Baseline goes ahead amid criticism from teachers

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A highly critical report against Reception Baseline Assessment has made little impact on the Department for Education, which has confirmed that national roll-out will go ahead this September. Pete Henshaw reports

From September, all new pupils will take the Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA), which is to replace SATs at the end of year 2.

Plans for a national roll-out have been confirmed after the Department for Education published its validity report based on trials that took place in around 7,000 schools last term (DfE, 2020).

The DfE says that the pilot “confirmed that the new assessments provide an accurate assessment of a pupil’s starting point”.

However, while the DfE has received support for the roll-out from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the National Education Union (NEU) remains staunchly opposed.

A parallel report commissioned by the NEU has also been published, which it says “goes far deeper into the effects and experience of the test”.

The RBA is taken by children in the first half-term of Reception and focuses on mathematics skills and literacy, communication and language (LCL). Children are assessed orally through practical tasks such as counting or describing pictures. The DfE has said that “there is no need for teachers or parents to prepare pupils” and there will be no pass mark. The validity report found that 92 per cent of the assessments were completed within 20 minutes.

Teachers need to be trained to conduct the assessment and will input the results using an online programme which calculates scores automatically. The RBA results will, from 2027/28, form a baseline for the DfE’s primary school progress measure.

However, the NEU’s study, which has been carried out by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (Roberts-Holmes et al, 2020), says that RBA is creating a lack of trust among teachers, is driving up workload, and is not useful for pupils’ immediate learning.

Based on interviews with 1,300 teachers as well as six case study pilot schools, the study finds that:

  • Only 20 per cent of teachers believe RBA provides an accurate picture of children’s attainment.
  • Only three per cent believe it has a positive impact on the Reception settling-in period.
  • Eighty-four per cent think RBA is an unreliable and inaccurate way to measure children’s progress across seven years of primary school.
  • Eighty-three per cent said that RBA had increased their workload.
  • Eighty per cent said RBA took 20 minutes or more; 29 per cent said it took 30 minutes or more.

A key criticism of the report is that RBA has a negative impact on teachers’ ability to build relationships in the early weeks of Reception.

The report states: “For many respondents, the RBA was viewed as seriously disruptive to building positive relationships at the start of school term. One teacher reported that ‘we didn’t start actual teaching until it had been completed’.”

Another teacher in the report said: “Our setting with 45 children and three adults was one adult out of the equation for two weeks to do Baseline. This gave the children a disrupted and patchy education and it was hugely stressful and led to an exhausting time for staff.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “The DfE has satisfied itself about the technical validity of the tests, but is completely incurious about the effects of Baseline Assessment on the educational experience of four-year-olds. Nor have they offered any assessment of the workload impact on teachers of carrying out a test with no useful outcomes for pupils’ immediate learning, meaning that they must then carry out their own expert assessments.

“Academic researchers have repeatedly raised questions about the effects of testing on children’s settling-in period in Reception and on the psychological impact of testing on some young children. The UCL study demonstrates this very clearly.

“What teachers tell us is that even where the tests take 20 minutes each, the additional time which is needed to collect each child, find an appropriate space, settle them and return them to the classroom, all adds up to days away from the children they’re meant to be teaching, at a crucial period where the children are getting to know each other and the classroom routines.”

The Standards and Testing Agency had set out four claims that the RBA had to satisfy during the pilots.

  • The assessment is representative of LCL and mathematics skills and knowledge appropriate to the age and development of the children.
  • Assessment results provide a fair and accurate measure of pupil performance (including for those with SEND).
  • Pupil performance is comparable within and across schools.
  • The meaning of total scores is clear to those responsible for creating the progress measures.

Satisfied that the RBA had passed the four tests, school standards minister Nick Gibb said: “It’s hugely important that we understand how much progress primary schools help their pupils make. This new teacher-led check will replace the SATs taken at the end of year 2 to give a better understanding of a child’s starting point when they arrive at school and reduce the number of assessments in primary schools overall.”

However, Dr Bousted said that the DfE report was “far from a conclusive assessment of Baseline”. She added: “The DfE’s report demonstrates only that Baseline assessment meets the requirements set out for it by the DfE, which is no real statement at all. The test measures what children can do one-to-one across a small range of tasks that include counting and knowing their letter sounds, the kinds of activities that are easy to compartmentalise and measure. Every parent, and every early years teacher, knows that four-year-olds are capable of much more, and that early education is about much more than letters and numbers.”

The roll-out of the new test means that September’s cohort will be the first not to have to take the key stage 1 SATs, which will accordingly be dropped from 2022/23 – something the NAHT has warmly welcomed. General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The introduction of a reliable and workable Baseline assessment to replace year 2 SATs has the potential to be a fairer way of measuring progress and means we should finally start to see the reduction in the volume of high-stakes testing in primary that NAHT has long called for.”

Further information

  • Roberts-Holmes, Fung Lee, Sousa & Jones: Research into the 2019 pilot of Reception Baseline Assessment, UCL Institute of Education, February 2020: http://bit.ly/3amvDfF
  • DfE: Reception Baseline Assessment validity, February 2020: http://bit.ly/2ThooQz


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