Facing up to the Baseline Assessment

Written by: Joyce Connor | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the government ignores the wealth of opposition to push ahead with its reformed plans for Baseline Assessment, Joyce Connor gives us a view from the early years

The Baseline Assessment of children right at the beginning of their school life is coming – the Department for Education recently announced that the NFER has been awarded the contract to develop the new test which is expected to be rolled out nationally from 2020-2022, despite calls from education unions, academics, teachers and early years professionals for the idea to be put aside.

In the debate about the merits of a Baseline Assessment, we must be careful that parents with pre-school children are not discouraged from supporting their child’s early learning and achievements, including their acquisition of literacy and early maths skills.

The new assessment is not, as the Department for Education has clearly said, about measuring individual children’s performance but, rather, a means for evaluating the starting point of a cohort of children beginning school. The idea is that officials can evaluate how much progress a school helps its pupils to make in the time between the Baseline Assessment in Reception and the next cohort test in the key stage 2 SATs, seven years later.

But the assessment is not an observational process over time, it is a snapshot looking at all pupils in the same way. It still risks looking like a test – and for some parents that could ring alarm bells.

One potential obstacle to parental involvement in their children’s learning is previous negative experience of education. If a parent has dropped out of school early or struggled in exams, their own confidence in supporting their child to develop essential skills in, for example, numeracy and literacy could be undermined.

They may be doing lots at home that has the potential to support their child’s development, but because school didn’t work for them, their confidence may be easily dented, or they may simply see early learning as someone else’s job. The Baseline Assessment is in danger of giving these parents the impression that testing, assessment and streaming are all their children can look forward to at school, and that family life and school are totally unrelated.

Parents, carers and family are children’s first and most enduring educators. What parents do at home has a major impact on the social, emotional and intellectual development of their child. Of course, other factors are at play here too: family income, their living conditions and parents’ own education levels are all factors in their child’s developmental outcomes. But the quality of the home learning environment acts as a significant modifying factor.

In fact, research evidence consistently shows the importance of parents as children’s first educators, and of practitioners supporting parents in this role. Engaging parents in their children’s early literacy development has been shown to improve children’s outcomes and is a valuable intervention for narrowing the gap between disadvantaged and other children.

The importance of showing that all parents can contribute to and enhance their child’s early progress, is one of the cornerstones of Making it REAL – an early literacy and numeracy programme developed by the National Children’s Bureau.

We work with early years practitioners so that they have a good understanding of how literacy develops in young children, based on pioneering work by Professors Cathy Nutbrown and Peter Hannon at the University of Sheffield. Practitioners are encouraged to share this knowledge with parents, including through home visits, so the home learning environment and the everyday activities of the family can play their part, to the fullest extent, in their child’s literacy and mathematical development.

The experience of working with parents and practitioners across the country has shown us the importance of seeing the “whole” child, praising and encouraging them wherever they are in their development. The debate continues about how a testing system for children at age 4 can acknowledge the wide spectrum over which development takes place, something the Early Learning Goals in the existing Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) attempted to do.

What we can’t do is undermine the enthusiasm of parents for playing their part in helping their children to reach their potential. Or, heaven forbid, create a climate where parents undervalue their role in supporting and enjoying their children’s early learning, and see merit only in terms of providing stepping stones towards the assessment at the beginning of their school life.

As parents working with the project have said of Making it REAL:

  • “It’s quite a boost for parents because there’s a lot of pressure and you wonder if you’re doing the right thing with your child – you think: am I doing the best for my child? But after the workshops I realised, yes, I am a role model for my child, and even though I’m busy, I am doing my best.”
  • “It makes you realise that just little tweaks to what you’re doing at home can help her learning and that learning doesn’t just happen in an education setting – they can do so many things that develop their learning at home without any particular fuss or doing anything too different.” 
  • Joyce Connor is assistant director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children’s Bureau.

Further information

To find out more about Making it REAL, visit http://www.ncb.org.uk/making-it-real-supporting-early-literacy-training

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