Challenges of developing pedagogy through diversity and equity within the new Early Years Foundation (EYFS) curriculum

Malini Mistry, University of Bedfordshire and Krishan Sood, Nottingham Trent University


A commitment to diversity and equity principles through social justice lies at the heart of many Early Years' practitioners working practices. However, the term social justice is complex, and this complexity manifests itself through its multiple meanings, in different cultural contexts. This paper investigates how diversity and equity are linked through an understanding of social justice within the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum. It also explores how diversity and equity is promoted through the Early Years curriculum and what remain the potential challenges practitioners. Interviews in multi-cultural and mono-cultural primary schools with Early Years age phases were conducted. The findings showed that the principles of social justice through diversity and equity was interpreted differently in each Early Years setting, which is unsurprising given the complicated nature of its meaning. The multi-cultural schools appear to use a greater variety of activities to embed social justice principles that involved their diverse communities more to enrich the curriculum in contrast to the mono-cultural schools. In mono-cultural schools however, practitioners had to be more creative in promoting diversity and equity given the smaller proportion of their diverse pupil and staff population.

Keywords: Early Years, equity, diversity, multi-cultural/mono-cultural schools


From September 2012 a revised EYFS curriculum became statutory in England for all government registered settings for children aged between birth and five (DfE, 2012: Online). The EYFS encompasses four key principles that shapes practice in settings and consists of: understanding that every child is a unique child, children learn to be independent through positive relationships, children learn and develop in enabling environments, and the understanding that children learn in different ways and at different rates (DfE, 2012: Online). The focus is on children's readiness for learning and on their healthy development. There is prominence on developing children's language and identities (Issa & Hatt) but little emphasis on how diversity and equity permeates the EYFS. We explore the latter in this paper.


All levels of the school system must hold the principles of social justice, and the valuing of diversity (Coleman and Glover, 2010) to ensure that equal opportunities (Coleman, 2002) is evident. The term diversity has `many and different meanings' (Coleman & Glover, 2010, pp. 6), based on the context of the Early Years setting. Celebrating difference (Lumby & Coleman, 2007; Jehn et al., 2008), valuing diversity (Coleman & Glover, 2010), cross-cultural perspective (Dimmock & Walker, 2002), and minimising the impact of discrimination (Fiske &Lee, 2008) lie at the heart of understanding diversity. Social justice in the form of rights, responsibilities and fairness constitutes the glue that drives pedagogical practice in Early Years within the settings investigated in this research.

We were looking at how practitioners in multi and mono-cultural primary schools build individual and organisational capability and how they lead with values, like equity, fairness, respect and tolerance (Bell and Stevenson, 2006), particularly in the Early Years age phase. We are reminded by Gold (2010, in Coleman & Glover, 2010), that there may be conflicting values and that we can never be sure if all practitioners hold the same values. So the challenge in Early Years is how best practitioners align different values in the interest of their children and educational practice. Lumby & Coleman's (2007) critique of diversity and equality in educational settings offers a refreshing viewpoint, stating that, supporting diversity amongst practitioners may result in a `redistribution of power' which may appear uncomfortable to a dominant group (p.79).

In Early Years settings, learning by doing and exploring the environment, has gained universal status (Curtis, 1998). She goes on to suggest that play is not the only means by which children discover the world; the whole of their spontaneous activity creates their psychic equilibrium especially in the Early Years. We believe the pedagogic orientation of Early Years is on learning to learn within a social and cultural context (Robins & Callan, 2009, p.11). Diversity presents challenges in achieving moral purpose, so we need to build relationships that encourage collaborative cultures (Fullan, 1999).

The varying and broader meanings of diversity have prompted a possible re-conceptualisation that takes account the complex nature of differences in children (Ng, 2003; Graham, 2007). We argue that Early Years practitioners need to move away from surface level tinkering of the curriculum to focus on the deep hidden curriculum values and acceptance (Petriwskyj, 2010: 195). With increased migration, changes to education will have an impact on the curriculum, and it is essential that Early Years practitioners discuss the implications of diversity and equity issues on their provision.

Placing their values at the heart of their leadership is a mark of outstanding head teachers, referred to as value-driven leadership (Gold in Coleman & Glover, 2010). Many have argued (Moore et al., 2002; Gold in Coleman and Glover, 2010) that head teachers' values gave the moral compass (Fullan, 2003) to help them navigate 'a hostile wider environment' (Bell & Stevenson, 2006: 150). We suggest that such a moral compass is vital to promote radical changes and improvement in Early Years practice at an institutional level in relation to diversity and equity. Developing critical consciousness (Coleman & Glover, 2010) of children and staff, through education, offers one such strategic direction that encompasses access and entitlement through debate on issues of diversity and equity, and the potential for wider policy refraction becomes less. Developing a dialogue (Shields, 2009) with various stakeholders offers potential for EYFS curriculum reform in permeating the diversity and equity values. From analysing the literature, three main research questions emerged:

  1. What is diversity and equity in Early Years?
  2. How do practitioners develop their pedagogy through diversity and equity in Early Years?
  3. Challenges faced by practitioners in developing pedagogy through diversity and equity in the Early Years?


We chose two types of English primary schools. Those which were multi-cultural/multi-ethnic schools (with over 9per cent minority ethnic children) because their intake represented the large plural communities they were drawn from and the other schools were mainly mono-cultural/mono-ethnic (less than 10% minority ethnic children) due to their under-representation from minority-ethnic intake. Our driving principles of ethical educational research were of 'commitment to honesty' (Sammons, 1989 as quoted in Busher & James, 2007, pp. 106), and 'respect for the dignity and privacy of those people who are the subjects of research' (Pring, 2000 as quoted in Busher & James, 2007, pp. 106).

There were sixteen case study schools in total of the original sample of twenty. Bearing in mind Bassey's definition on an educational case study research 'which entails being where the action is, taking testimony from and observing the actors first hand' (2007, pp. 143), this research can be classified as such since it satisfies all the criteria outlined that 'the researcher needs to collect sufficient data to allow him/her to explore features, create interpretations and test for trustworthiness' (Bassey, 2007, pp. 144). Each case study school was given a code, therefore, MCS1 – MC8 meant multi-cultural/multi-ethnic school 1-8 and MonoCS1 meant mono-cultural/mono-ethnic school 1-8. We interviewed sixteen Early Years leaders in the sample schools as they were the key curriculum leaders in the area being researched. We also interviewed four head teachers (two each from the multicultural and mono-cultural schools) of the sixteen schools who have had experience in the Early Years age phase in order to get the holistic picture about the ways in which they were meeting the challenges of embedding social justice principles within the Early Years curriculum. So our total sample was twenty leaders from the sixteen schools chosen. We chose interviews as this gave us an opportunity to think about educational phenomena and how to investigate them (Morrison 2007, cited in Briggs & Coleman, 2007, pp. 13).


We frame our analysis using the three research questions cited earlier. Based on the participants' perspectives, the findings emerged as descriptions of specific experiences of the concepts explored based on practice in each school. While there was presence of wealth of experience shared from the coded respondents, most appeared to give generic response to the questions posed.

  • What does diversity and equity in Early Years mean?

For some of the Early Year's leaders in each type of school sampled, diversity meant:

It is important to appreciate that everyone is an individual and has different experiences, interests and needs and when this is recognised then the best provision can be tailored to meet those individual needs. (MonoCS7)

Having a realistic not stereotypical view of other countries/cultures. (MCS6)

In contrast, the head teachers said:

We value diversity in all its forms and I am so lucky to have very good links with the local community to draw on expertise like language and cultural advice. Our role is to overcome cognitive and structural barriers faced by our members of the school community. (Head teacher mono-cultural school, 3)

We are encouraging all our learners to be active, questioning, inquisitive citizens and equipping them with such skills. (Head teacher, multicultural school, 4)

School leaders from both the mono-cultural and multi-cultural settings iterated that they 'found the challenges of the implementation of the EYFS very difficult whether it was managing with diverse staff or not'. In addition, these leaders cited the benefits of collaborations and partnerships with the local community to seek specific support or guidance on cultural issues and the ability to feel free to ask other leaders for help and support. The Early Years staff understood diversity as addressing and tackling issues of stereotypes, discrimination and ensuring their practices exhibited a level playing field for quality education that was personalised.

For some of the Early Year's practitioners in each type of school sampled, equity meant:

Making sure that all children have the same opportunity to access all learning experiences. (MCS2)

Children should feel valued and be free to express their beliefs and cultures. Equality is the right to feel equal. (MonoCS2)

Head teachers in the two contrasting schools thought the following as regards what equity mean for them:

To be respected and given the best opportunities to achieve and learn. This is achieved through establishing a provision that reflects the individual needs, interests and abilities of everyone. (Head teacher, mono-cultural school, 1)

Making children in the class feel that they are being treated equally so that they don't have the notion that certain children are seen to be the teachers favourite! (Head teacher, multi-cultural school, 1)

Meeting individual young person's needs was cited by all of the case study respondents and supported the concepts of the right to equal resources and fair treatment to all. The degree of equitable provision, however, could not be identified through this small scale study suggesting the need for further targeted research on policy, strategy and operational issues. In most cases, equity was described as respect and promoting human dignity that underpinned organisational ethos and culture.

  • How do practitioners develop their pedagogy through diversity and equity in Early Years?

Diversity approaches in the Early Years could be developed in these ways:

We already have a diverse setting with many different first languages. (MCS7)

We have many activities that support the different cultures of our class. I want to learn and understand more about various cultures and customs. (MCS8)

The new EYFS focuses even more on meeting the needs of the children and therefore the play initiated through children's interests is paramount. We encourage role play and teach our children how to argue persuasively. (MonoCS5)

We use our theme of the term to address aspects of diversity, currently our topic is ourselves and therefore we are looking at all different kinds of people. (MonoCS7)

The head teachers commented about diversity:                                                                                                       

Encourage more volunteers to come in and help – therefore using their knowledge of how to make settings more diverse. Staff need additional information to update their knowledge and understanding so that multicultural practices can be delivered effectively. (Head teacher, mono-cultural school, 4)

We promote the diversity of our school by recognising celebrations of other cultures, encouraging children to share key phrases in their home language with their class/school. (Head teacher, multi-cultural school, 4)

Many respondents of the case studies were able to showcase examples of good practice of diversity in education and how they prepared young people for the globalization of the twenty-first century. Practitioners at all levels discussed their vision of a democratic society and how their school structures and systems would help to ensure that the vision and values could be carried out through in promoting the EYFS principles.

Equity approaches in the Early Years could be developed in these ways:

We use values based education where we recognise differences within the school community and the wider world and examine how everyone should have basic rights. (MCS8)

EAL children are often disadvantaged because of the expectation they should be assessed in English. A child may be absorbing English and be able to understand it enough to efficiently access and learn within the environment. (MonoCS3)

The head teachers commented about equity:

We as staff need to provide so many experiences to make learning as equal as we can, especially for those children who lack certain experiences. We have high expectations of all our learners. (Head teacher, mono-cultural school, 2)

Ensuring our vision and values promote equity in everything we do, our curriculum, teaching, learning, staffing, monitoring, recruitment, training, links with the parents, the home and others. (Head teacher, multi-cultural school, 3)

Mono-cultural schools, like the multicultural schools, provided quality Early Years education and the practitioners told us their practices were driven by values and behaviour that promoted diversity and equity mostly through play and stories. They were focused on staff development and endeavoured to mainstream diversity and equity, which meant that this was central to all aspects of policy and practice in their organisations.

In multicultural school settings the main advantage appears to be the diversity of population. In such schools, many of the respondents told us about the celebrations and activities they undertook further enriched the curriculum. One head teacher told us why their school values of social justice and democracy underpinned his leadership actions and decisions. The head teachers were keen to 'grow' their own leaders, so recognised the importance of mentoring and role models. The Early Years practitioners described the importance of understanding other languages and cultures so that they could reach out to their learners and meet their individual needs better.

  • Challenges faced by practitioners in developing pedagogy through diversity and equity in the Early Years?

Some of the challenges identified by Early Years practitioners consisted of: getting help from other people such as parents, specialists and other members of the community (MCS7); spending time doing a little research into the needs of the diverse groups in my class (MonoCS7); and a lack of time for preparing visual resources, sign language (MCS8). Comments on some of the personal challenges in meeting the needs of diverse children centred on 'not knowing if what you are doing is right or not' (MonoCS4); 'wishing I could speak every language that is represented in my classroom (13 at last count)' (MCS6).

For the head teachers, some of the challenges they faced were: 'Multicultural schools have more opportunities to show they are promoting equality but this may not always be the case if we don't monitor our successes'. (Head teacher, multi-cultural school, 4). 'Mono-cultural schools are not promoting diversity and equity as their population is not diverse therefore they may feel that they don't need to cater for anything else — this is a false view that we need to challenge at every stage'. (Head teacher, mono-cultural school, 2).

It is not surprising to see a range of needs and issues presented in these comments. This suggests that schools in our sample were at different stages of promoting their practice through the values of diversity and equity. Every member of the respondent we interviewed valued the importance in underpinning their practice or leadership actions and decisions through the issues of diversity and social justice. The emphasis however was on personalised, child-centred and holistic notion of curriculum provision by all the case studies. There were formal and informal structures and systems in place in the case studies that promoted the diversity and equity dimensions. Reaching out to parents was a priority for those schools who felt more explanation was needed about the values of diversity and equity.

Discussion of findings

The evidence presented examined how diversity and equity was promoted through the EYFS curriculum and what remained the potential challenges for practitioners. The results of the case studies analysis reveal an overall thrust to underpin practice in the EYFS through values based principles of diversity and equity in both the mono-cultural and multi-cultural schools. The main strategies found in the case studies were linked with deploying diverse staff (Lumby & Coleman, 2007), where available, to assist in the teaching, resource preparation and assessment of children. In the mono-cultural case studies, out-reach resourcing was the main strategy. Leadership in all schools was strong and very much founded on values-led (Gold in Coleman & Glover, 2010) and modelling good practice to community of learners.

These findings reinforce the findings of the numerous studies that have been conducted in the field of diversity and equity where diversity management was at the heart of good pedagogy (Coleman & Glover, 2010). In addition, these studies opened up the debate about diversity and equity in areas like the curriculum design, structures and systems (Norte, 2001); and people-relationships (Weiner, 2003). But to date, there are no detailed studies that map the link between EYFS with diversity and equity, although there are a few that look tangentially at theories on multilingual learning in Early Years settings rather than our focus (Issa & Hatt, 2013).

Implications for pedagogic development

Diversity and equity are part of the ideals of social justice and provide an impetus to overcome discriminatory behaviour (Coleman & Glover, 2010: 7) and stereotypical approaches to quality EYFS curriculum. Giving staff time for dialogue to discuss approaches to good pedagogy in promoting diversity and equity values was essential outcome of the research. The evidence shows that strong internal mentoring programme and peer group training and development were important strategies. But we need to be cautious as the business of schooling has changed considerably as a result of accountability mandating a new (re)conceptualisation of the practitioner role in leading and managing for and with diversity (Lumby, 2010).


The most important contribution of the study is the reflective evidence showing that there are many innovative ways to implement diversity and equity ideals in the new EYFS curriculum from both types of settings. Development of critical consciousness (Friere, 1998) is only the first step change necessary to ensure that pedagogical approaches make a positive difference in the lives of all citizens (Fullan, 1999). Our evidence identifies how leaders and practitioners strive to make this difference through empathy, relationship building, interaction, and in the creation of mutual interest to encourage collaborative cultures with a commitment to the well-being of all. We require to look at pedagogical approaches through a cross-cultural 'lens' (Dimmock & Walker, 2002) and maybe through self-awareness, self-leadership and shared reflective review (Robins and Callan, 2010, pp. 23), know where and how to close the gap of inequality.


The authors would like to thank all the staff in the sample schools for their valuable thoughts and comments. They would also like to thank their respective universities for their support.


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