With studious concentration the four-year-old lines up blue plastic bears and counts to five. Then she points to grass in a picture and recognises the letter “g”.
She is one of the first children to take the government’s new reception baseline assessments for four and five-year-olds piloted in 9,000 schools and nurseries in England over the past six weeks.
The idea of testing such young children as they start school is controversial, especially with early-years teachers and parents who last April took their children on a protest march to Downing Street and even tried to stop it through a legal challenge, which failed.
There were fears that children would be upset and demoralised by being taken out of class to do the assessments but, as the pilot ended last week, headteachers said the concerns were unfounded. Pupils, they said, liked doing the assessments, and were so eager in one school that they started to queue for their turn.
The children use picture cards and materials to show what they can do, with the questions gradually getting more difficult until there are more wrong answers than right ones. When the baseline is introduced next September, the children’s scores, recorded by the adult on a tablet, will be sent to a national database and later compared with their performance in tests at age 11.
“The children were not stressed by it at all. They enjoyed spending one-to-one time with the adults,” says Simon Kidwell, headteacher of Hartford Manor primary school and nursery near Northwich, Cheshire.
As the local branch secretary for the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), he contacted 300 members for feedback. “Nobody mentioned the children getting upset. The feedback was mainly around the cost of providing cover for the adults conducting the assessments, the narrowness of the questions and, in rural areas, problems accessing the internet.”
The downside is the funding – Kidwell estimates that providing cover for staff cost the school £600 – around £6m across England. This is on top of the £11m the Department for Education (DfE) is spending on developing the assessments.
The NAHT has backed the baseline tests because the government has promised it will replace the more time-consuming assessments for children at the end of year 2, which at present are compared with the children’s scores at age 11.
“A measure of progress from the start to the end of primary school is preferable and actually places a greater value on the important work and progress made in those critical first few years,” said an NAHT spokeswoman. “Our members have told us that having this one-to-one time with each child is valuable for staff and that it is enjoyed and valued by the children, too.”
But many teachers question whether the narrow measure of maths and English can assess a child’s willingness and ability to learn. Beatrice Merrick, the chief executive of Early Education, says teachers should be settling children in, not taking them out of class to collect data for the government. “We have feedback about it being demoralising for children who are being asked to do things they can’t be expected to do, such as complete number sentences,” she says.
The pressure group More Than a Score, which campaigns against “a system that cares more about measurement than education”, warns that the focus on a narrow range of knowledge and skills is likely to have a knock-on effect on nurseries, which will be tempted to focus on English and maths as a marketing tool to impress parents with high baseline scores.
Its survey of teachers towards the end of the pilot period found widespread criticism. “If children did not know the initial letter sounds because they had not been taught them, they still had to read the word ‘sun’ which is ridiculous – their first experience of school is being not able to do things,” said one teacher. Another said: “We are pretty much having to ignore the whole class while we do them. They are cold and military.”
Nancy Stewart, More Than a Score’s early year’s specialist, says the answers given by young children can differ by the day, or even hour. “There is a huge difference between what a child might have been taught when they are four and the skills and problem-solving abilities they will develop by age 11,” she says.
But Claire Edgeley, head of Over Hall community school in Winsford, Cheshire, believes the baseline will be fairer to schools such as hers, because it measures children as they arrive. “This is my home town and I hold it dear to my heart but we serve an area which is in the top 5-10% in the country for deprivation. At the moment we are doing our own baseline assessment of how our children are doing for their ages. We would love it if the new baseline could provide more information to benchmark the children, showing their starting points, so we would no longer have to double up with our own assessments.”
A DfE spokesperson said early feedback suggested the pilot was received positively. “We have given schools the flexibility on when and how they can carry out the assessments, and we would not expect it would be necessary to provide teaching cover while it takes place. We are confident that the reception baseline assessment will lighten the load for schools.”
This Content is Generated from RSS Feeds, if your content is featured and you would like to be removed, please Contact Us With your website address and name of site you wish to be removed from.
You can control what content is distributed in your RSS Feed by using your Website Editor.