16th January 2023

Reception teachers have never been against the use of baseline assessments, so how has the Department for Education got it so wrong with the current version of statutory assessment in Reception?

David Meechan
Senior Lecturer in Education, Childhood, Youth and Families
Faculty of Health, Education and Society
University of Northampton

The idea of a reception baseline assessment has been toyed with for well over two decades in England. The first formal attempts began with the Department for Education and Employment (now the Department for Education) making it a statutory requirement in 1998. Schools (and therefore teachers) were given autonomy over how they decided to measure the attainment of four-year olds. Such autonomy saw the introduction of local and informal testing initially which this was later replaced by observation-based assessment (Bradbury, 2014). In 2008 the introduction of the statutory Early Years Foundation Stage framework presented play and observation as core principles of early childhood education and assessment in England. The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, also introduced in 2008, enabled the production of annual national and Local Authority outcomes. A practice which continues to date.

In 2015, however, the DfE attempted to standardise the approach to baseline assessment in Reception. Pilot schools were asked to opt for one of three DfE sanctioned baseline assessments. Schools overwhelmingly opted for the ‘observation-based approach’ provided by Early Excellence (2015) but the policy of pursuing a standardised baseline assessment was dropped by the DfE citing a lack of comparability across the three sanctioned assessments. In 2017, a standardised Reception Baseline Assessment was back on the agenda as the DfE announced a tender for an age-appropriate assessment in the Reception year. This signified a conscious shift away from the previous observation-based approach that was designed by Early Excellence.

In 2019, the current standardised version of the Reception Baseline Assessment was piloted before it became statutory in 2021. Ironically, it appears that the pedagogically questionable practice of ‘testing’ four year olds has resulted. This in main is because of DfE’s desire to standardise the data children produce at age 4, so it can be compared with data later on in their educational journey. However, the DfE does not want to present the RBA as a test. In doing so, the teacher who has spent up to twenty minutes with each child administering the RBA receives minimal (and fairly general at best) automated feedback on a child’s results. In the context of time, this equates to a teacher spending roughly two of the first six weeks of the new academic year out of class administering the Reception Baseline Assessment.

In such an assessment process, the child’s worth is captured (if at all) by a numerical score generated from the responses they give to a script read by the teacher. The teacher in effect becomes a glorified administrator. Not only do our children deserve so much more than this in their first few weeks at school, but so do teachers. Article 1 below reports that 78% of teachers either strongly disagreed or disagreed that the RBA was beneficial for their children or their practice. 81% disagreed or strongly disagreed that it informed the understanding of children’s areas of development and 87% disagreed or strongly disagreed that it informed their teaching moving forwards. What has been labelled as a Reception Baseline Assessment is in fact anything but. A genuine baseline assessment in Reception class is of value for both the child and teacher. This means that it allows children to evidence their strengths and areas for development and provides the teachers with a holistic view of the children in their class. All this while the teacher remains present and establishes expectations, rapport and routine.

The below two articles provide greater detail on teacher’s insights and views with regards to the Reception Baseline Assessment. Overall, it is not good and for this reason, several recommendations are made:

  1. At the very least, the DfE needs to reconsider the requirement to administer the RBA within the first six weeks of a child starting Reception class. Internal baseline measures which favour formative assessment should be prioritised over the RBA during the first six weeks.
  2. There needs to be consideration on how the RBA can complement existing internal baseline assessment and provide value for both teachers and children in this process.
  3. The findings of the two articles below directly compare to findings on the 2015 baseline assessment. These were concerns with testing narrow parameters, taking teachers out of the classroom and not focusing assessment for this age range on observations (Bradbury 2014, 2019; Cowley 2019; Roberts-Holmes and Bradbury 2017). This shows that lessons have not been learnt by the DfE in the current design and delivery of the RBA.
  4. Essentially, due to a lack in value for children, teachers, parents and schools, the RBA should be scrapped in favour of age-appropriate assessment. For teachers in the articles below this would mean the continued use of internal assessment to focus on a broader range of development which uses observation and play.

Links to articles:

  1. Once, twice, three times a failure: time to permanently scrap statutory reception baseline assessment in England?
  2. Why are we tracking Reception-aged children? Teachers’ and key stakeholders’ perspectives on the reintroduction of national Reception Baseline Assessment (open access)

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