Reception Baseline: We must continue the fight

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
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The Reception Baseline Assessment is time-consuming, unreliable, and draining on schools’ budgets. We must continue to fight its use and protect young people from this controversial statutory assessment, says Deborah Lawson

You could be forgiven for thinking that the world has returned to normal. Everywhere you look people are huddling at the bus stop, heading to work, shopping for food, going out, mingling at the school gates.

Add to that the re-introduction of primary assessment and accountability measures, the return of Ofsted inspections, and the brand-new Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA)…

We seem to have conveniently forgotten the unsustainable pressure that schools continue to feel as a result of the pandemic.

The benefits of RBA, such as they are, will not be felt for a number of years. It is planned that RBA will herald a move toward a progress-based accountability system and that key stage 1 assessment will be made non-statutory and a glorious thing of the past.

But can such accountability really work in the mixed model of infant, first, middle, junior and primary schools? How reliable will this starting point be some seven years later? And will schools actually stop doing key stage 1 assessments, or just no longer need to report the results to the Department for Education?


Even while it was being piloted, there were concerns raised about the RBA – for example, it is impossible to deliver in a lively classroom environment so it takes staff and pupils out of the classroom just when they could be having a bigger impact all together.

And that is before we have the debate about whether asking children as young as four to take a test is a good idea.

Testing children of this age is not straightforward and is fraught with issues, some of which the RBA materials actually exacerbate.

When pupils have a one-in-three chance of getting a question right, guessing comes into play, reducing the reliability of any outcome for the pupil and maybe setting up schools to fail in the future.

In fact, feedback and reliability are key concerns.

Many schools openly admit that the RBA is of no real use to them and so they will still be carrying out their usual observations and assessments alongside.

As one teacher says in the report on RBA in the recent edition of Headteacher Update (Spring 2022): “It wasn’t very useful at all. It would have been more useful if we could have had a record of the questions and the children’s answers or a table of scores. Because the feedback we got was so vague, the data is of no use.

“Our own baseline gives us a lot more relevant information and therefore gives us a starting point for each child.”

And primary school early years foundation lead Helen Pinnington noted: “The RBA is most certainly not reliable enough as a standalone assessment and so, as a team, we will be supplementing the test with our own play-based tasks and observational assessments through play over the next few weeks.” (Worth, 2021)

And this is essential to give schools the necessary knowledge of their children.

RBA also comes at an unreasonable workload cost. According to campaign group More Than A Score (2021), just one per cent of teachers and school leaders believe the new tests have been a positive experience for pupils, with 88 per cent of Reception teachers feeling they were a waste of teaching time, disrupting teaching time during the settling-in period.

The cost of RBA

So just what is the cost of RBA? Back in 2017, the government said that the new baseline assessments for primary school pupils would cost up to £10m to develop. A further £2m was added to that figure in 2018, and while we don’t fully know the final development cost, it is almost certainly going to be more once the associated costs of national roll-out are filtered in.

And now that the RBA has hit classrooms, the costs have continued to rack up. A conversation with a group of school leaders and a quick read of some of the comments on the many forums suggests the following is a conservative estimate:

According to the DfE, the RBA takes 20 minutes per-pupil, but the reality is closer to 30, especially once you filter in settling and changeover time.

If there are 30 pupils per-class, there are around 900 minutes of testing time – or 15 hours per-class. Since most testing will take place in the morning to avoid child fatigue, this could mean tests lasting a whole week or more – with all the associated staffing costs being shouldered by the school.

Yet again, schools are burdened with an unfunded initiative that drives up their costs and workload without delivering any discernible benefit to pupils’ outcomes.

What can be done?

There are things that can be done. Voice Community regularly meets with the Standards and Testing Agency (STA), where we have raised our objections to the RBA, and we would ask members, school leaders and other stakeholders to do the same – raise your concerns with local authorities, multi-academy trusts, MPs and protect our youngest children from this controversial statutory assessment.

  • Deborah Lawson is assistant general secretary of Community Union (Voice education section). Read her previous Headteacher Update articles via

Further information

  • More Than A Score: Not helpful, stressful and a waste of time: teachers and heads condemn new English and Maths test for four-year-olds, October 2021:
  • Standards & Testing Agency: Guidance: Reception baseline assessment, last updated May 2021:
  • Worth: Reception baseline assessments off to a rocky start, Tes, September 2021:

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