discuss their ‘Image of the Child’; to identify the most vulnerable children in their setting and to develop a differentiated pedagogy through peer observations to meet the needs of individual children. It is a specific programme focusing on outcomes for children, which is an early intervention in itself and can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of other ways of working with families.


At the Pen Green Centre for Children and Families, we have been involved in working effectively with parents to support children’s learning for over 29 years. We have developed ways of reflecting on our practice through video observations and analysis of children’s learning through peer observations. We have developed rich documentation with parents to reflect on and record the child’s interests and the progress they have made.

As an integrated centre working in an area of deprivation in Corby we are also concerned with raising outcomes for children and families. We know that there is a gap between the children who are disadvantaged and those who are advantaged socio-economically at 22 months in the UK and this gap widens as children go through school (Feinstein, 2003). We know that although, as early years workers, we try to work effectively with every child and family, there are some children who somehow ‘slip through the net’ in every setting. One parent at Pen Green voiced her aspiration for her child, ‘not to be an invisible child like I was’. We know that working with parents is the most important factor in children ‘bucking the trend’ and doing well despite disadvantage (Blanden, 2006).

Our experience of working effectively with parents through our ‘Parent Involvement in their Children’s Learning’ (PICL) approach tells us that sharing knowledge between workers and parents is important in supporting children’s learning effectively. We have been working with parents in this way for many years, to make formative assessments that have informed our planning. We wanted to include parents in our summative assessment judgements and make these judgements visible at certain times in the year so that we could look at and reflect on the progress children had made. 

Knowledge base

This way of working, in which parents and practitioners engage with each other is endorsed by the work of Easen et al (1992) who argue that ‘a broad and accurate picture’ of ‘a child’s developmental progress’ can only be produced by combining a ‘parent’s everyday experience’ with that of ‘professional experience’ thereby bringing together ‘a ‘personal theory’ about the development of a particular child’ with a ‘public’...form of ‘theory’ about... development’ so that all concerned enjoy ‘an enriched understanding’ of the child (pp 282-296).
Making Children’s Learning Visible has also been influenced by the work of Joseph Tobin and his team (1989), who developed a process called ‘polyethnography’ (‘many voices studying ways of being’). Tobin and colleagues used video clips illustrating a ‘day in the life of a nursery child’ to enable workers in China, Japan and America to think about and challenge their own pedagogy through discussing the way they viewed the different ways of working with children in the three countries. 

We engaged in a project with a setting in Ireland in which we swapped video clips of adults working with children and reflected on what we could learn about our own, and each other’s, pedagogy from this experience (Arnold and Brennan, 2008). Through this project we began to articulate our ‘Image of the Child’ i.e. what it was that we valued and promoted in children in our setting. In this process we drew upon the work of Loris Malaguzzi who developed this way of thinking about children in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. At the heart of the Reggio Approach is ‘the image of the child’. Teachers and practitioners in Reggio do not see children as ‘empty vessels’ that require filling with facts. Rather they see children as full of potential, as competent individuals who are capable of building their own theories. Malaguzzi’s image of the child was of one who is ‘rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and, most of all connected to adults and other children.' (1993, p 10). 

The Aims and Objectives of MCLV

The aims of the Making Children’s Learning Visible (MCLV) Programme are:
• To develop a more critical, reflective and differentiated pedagogy to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children.
• To effectively use assessment data to reflect on children’s progress.
• To work with parents and share knowledge about their children’s learning.
• To support information sharing about children at transition from one setting to another (e.g. from nursery FS1 to Reception FS2).

The programme has four strands:

- establishing the ‘Image of the Child’ within a staff team; selecting and discussing a video clip of that image as a team and reflecting on the pedagogy that supports this image;
- identifying the most vulnerable children in a setting and reflecting on the differentiated pedagogy needed to support these children;
- using video to record peer observations which can support team members to reflect together on the pedagogy in the setting and how effectively workers are supporting children’s learning;
- making assessment judgements with parents, discussing children’s progress and how each child can be most effectively supported at home and in the setting. These assessments are displayed on individual graphs to aid the discussion and parents and workers use them to share their understanding of the child with other professionals. They are also used by parents and workers at transition to support dialogue about how to effectively engage the child in their learning.

The objectives of the MCLV programme are to improve outcomes for children, parents and workers in the ways outlined below. 

Improving outcomes for children
The MCLV software can produce graphs that can be used to measure the progress children have made throughout the Foundation Stage. The software offers the facility to look at and compare groups of children with different characteristics and different family experiences. It can also be used to measure the impact of specific interventions e.g. PICL – contact the C4EO team for link to example (see links for the C4EO team below). Discussing children’s progress with parents, other professionals and at transition to school helps to enhance the pedagogical support offered to children and to support their progress.

Improving outcomes for parents
Involving parents in the assessment judgements enables parents to feel involved in their children’s learning and supports parents to gain confidence and become advocates for their children.

Improving outcomes for workers
Workers are encouraged to reflect on their ‘Image of the child’, to develop a differentiated pedagogy to meet the needs of all children and to reflect on their own practice through peer observations. They deepen their ability to reflect, to challenge, to engage with assessment data and to ask questions about practice. They find ways of improving practice through the analysis of the evidence on children’s progress.

Arnold, C. and Brennan, C. (2008) Using Polyvocal Ethnography to Examine Adult and Child Engagement in an English and an Irish Setting. Symposium presentation at the European Early Childhood Education Research Association Annual Conference, Dublin, September 2008. 

Blanden, J (2006) ‘Bucking the trend’: What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? Working Paper No. 31. London. Department of Work and Pensions. 

Easen, P., Kendall, P. & Shaw, J. (1992) Parents and Educators: Dialogue and Developing through Partnership. Children and Society 6:4 

Feinstein, L. (2003) ‘Inequality in the Early Cognitive Development of British Children in the 1970 Cohort’. Economica (70) 277, 73-97

Malaguzzi, L. (1993) ‘For an education based on relationships’, Young Children, 11/93, 10. 

Tobin, J., Wu, D. and Davidson, D. (1989) Preschool in Three Cultures. London. Yale University Press.

The practice

Image of the Child

The Pen Green team of nursery practitioners completed a negotiation exercise. Each staff member took six blank cards and wrote down on their own, the six things that were of most value to them in their ‘Image of the Child’, one on each card. They then negotiated, first in pairs and then in fours, which of the six cards between them were the ones they most valued and ‘discarded’ the rest. In this way they were able to come up with a list of statements, which illustrated the ‘Image of the Child’ in the setting.

The six qualities identified during this negotiation exercise were:

‘confident and strong, able to question, able to choose, able to assert themselves, empathetic, secure’.

They were then able to select video clips of children in the nursery and discuss as a staff team, which clips illustrated their ‘Image of the Child’. 

Identifying vulnerable children

The staff team then considered the children in the academic cohort that were going to start school the following year (i.e. children aged over 36 months on the 1st September 2010). They discussed which children could be vulnerable and at risk of slow or little progress in their learning. They considered carefully the children who had additional rights (SEN), the children who spoke an additional language other than English in the home, and the children whose families were facing challenges (family support levels) and the children whose first assessment was below their chronological age. For this year (2010/11) 27 children out of 85 were below their chronological age at their first assessment. 

Table one sets out the other characteristics that were considered for each child as well as the particular circumstances and challenges that each family were facing at the time. The team felt that this contextual information was extremely important in order to enable them to make sense of the assessment data. This contextual information is set out in more detail in appendix one giving the level of complexity, the analysis of the child’s first assessment and the progress they made and the interventions that were offered to the family during their nursery/FS1 year. Appendix one is available from C4EO team at the NFER.

Peer observations

Workers also engaged in peer video observations and reflected on their adult – child interactions using the Pen Green Pedagogic Strategies (Pen Green, 2005 appendix 3) which were developed by parents and workers in a joint research project. This enabled workers in pairs to challenge themselves and support each other in developing a more differentiated pedagogy.

Making assessment judgements with parents

Each family worker (key person) gathered all the information and observations they had made on each child through discussions with their parents. The family worker, together with parents, then made a professional assessment judgement against development matters statements in the EYFS. They recorded whether the child was emerging ‘E’, developing ‘D’ or confident ‘C’ in which age band for each aspect of each area of learning. The programme has now been updated to correspond to the revised EYFS. 

Case study
Trudy (worker), Holly (mother) and David (father) talked about Michael’s learning. They had assessed his learning in writing (CLL) as emerging in the 30-50 age band when he was 40 months old. Four months later as he was about to start school they reflected on how his writing had progressed and he was interested in drawing pictures to describe what he liked to do at nursery and in beginning to write his name. Michael drew a representation of the monkey bars so that his teacher would understand what he meant. His learning had been supported by giving him opportunities to ‘mark make for meaning’ (i.e. make marks which had a meaning and significance for him) supporting him in recognising his name and in exploring the shape of some of the letters.

Analysis of Children’s Graphs in Family Workers’ Groups
Family workers were also able to examine the graphs of children in their family group and engage with the data, raising questions about their pedagogy and their assessment processes and moderation. These questions focused on why some workers were seeing strengths in children as a group in a particular area of learning. Was this because they supported children effectively in this area? Because they assessed children differently in this area? Because of the way the statements were written? Workers began to reflect on their own pedagogy and be open to learning from each other. 

Analysis of Cohort Data
The MCLV software also enables workers to look at cohort data. Practitioners can study trends across assessments and the progress different groups of children have made between assessments e.g. boys/girls, English as an additional language, children who have attended nursery for five terms. 

Further details on how cohort data is used in the three assessments that take place over a year is available from C4EO team at the NFER.

Using MCLV on transition to school 

The MCLV assessment graphs have been a useful starting point in a dialogue between parents, nursery workers and reception teachers as children transfer to school. It has been difficult in the past for reception teachers to access all the rich detailed nursery documentation on each child due to the size of each child’s record of achievement. The MCLV graph has allowed the dialogue to begin with an overview of the child’s learning and progress. It has provided a ‘way in’ to look at some aspects of the child’s achievements in more depth. It has also promoted respect by reception teachers for the assessment judgements made by nursery staff and it has promoted a professional discussion about moderation. The summer assessments made by nursery workers who by the summer know children well and are assessing children in a familiar environment with people they know and trust and the autumn assessments made by reception teachers as the children transfer to the new environment of school are likely to differ. The MCLV graphs have enabled a respectful discussion to take place about these differences which has also stimulated all workers and parents to think about the transition process.

Sharing data and data analysis in this way has supported workers to focus on the child and the support for their learning, rather than a focus on whether assessment data at transition between settings has been suppressed or inflated. Three of the primary schools attended by Pen Green children are now using the MCLV software to measure the progress children make through FS2 as a continuation of assessments made in FS1 at Pen Green. 

Who was involved

This project involved the Pen Green nursery team and workers across the Pen Green organisation working with the same families in family support services, crèche and group work. The individual children’s graphs enabled parents and workers to discuss children’s progress across the centre and to reflect on how to support children’s learning more effectively. As mentioned above, reception teachers were also involved as the children transferred to school and the project has been widely supported by head teachers. 

Evidence and evaluation - making a difference to children, young people and families

Our Performance measures

The assessment part of the Making Children’s Learning Visible programme is both an intervention and a performance measure of the intervention. It is a measure of children’s outcomes in terms of the progress they have made. Part of the intervention is the engagement by parents and workers in reflecting on and responding to the assessment data. It puts evaluation in the hands of the workers and parents who are directly supporting the child. In this way it is ‘developmental evaluation (Michael Quinn Patton, 2011). This has been detailed in the section above with examples of how the engagement with the data has led to changes in the way parents and workers have supported children’s learning which has resulted in the children making more progress. 

Evidence of making a difference

Data analysis on the most vulnerable
We were particularly interested in the children who were assessed as well below their chronological age on entry (see table 2).We also tracked the interventions offered to the parents of these children over their time in nursery -see contextual information in appendix 1 available from C4EO team at the NFER.

Evidence of significant ‘catch up’ in development through responding to MCLV data for children with developmental delay at first assessment

The 27 children who were assessed as well below their chronological age at their first assessment (i.e. assessed in over half of the aspects as being below their chronological age) made on average 1.98 steps in each assessment criteria over three assessments. This relates to the equivalent of a move from emerging to confident (two steps) or confident in one age band to developing in the next age band (two steps). This rate of progress over nine months is higher than expected (it equates to two thirds of a move through a 20 month age band) and shows significant ‘catch up’ by these children.

The data shows not only significant progress in each of the EYFS areas of learning, but also that this progress brought the majority of children in-line with the expected development for their age. 

Of the 27 children who were selected because they were achieving below their chronological age at the first assessment, 17 were judged at the final assessment to be in-line with their chronological age. In other words, 63% of children who were previously below their developmental age left the nursery achieving in-line with their age expectation.

This group comprised some of the most vulnerable children in the nursery; 52% spoke English as an additional language, and 56% had additional needs. Our data shows marked and significant improvement in outcomes for these children. 

Evaluation of MCLV through profile scores
The impact of MCLV can also be evaluated by analysing the Foundation Stage Profile scores of the children who attended Pen Green nursery. We have been using MCLV at Pen Green for the last four years and we have developed a much more informed dialogue with Reception teachers through MCLV graphs as children transfer to school from nursery. This has led to a transition project which has involved increased exchange visits by workers/teachers and improved communication with parents about children’s learning as they begin to build a relationship with the reception class teacher, supported by the nursery family worker. 
The profile scores of the children who attended Pen Green nursery have continued to improve (National Indicator 72, see figure 5). Due to the increase in the overall attainment at profile and the high proportion of children with additional needs in the 2009/10 nursery cohort, the gap between the median of the cohort and the 20 % of children with the lowest attainment has slightly widened (National Indicator 92, see figure 5). Reflection on profile data has also helped nursery family workers to consider outcomes for children through the understanding and analysis of current trends.

Evaluation from other settings using the MCLV programme
Many of the centres currently involved in the DfE funded Early Years Teaching Centres with Pen Green are now using the MCLV approach. Feedback and a case study example are available from C4EO team at the NFER.

Sustaining and replicating your practice

Making Children’s Learning Visible is a way of working. It involves reflection and action following the review of practice in relation to the four strands of the project:

- pedagogical reflection in relation to an agreed ‘Image of the Child’
- identification of the most vulnerable children in each cohort
- developing pedagogical support through peer observation
- working with parents to track progress across the Foundation Stage and support children effectively at transitions between organisations/pedagogical spaces.

The changes that have been achieved through this approach are being constantly reviewed and improved upon. This reflective cycle enables the changes not only to be sustained but also enhanced, as workers learn from, and respond effectively to, each new cohort of children and their families.

Costs and benefits: Do you have any information on the cost of your programme? This would be really useful information for other areas who might wish to implement a similar programme. 

The cost of attending the MCLV professional development three day programme with supported project work is £675 per person. This cost includes all the project materials and MCLV software. We encourage two workers per setting to attend the training together so that they can support each other in taking the work forward in their setting. 

Having completed the MCLV programme and project work, participants are encouraged to support colleagues through the programme in their own context and to share the work and software with workers in early years settings in their children’s centre reach area including the schools attended by their nursery children at FS2/Reception. 

An investment of £1,350 (£675 x 2) pays for two people to attend the MCLV programme who could potentially train all their colleagues in their own setting and colleagues in each setting in their locality through a cluster approach to the project work, thereby reaching in excess of 50 early years workers.

Locality support through cluster meetings organised through an umbrella organisation or Local Authority helps to sustain this way of working. We have offered the MCLV professional development programme in Local Authority areas across the country in addition to offering the training at Pen Green. Local Authorities can also apply for a Licence from Pen Green to offer the MCLV professional development programme in their own area at a cost of £10,000. The Licence agreement stipulates tight quality control measures and moderation requirements for the training and enables Local Authorities to offer the MCLV programme to up to three cohorts of 20 people a year (Licence agreement document - Appendix 2) available from C4EO team at the NFER.

Learning from the experience: What have you learnt that could be useful to others? Do you have any ‘golden threads’ to share? Any ‘must dos’ for your intervention?

The learning and experience we have gained from working through MCLV has been detailed in the previous sections. The golden threads running through this project approach to developing this way of working are:

- the accountability by the whole staff team for outcomes for children and ‘making the invisible children visible’
- the highlighting of the progress made by children through the MCLV graphs which can be shared and discussed with parents and other workers and used in moderation and at transition between staff teams. 
- the ownership and ‘buy in’ to a process of reflection and change in practice generated within a staff team through a focus on their ‘Image of the Child’ and the pedagogy that supports this image
- the ability to critically reflect on pedagogy through peer observations using video
- the involvement of parents in their children’s learning through shared assessments and documentation.

For MCLV to be successful there must be:

- an engagement of the whole staff team
- time given to pedagogical dialogue and reflection for each child
- time given to working with parents and sharing knowledge with parents in making the assessment judgments
- time given to discussing children’s progress with colleagues and parents on transition between staff teams.

Challenges: Did you encounter any barriers? How did you overcome these?

Critical reflection on practice requires courage and confidence. Changes to practice can be resisted and workers can become defensive when challenged about the efficacy of what they are doing. The project work involved in the MCLV programme has been devised to help participants deal with barriers to critical reflection through:

- a strengths based approach – enabling teams to reflect on what they are trying to promote in children; their ‘Image of the Child’.
- a whole team approach – enabling everyone to move forward together and to support each other.
- a slowing down of the processes of reflection on pedagogy using video and enabling discussion and dialogue.
- a strengths based approach to peer observation and support. Traditionally workers have experienced work observations as an assessment on their practice in terms of performance management rather than an in-house supportive process to review and improve practice amongst peers which the MCLV programme promotes. 
- a child study approach to working with families. Practitioners often resist working with parents effectively citing lack of time and opportunity to connect with parents. This programme enables participants to work through an assessment with one family on one child and to review their learning from the process as well as the progress made by the child. 
- a user friendly display of assessment data. The MCLV software enables all workers to engage with the assessment data for individual children, groups of children and cohorts. 

The MCLV programme requires workers to make a professional summative assessment judgment for each child with their parents at three times in the year. The summative assessment process is expected to draw on rich documentation and formative assessments that are continuously made for each child, day to day. Some workers find this difficult as they either resist documenting the child’s learning effectively or they try to make summative assessments after each observation of a child. 

This way of working creates a dependency on addressing the Development Matters statements in the EYFS and restricts the way the adults engage with the children. The use of video in the MCLV programme to reflect on deep level learning, and the focus on the pedagogy which supports the image of the child, helps workers to move to a more holistic view of children and become more responsive pedagogues. 

Replication: What are your views regarding the potential for replication of your practice example? Has this been done already within your local authority, for example?

The comments from staff teams who are using MCLV in the previous sections give examples of how the programme has been used in practice beyond Pen Green. We now have two Early Years Teaching Centres offering MCLV under Licence and are in discussions with two Local Authorities who also want to gain a licence for MCLV from Pen Green. We have also incorporated MCLV into our Two Year Olds Project which is an eight day professional development programme devised to support project teams within children’s centres and day care settings to work together to offer effective and evidenced support for families taking up the 2 year old entitlement. We are currently working with a Local Authority to support 10 settings through this project approach. 

Core Leadership Behaviours

The following eight core behaviours have been identified as part of successful elements of leadership (see National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services/C4EO (2011). Resourceful leadership: how directors of children’s services improve outcomes for children. 

The core leadership behaviours identified in this example are: 

i. openness to possibilities
The MCLV programme encourages workers to be open to the possibilities of developing their practice following reflection on their image of the child, the pedagogy that supports that image, the most vulnerable children in their setting and their assessment of and reflection on children’s progress.

ii. the ability to collaborate
The MCLV programme is a whole team approach which encourages workers to work collaboratively with parents and other professional who are supporting children’s learning both within and between settings

iii. demonstrating a belief in team and people
The MCLV programme encourages workers to develop a shared ethos and a belief in their team approach to supporting the most vulnerable children in their setting. Workers are also supported to share knowledge with parents and believe in parents’ ability to support their children’s learning. 

iv. personal resilience and tenacity
The MCLV programme enables leaders to support their team over time and to persist with difficulty and to challenge their ways of working with children and families.

v. the ability to create and sustain commitment across a system
The MCLV programme supports leaders within teams to develop a commitment to continual critical reflection on their practice which is sustained through the project’s approach.

vi. focusing on results
The MCLV programme focuses on improving outcomes for children by enabling workers to reflect on children’s progress. 

vii. the ability to simplify
The MCLV programme offers a simple and straightforward way for workers to articulate their ‘image of the child’, the pedagogy that supports that image, to identify the vulnerable children in their setting and to make children’s learning visible through clear, simple graphs.

viii. the ability to learn continuously
The MCLV programme is based on continual reflection upon and improvement of practice.

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