No overhaul of primary assessment in sight

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The government’s response to the primary assessment consultation was published in September. Primary headteachers are anxious for change. We look at ministers’ plans and speculate on what the new model will deliver

Following the disastrous 2016 assessment year, a consultation on assessment arrangements was the least that the Department for Education (DfE) could do. A thorough review of primary assessment was needed, but for some the assessment consultation did not go far enough.

The National Union of Teachers, just before its merger with ATL to form the National Education Union, pointed out that key stage 2 and the phonics check are just as problematic but had not been part of the discussion. The consultation, launched in March and closed in June, did not really provide the scope for the roots-up consideration of the purposes of assessment that many felt was needed.

If we suspected that the proposals were pretty much decided before the consultation took place, the recommendations do nothing to challenge this view. What was proposed through the questions more or less will go ahead. Here we summarise the plans.

The EYFSP

The consultation document confirmed the government’s intention to retain the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) while looking for ways it might be improved. The DfE now intends to work on the relationship between the EYFSP, key stage 1 and the Early Learning Goals (ELGs). More work will be done to bring the ELGs into line with year 1 expectations. This raises concerns about a narrower focus and a skewing of early learning practice.

The government is keen to emphasise that the EYFSP is not an accountability tool but is a means of providing information to parents and year 1 teachers about the child’s progress and development. However, it will now be joined by an additional baseline assessment meaning that early years teachers will be juggling two types of assessment, each with different purposes.

This proposed introduction of more assessment comes at a time when those engaged with the EYFSP are already struggling with workload: “Many respondents felt that evidence-gathering for the EYFSP dominates classroom time, leaving less time for effective teaching and ensuring that children are progressing appropriately.”

The government’s plans include:

  • Explore the feasibility of reducing the number of ELGs.
  • Make the descriptors for a typical level of development against the ELGs clearer.
  • Bring the ELGs into line with key stage 1, particularly for literacy and maths.
  • Consider introducing an additional “emerging” scale alongside “expected” and “exceeding”.
  • Review the current approach to moderation, for example, considering: moderating within school clusters, piloting peer-to-peer moderation at the end of key stages 1 and 2, and only moderating some of the ELGs.
  • Revise the guidance used in administering the EYFSP including the EYFS profile handbook and exemplification materials.
  • Ensure that guidance and messages around evidence-gathering are clear and consistent.
  • Consider the greater use of online tools.

Accountability measures

It has been clear for some time that the DfE favours a Reception Baseline above that of key stage 1. A large amount of money was channelled into the failed attempt to introduce a selection of tests that were planned to begin from September 2015.

A later reliability study came to the conclusion that there was not sufficient comparability between the three assessments to enable them to be used for accountability purposes.

Following the expensive “pilot” there will be only one approved provider for the new Baseline. The DfE is still sold on this test and believes that it can measure progress between Reception and key stage 2 in a significant, reliable and valid way: “The prime focus of the new assessment will be on skills which can be reliably assessed and which correlate with attainment in English and mathematics at the end of key stage 2, most notably early literacy and numeracy.”

There are voices of dissent and the Education Select Committee has raised concerns about its introduction. MPs on the committee have requested that there is a thorough evaluation of the potential benefits and harmful consequences. It is planned that by 2027 Baseline will provide the starting point for a measure of school accountability.

The multiplication test is another favourite of the DfE. No opportunity was given to indicate whether respondents thought the test worthwhile, only when it should be administered. However, some respondents still expressed their disagreement with the principle of the test. Nevertheless it will go ahead.

The government’s plans include:

  • Engage a single supplier for a new Reception Baseline.
  • Conduct a large-scale pilot and evaluation in the 2019/20 academic year.
  • Continue with key stage 1 assessment in the interim years but remove it ultimately to make way for the new Baseline – from the 2022 to 2023 academic year onwards.
  • Schools still report on pupil performance and attainment to parents in more detail at the end of key stage 1 – there will be optional end-of-key stage 1 tests available.
  • Continue to consider how infant, junior and middle schools might be held to account.
  • Remove the statutory requirement for schools to report teacher assessment judgements in English reading and maths at the end of key stage 2 from 2018/19.
  • Keep key stage 1 English grammar, punctuation and spelling tests non-statutory beyond 2016/17.
  • Run a small-scale pilot of a peer-to-peer model of moderation in 2017/18.
  • Schools to implement a multiplication tables check at the end of year 4 in the 2019/20 academic year.
  • Schools to implement the tables check during a specified window and administer them online with results available instantly.
  • Move towards a more flexible approach for assessing English writing from 2017/18.
  • Update the frameworks in reading and maths at key stage 1 and science at key stage 1 and 2 for introduction in 2018/19.

Healthy primary assessment for the future?

There will be aspects of this consultation response that schools and teachers will welcome. However, it hardly feels like a rigorous reconsideration of what’s wrong with assessment in primary schools.

The consultation didn’t provide the scope for a real rethink of assessment practices. Nor did it allow us to see clearly the level of support or opposition received.

Although the fraction of respondents with different answers is sometimes given, percentages aren’t offered and it is sometimes difficult to gauge just how popular or unpopular some of the proposals have been.

They also seem at odds with the gradual awakening of some influential bodies as to the detrimental effects that testing for accountability can have.

Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of Ofsted, drew attention to the pressures there are on the broader curriculum in her October commentary. The content of the commentary was hardly a surprise to professionals.

They know first-hand of the pressure to focus on parts of the curriculum and the impact this can have.

They may have even felt rather insulted at being held responsible by Ms Spielman: “School leaders need to recognise how easy it is to focus on the performance of the school and lose sight of the pupil.” With Ofsted grudgingly accepting a sliver of culpability too?

The plans that are forming in response to the assessment consultation do not appear to address the issues.

The same confidence remains within the halls of power that a school and the education it delivers can be reliably measured and compared without negative consequences.

It is early days but it’s hard to see how this document will spearhead the revolution in primary assessment that so many schools have been hoping for. 

Further information

Primary Assessment Public Consultations: Government response, Department for Education, September 2017: http://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/primary-assessment-public-consultations-government-response


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