Nancy Stewart, Vice President, Early Education and early years specialist
Parents who have a 4-year-old starting school in September may be bubbling over with questions, as the transition to full-time education can be a big change for parents as well as for their child. The government has decided to tackle some parental queries about a new hurdle children will meet as they settle into all schools – the reception baseline assessment (RBA). The public relations effort issued by the Standards and Testing Agency is called ‘Information for Parents’, but from the cover photo onwards it presents a highly misleading view of the controversial baseline test and what it might mean for children.
The government has never asked parents whether they approve of testing young children as they start school. When asked in a recent YouGov survey, only 6% of parents thought it was important to test maths and English as children start school, with the vast majority prioritising settling in, making friends and enjoying the school day instead. Particularly following all the disruption and stress of the pandemic many people place children’s wellbeing in centre stage, including the House of Lords scrutiny committee which recommended at least delaying the start of baseline assessment. But the government is determined to barrel on with its plans.
The cover photo of the leaflet for parents shows two children engaging with their teacher over a shared picture book, with the teacher listening as one child points out something of interest. Such comfortable conversations are a crucial basis for children and teachers to get to know each other in the early weeks. The reality of the baseline test, however, is the opposite of this, with children taken away from ordinary activities one by one, and faced with a scripted series of test questions which the teacher must read out and then mark right or wrong on a computer screen.
In an excellent example of Orwellian doublespeak, the leaflet goes on to tell parents that their child will be ‘participating in the reception baseline assessment’, rather than baldly admitting to parents that their child will be sitting a formal test which will result in assigning them a single number score for their literacy, maths and language skills.
‘The RBA is not about judging or labelling your child or putting them under any pressure,’ the leaflet says, explaining that its purpose is to judge schools, not pupils. Leaving aside for the moment the substantial expert evidence that the test cannot give an accurate picture of children’s current skills nor be linked to future progress in order to judge schools, it is simply not true that the RBA will not judge children. The leaflet admits that the RBA will give teachers ‘a helpful snapshot of where your child is when they enter reception, so they can be supported in the most appropriate way.’ In other words, a test that was never designed to be used to support good teaching will be presented to teachers as a judgement on children’s skills, which could affect teachers’ expectations and responses to children – especially for less experienced early years teachers. The best hope is that teachers will ignore the test verdict: 80% of teachers in the RBA pilot believe the results gave an inaccurate account of the children’s learning (1). The result is especially useless for children learning English as an additional language, since all the questions are in English only.
And contrary to the reassuring statement that ‘your child is unlikely to even know that they are doing an assessment’, evidence from the pilot of the RBA last year showed that children were indeed likely to understand that they were being tested and that some children became distressed by the experience. ‘‘Lots of children noticed if I was clicking no, or giving them a x on my list and got upset they had got it wrong. They were very aware they were being ‘tested’,’’ reported one reception teacher.(1) Another teacher said, “The test itself included content that children wouldn’t be expected to know when joining Reception, including solving written sums and reading. They looked visibly confused when shown these, and one said despondently, ‘But I’m only little. I haven’t learned to read yet.’”(1)
The RBA was designed to use reception children as data points with no intention of benefiting them in any way, but perhaps this is too stark a message to share with parents. The government leaflet claims the RBA will benefit children by providing ‘valuable one-to-one time with their teacher at an early stage’. Teachers disagree: 69% surveyed after the RBA pilot disagreed that RBA ‘helped to develop positive relationships with the children in Reception’, while around half thought it actually had a negative effect on most children. (1) What an indictment of a school it would be if a child’s best chance for individual attention is a test situation.
The RBA takes the teacher out of the classroom for many hours, away from much better opportunities for engaging with each child. “I was taking time away, and me being away from the group would have an emotional effect on them. Then that poses questions – hang on, are we meant to be administering a test, when actually your children need you?” commented a teacher. “Spending 20 mins outside the classroom per child in different intervals takes you away from bonding and forming relationships with the other 29 children you have in the classroom. Which meant that building those initial relationships took longer which affected some children’s settling time, which affected their learning,” said another.
Bizarrely, the government claims a benefit for parents, too. After 7 years, when and if the government figures out a way to use the secret data to match against children’s scores at the end of primary school, parents could find out how well the school is judged to have performed over that period compared to other schools. Setting aside the point that such a comparison won’t work, it’s hard to see how a parent of a 4-year-old will benefit from hearing after their child leaves a school whether it’s been a good school after all.
The government leaflet is peppered with BUTTONes quoting one school leader acting as a cheerleader for the RBA. Perhaps there was difficulty in finding a chorus of voices in support. After all, 86% of headteachers expressed negative views of RBA, with comments such as: “Ridiculous! There is nothing wrong with the way in which Early Years staff assess the children on entry in the Reception class at the moment. They don’t need a ‘formalised’ way of doing this,” and “…one of the most poorly conceived ideas I have experienced in my 30+ years of teaching”. (3)
The leaflet points out that parents have a right to see the RBA statements about their child if they request them, but steers clear of the still contested point of whether parents have a right to agree or withhold permission for their child to be tested in the first place. The children are not yet even of statutory school age, and surely parents have a right to give consent for them to be tested and data about them to be held by the government. The government says they have no such right, but the Information Commissioner’s Office has not yet confirmed that it is happy with the government’s data collection proposals for RBA.
Being asked to write the RBA information for parents must have been a thankless task for some unfortunate civil servant. How can you sell a product that is scorned by the majority of teachers and headteachers and offers nothing good for children and their families? Familiar government claims have been faithfully trotted out, but they don’t add up to the truth. The truth is that summing up the amazing skills and knowledge of any 4-year-old is not possible with a single-number score, and that parents know what really counts is that their child is happy, secure, interested and flourishing as they enter the new relationships and experiences ahead. The RBA is a costly, time-consuming distraction from what children need in those important early weeks.
1) Roberts-Holmes et al (2021) Research into the 2019 Pilot of Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA), UCL Institute of Education
2) DROP SATs FOR GOOD. The case for recovery without high-stakes assessment, More Than a Score
3) Bradbury (2019) ‘Inappropriate, unnecessary, unhelpful: The Headteachers’ Verdict On Baseline Assessment’