For the second time this century, national policy on testing four-year-old children entering school has been abandoned by the government. A similar policy was abandoned in 2002 because it did not provide the school accountability measures that the then-Labour government hoped for.
Its successor has now been sidelined for the same reason. So why has there been a second U-turn?
In January 2015, the reintroduction of baseline assessment for four-year-olds was opposed by many, including me, who warned that the reintroduction of such a flawed policy would be an ineffective waste of teachers’ time and public money.
When it was introduced, the Department for Education said:
We will collect a score for each child following the assessment, but we will not use it to track individual pupil progress. The purpose of the reception baseline is to provide a score for each pupil at the start of reception. When pupils reach the end of Key Stage 2 [the end of primary school], we will use the reception baseline score to calculate how much progress they have made compared to others with the same starting point.
While the full cost of baseline assessment is not known, a recent study commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and National Union of Teachers (NUT) indicates that cost was a great concern for schools and the commercial tests could cost between £4.50 and £8.50 per pupil to administer. This didn’t include training, which for some schools was a further £400 per teacher.
Now the government’s own technical study has concluded that three commercial tests that were developed for teachers to use [are](https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reception-baseline-comparability-study-published](https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reception-baseline-comparability-study-published) “not sufficiently comparable to create a fair starting point from which to measure pupils’ progress” and so “the results cannot be used as the baseline for progress measures”.
Yes, on this occasion it is fair to say “we told you so”.
For technical reasons then, the tests will no longer be used as an accountability measure to compare progress at the end of Key Stage 2. Yet, the government is now encouraging, and offering funding to schools to continue to use the three commercial tests during the 2016-17 school year. It also suggests that:
The reception baseline will be part of teachers’ broader assessments of children’s development, which will be wider than any single baseline assessment can accurately capture.
No need for new tests
The Better without Baseline coalition of professional organisations, teacher unions, and individual teachers, academics and parents has been actively informing the public and government on the reasons why baseline assessment should be abandoned.
Teachers in reception classes do not need a commercial assessment instrument to assess the learning of the children they work with. The “broader assessments of children’s development” that the government acknowledges teachers undertake are part of the business of daily teaching and learning in early childhood education. It’s what teachers do – not with tests or a commercial package – but based on their own sound knowledge of high quality early years teaching.
In June 2012, I made recommendations to the government on how to enhance the qualifications and quality of the early years workforce. I said that teacher observations and assessments are an essential tool by which a proper understanding of a child can be reached. I advised that this had always been a bedrock for early years teachers, and that it must be a core skill for them to acquire.
Moral reasons against
So the government has withdrawn its requirement that schools carry out baseline assessment for technical reasons. Yet there remain many moral and pedagogical reasons why baseline assessment is a bad policy and why the government should not continue to encourage and fund schools to use them.
The recent ATL/NUT study found “major concerns about the negative consequences of baseline assessment on children, teachers and schools”. The tests offered no improvement in assessment practice and in some cases inhibited good teaching methods. One teacher said:
Rather than go with the children’s interests – of what they were interested in – I have geared what I have been setting up in the class to try help me gather information for the purpose of this assessment.
In an open letter published on April 11 after the recent U-turn was announced, the Better without Baseline coalition urged the government to keep the existing Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, carried out in the final term of the year in which the child reaches age five, while a rethink on baseline assessment is undertaken. It is currently planned that the EYFS Profile will be no longer compulsory from September 2016.
Let’s just stop trying to introduce baseline tests for four-year-olds. Instead, fund more teachers qualified to work with young children and trust good teachers to understand, assess and act on their pupils’ progress, to exchange knowledge with parents, and enhance early learning. It’s their job and they want to be able to get on with it. Let them do it.