Assessment consultation – is it too little, too late?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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Consultation itself unwieldily and far too time consuming- deliberately so I expect to put us off. ...

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The year 2016 perhaps marked the worst year in primary national assessment history. Now the DfE has launched its promised consultation to find out what the way forward for primary assessment might be. But is it asking the right questions and has too much been decided already?

Primary assessment in 2016 has been described as chaotic and shambolic by unions and even the education secretary, Justine Greening, has acknowledged that “the pace and scale of these changes has been stretching”.

It was with relief that schools heard the announcement that no new national tests or assessments would be introduced before 2018/19 and that a consultation on assessment arrangements was to follow early in 2017.

The Primary Assessment in England consultation has now been published and by reading the 30-page document primary schools will have a good indication of what the Department for Education (DfE) has in mind.

The early reaction has seen positive publicity surrounding the suggestion that key stage 1 SATs might be removed as a statutory requirement and that there could be a “best fit” rather than a “secure fit” for attainment in writing. Teachers have also responded positively to the prospect of removing teacher assessment in English reading and maths at key stage 2.

Teachers unappeased

However, other parts of the consultation are more controversial. The DfE continues to champion the idea of baseline assessment in Reception and the introduction of a multiplication tables check seems inevitable. If the sound-bites from the Easter teacher union conferences are anything to go by, the promise of change through consultation is not providing much reassurance.

At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ annual conference in Liverpool, 96 per cent of teachers voted in favour of a motion raising the prospect of a national boycott of all tests at primary level. Delegates at the National Union of Teachers’ (NUT) conference also passed a motion calling for the internal ballot of members over a possible boycott of SATs next year. For some, the consultation is insufficiently broad and does not ask the right questions.

MPs themselves are questioning the high-stakes that testing in primary schools commands. The House of Commons Education Committee published a report on May 1 that clearly expresses its concern that the link between primary assessment and school accountability is having a negative impact on teaching and learning.

The report states: “Many teachers reported ‘teaching to the test’, narrowing of the curriculum and increased pressure and workload as a result of statutory assessment and curriculum.”

It will take more than a tinkering with the assessment process to address their deep-seated concerns.

Assessment overhaul

The NUT, in its formal written response to the consultation, refers to its overly cautious nature with carefully framed questions that prevent a broader review of the assessment process. For example, there is no opportunity to question the value of the phonics screening test and it is clear that the DfE has already decided that the multiplication tables check will be implemented (the only decision to be made here being in which year group it should take place).

The Education Select Committee is looking for a much greater overhaul of the assessment system than this consultation could provide. For example, the MPs suggest that the publication of results from a single cohort should be scrapped and instead that there should be publication of a rolling three year average of key stage 2 results.

Back to baselines

Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the consultation is that it clearly indicates the continued preference for a baseline assessment in Reception. The consultation document states: “We recognise that any new baseline would need careful consideration, but our view is that the case for a baseline in Reception is strong.”

The DfE’s preference for baseline comes with some institutional support. The Assessment Review Group (ARG) recommended in 2016 that there should be two statutory assessment points for primary pupils and that one of these should be at the start of primary school. However, they were also clear that this baseline should be observation-based.

In 2015, when different baseline options were offered, the Early Excellence model proved to be popular among schools. This model depended upon observation as its key method of collecting baseline information. The makers of Early Excellence have themselves raised concerns that observation may be left out of any new, single baseline that the DfE decides upon.

Some early years educators are particularly anxious that the EYFS Profile does not become distorted in the attempt to use it as a baseline tool. Although it seems that the DfE favours offering both the EYFS Profile and a separate baseline, making for a very intensive, assessment-laden year.

Assessing progress

There is still underlying disagreement about what the chief purpose of primary assessment should be. The Education Select Committee recommends that assessment at four-years-old should be used as a diagnostic tool to help teachers identify individual pupil needs and that this should take place through teacher assessment, not through testing.

However, the DfE is clearly wedded to the idea that a new baseline in Reception, introduced in 2019/20, could be used as an accountability tool to measure progress in 2026.

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, an association for early childhood education, said: “The concept of using an assessment in Reception as the baseline for a progress measure in primary schools is inherently flawed. There is very little predictive validity in the measures that have been proposed. Couple this with the huge cohort changes between Reception and year 6, and the measure is so crude as to be of no real value.”

In its consultation, the DfE states that research evidence suggests it is possible to create a baseline assessment that will assess progress. However, the NUT questions the validity of this evidence, arguing that the research referred to by the DfE links to the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University and that the correlation between test scores at Reception level and those at key stage 2 is too weak to enable conclusions to be drawn.

Jacqui Booth is headteacher at St James’ First School in Dorset. Her school chose not to take part in the first baseline assessment trial and she is not convinced by this second attempt.

She told Headteacher Update: “I am very dubious about the value that can be placed on an early baseline assessment as a benchmark for long-term progress.

“I do feel that any tests at formal assessment stage should be like for like. By that I mean if at EYFS we assess through observation and then later we assess via formal written paper, we are introducing another variable.”

Long-term accountability

Even if validity can be assured, it is a very long-term method of achieving school accountability. Between 2020 and 2026 a school might have changed headteachers, the curriculum could be different and a significant number of children and staff may have moved between schools. Is it possible to determine who is accountable for any increases or decreases in progress over such a long period?

In the meantime, many schools are battling to make ends meet. A statement from the Better without the Baseline campaign said: “At a time of scarce resources for schools we cannot afford to waste time, money and above all, children’s interests on a second misconceived attempt.”

The Education Select Committee is clear that the pursuit of accountability by the current primary assessment arrangements will continue to damage children’s education and recommends that the government should change what is reported in performance tables to help lower the stakes associated with them. Instead they see Ofsted as having a crucial role in reviewing how schools are delivering the whole curriculum rather than maintaining such a narrow focus on key stage 2 data.

The consultation closes on June 22, following the General Election on June 8. As always, the views of teachers and other professionals could be wiped aside by a changing political climate. Education policy’s vulnerability to political whim makes 2026 seem a very distant prospect indeed. 

Further information

  • Primary Assessment in England: Government consultation, March 2017, Department for Education:
  • House of Commons Education Select Committee’s work on assessment, including its recent report Primary Assessment (May 2017):
  • Redressing the Balance: Report of the Assessment Review Group, NAHT (January 2017):

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Consultation itself unwieldily and far too time consuming- deliberately so I expect to put us off. However important it is teacher don't have the time to plough through it.
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