Coalition steps-up its baseline fight

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

As the government decides which commercial company will win the £10 million contract for the baseline assessment of four-year-olds, the ‘More than a Score’ coalition has published a dossier of evidence against the controversial policy

“The proposal to test 99 per cent of four-year-olds in 2020 is based on the false premise that the knowledge and skills of a four-year-old can be accurately measured. But few statisticians believe this, and no research has demonstrated a strong link between attainment measured at four and later progress.”

The More than a Score coalition is stepping up its campaign against government plans to resurrect the baseline testing of four-year-olds – labelling the policy as “pointless, irresponsible and unethical”.

The campaign’s stance can be summed up by the comment above from Nancy Stewart, vice-chair of TACTYC – the Association for Professional Development in the Early Years.

The coalition itself is made up of a range of charities, professional groups and others, including the National Education Union, the UK Literacy Association, the Save Childhood Movement, the British Educational Research Association, the Association of Child Psychologists, and TACTYC.

Late last month, the campaign received backing from the Labour Party after a meeting hosted by shadow early years minister Tracy Brabin. It is now aiming to target both schools and parents for support.

The government originally introduced a Reception baseline assessment in 2015 as part of plans to judge the progress children make between Reception and the end of key stage 2.

However, this collapsed in 2017 after a research study showed that the three baseline assessments available to schools were “not sufficiently comparable to create a fair starting point from which to measure pupils’ progress”. By this point, 15,000 schools had conducted assessments with four-year-olds and the whole exercise had cost an estimated £4.5 million.

Undeterred, in September last year the government confirmed new plans to make baseline assessment statutory (along with the existing EYFS Profile) from Autumn 2020.

It is to pay around £10 million to a commercial provider to develop the new assessment which will last 20 minutes and will be taken by 99 per cent of four-year-olds. Bidding for this contract closed in January and the successful bidder is due to be unveiled at the end of March.

After this, test materials will be trialled in 2018/19, with national pilot tests in 2019/20 and the introduction of statutory baseline assessment in 2020/21.

However, in a 16-page dossier published recently, the More than a Score coalition quotes a range of research and statistical evidence to argue that baseline cannot provide a “valid account of the learning of four-year-olds” and will “damage the early years curriculum and hold back the learning of many children”.

A key problem, it states, is the very young age of the children and a lack of evidence of any statistical correlation between performance in Reception at age four and outcomes at age 11.

The dossier states: “Young children respond to tasks very differently in different situations, and from one day to another. Their responses will depend on mood, tiredness, and how settled they are at school. They may not stay focused, or understand what is expected of them.

“The statistical data does not support the DfE’s confidence that it is possible to create an assessment of Reception-age children which is suitable for that age group and sufficiently granular and well correlated with later outcomes such that it could be used as a baseline from which to assess progress.”

The DfE wants the tests to focus on “skills which can be reliably measured and which relate to attainment in English and mathematics at the end of key stage 2, most notably early literacy and numeracy”.

However, this, the coalition fears, will lead to a warping of the early years curriculum.

The dossier adds: “Because baseline assessment focuses on a narrow range of knowledge and skills, it is likely to encourage Reception and nursery staff to concentrate on providing narrow experiences. It will limit the rich exploratory, playful, creative, and intellectual experiences which benefit children in the early years.

“Staff in nurseries and pre-schools will be under pressure to prove that children are ‘ready for school’ and so may focus on the particular knowledge and sub-skills that will be tested.”

Other problems highlighted by the dossier include:

  • Schools still being held to account for the progress of pupils who enrol in year 3 or later.
  • Schools having an incentive to keep baseline results low in order to show more progress later on.
  • The tests being entirely in English, possibly disadvantaging EAL children.

Elaine Bennett from Keeping Early Years Unique – another of the coalition members – said: “Baseline testing is a pointless and expensive exercise which threatens children’s mental health at a crucial time in their development; a time where they are starting school, settling into new environments and making new relationships.

“It is irresponsible and unethical to put children in this position and to reduce them to a number when they have been in existence for 48 to 60 months.”

Madeleine Holt from the parents’ organisation Rescue our Schools, also a coalition member, added: “The new test would steer the teaching of four-year-olds towards an excessive focus on numeracy and literacy. Parents wanted a broad curriculum for their children, not one that is organised around narrow tests.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Baseline assessment has everything to do with finding new ways of holding schools accountable and nothing to do with supporting the learning of children. The government could do far more for children’s education by lifting them out of poverty than by spending £10 million on tests in which few education experts have any confidence.”

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