The new baseline assessment tests which are currently being piloted in a number of schools are wrong on every level. Within the first six weeks at their new school, children will have to attempt a one-to-one test on their knowledge of literacy and mathematics, not to find out what each child can do so teachers can assess their knowledge and skills and plan their next steps, but for the sole purpose of producing data as an accountability measure to make a judgement on primary schools seven years later. Schools and parents will not know the results of the tests – children’s individual scores will be locked away in some dark cupboard in the DfE for seven years and only see the light of day when those scores can be compared to their Key Stage 2 SATS on completion of their primary education. That on its own is bad enough but the way the data is gathered means for many children, results will be wildly inaccurate.
I have a four year old granddaughter, Florence. She is a lively, affectionate little girl who loves to sing and dance and play with her toys and her big brother. Florence’s speech and language skills are underdeveloped and she has just started her Reception year in a speech and language resource base at a primary school near where she lives in Southend.
I know that if Florence were to be sitting one to one with an adult, whom she did not yet know very well, presented with a pile of small teddies and asked to pick out three, she would clam up. Her score on the baseline assessment would be very low because she is not always able to process requests and the unfamiliar environment of the test situation would make her feel anxious and uncomfortable. Her baseline assessment score would not reflect her true abilities.
Florence loves to act out stories when playing and would confidently set a table with three bowls and three spoons for daddy bear, mummy bear and baby bear as she acts out the story of Goldilocks. She might well add another bowl and spoon in case Goldilocks is still hungry ! What this shows is that Florence is perfectly capable of counting to three and beyond–-one of the questions in the baseline assessment pilot – but she would not demonstrate that particular skill in a test situation. Early Years practitioners know that observing children in a range of different contexts and over time when they are playing is the most accurate way to assess children’s skills and abilities. In those situations children are relaxed, engaged and likely to demonstrate their highest cognitive abilities.
What worries me is that those first few weeks at school are crucial for settling children and fostering positive attitudes. All children are different and the teacher and other adults in the class need to get to know them. How are they going to do this if they have to take 30 children off one by one for at least 20 minutes each to give them a test which gets harder and harder and which expects children to complete abstract tasks with no context. Teachers want to be fostering positive attitudes to learning, not making children feel anxious.
In my experience, teachers want to be with all their children, forming warm relationships, getting them used to classroom routines, talking to them, getting to know what they enjoy doing, what worries them and what their interests are so they can plan activities which will support their personal, social and emotional development, physical development and communication and language skills – the key foundations of learning for young children. Children’s skills and competencies in these areas are a much more reliable predictor of future attainment than some random literacy and numeracy tasks.
Any assessment of our youngest children, who in the first term, are not yet even of statutory school age, should be for the benefit of those children. Having had sight of some of the tasks it seems to me they are more a reflection of children’s home backgrounds – there are many four year olds who will not know what a nest is or be able to identify a deer, never mind being able to blend and segment words. Children with special educational needs, like Florence, or those whose first language is not English will find the tests at best puzzling and at worse feel that they have failed. Let us hope this baseline assessment is quickly consigned to the bin like the other schemes that various governments have sought to impose over recent years.