What is reception baseline assessment for?
Baseline assessment is an accountability measure. Children will be tested at entry to Reception, and again at 11, when they take KS2 SATs. These tests will produce two scores, which will be compared with each other. Schools will be held accountable for the progress that children make, compared with their peers in other schools. Teachers too will inevitably be assessed against these accountability measures.
Baseline is intended to replace Key Stage 1 SATs (this is the basis on which it is supported by the NAHT.) But the danger is that rather than lifting the accountability burden from schools, Baseline will actually extend that burden into the Early Years.
When does the Government intend to implement it?
In September 2020, with KS1 SATs being phased out in 2022. In 2019, the DfE is running a voluntary but large-scale pilot test. Only two thirds of eligible primary schools chose to participate in the 2019 pilot, demonstrating the level of opposition to the scheme among heads and teachers.
Hasn’t Baseline been tried before?
Yes – between 1997 and 2002; and again in 2015/16. On both occasions, it was withdrawn. In 2015/16, the DfE employed three different providers, using different tests, and then concluded that this had produced unreliable results. One of these three providers (National Foundation for Educational Research [NFER]) was the only company which put in a bid to deliver the new scheme. The other two providers from 2015/16 – Early Excellence and CEM – did not want to be part of the new scheme, which Early Excellence has called "ideological and inept".
What did teachers say about Baseline then?
Teachers said a lot, and much of it was critical. Research commissioned by the NUT and ATL found that nearly 60% of teachers thought that Baseline tests disrupted the vital settling-in period for 4- year olds. A similar proportion thought that the tests were not an accurate reflection of children’s attainment.
So have these reliability problems been sorted out now?
No, they haven’t. “If you are testing a four-year old,” Professor Harvey Goldstein told the House of Commons Education Committee, “you cannot get a very reliable test”. The score that children get cannot therefore be trusted – yet it will be the basis on which schools are held accountable. As an expert panel convened by the British Educational Research Association (BERA) put it: “Aggregating scores in a proposed 20-minute test, covering the three domains of literacy, numeracy and self-regulation to produce a single number, is misguided” and “inherently unreliable”. Jan Dubiel, National Director of Early Excellence, which supplied most schools with Baseline Assessment in 2015/16 adds that Baseline is: “observational, can’t really be used, is highly unreliable and only looks at a partial view of a child. The whole policy is a disaster”.
But all this is a long way off, isn’t it? Children tested in 2020 won’t take their KS SATs till 2027 – a lot can happen before then.
Schools will feel the effects of Baseline well before 2027.
We know from Ofsted’s ‘Bold Beginnings’ document, and from the DfE’s proposal to change the Early Learning Goals, that policy-makers want to narrow the Early Years curriculum. Baseline fits into that project.
Because Baseline focuses on a narrow range of knowledge and skills, it is likely to encourage reception and nursery classes to concentrate on providing narrow learning experiences. It will limit the rich exploratory, playful, creative and intellectual experiences which are of lasting benefit to children.
But without assessment, how can teachers support children’s learning?
Teachers already have the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), which at present covers all aspects of the curriculum. The EYFSP is not formally used in value added measures of children’s progress and school performance – but using it does give teachers an all-round understanding of children’s development. There is a case for simplifying the EYFSP – but not for replacing it with Baseline.
How much will it cost?
The contract for the first two years of baseline has been awarded to the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) at a cost of £9.8 million. This is in addition to the hidden costs for schools – for staff cover, for instance. It should be remembered that KS1 SATs will continue until 2022, and that many schools will be buying into tests for 7-year-olds after that date. Testing is big business. When far too many children in England live in poverty, we are going to spend fortunes on testing rather than feeding them.
Can we change anything?
Baseline is now opposed by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, leaving the Government isolated in its pursuit to implement the test.
The opposition parties agree that the whole primary assessment system is ‘toxic’ and have called for its abolition. In 2015/16 this political opposition did not exist. Although the NAHT leadership remains in favour of the baseline assessment, many individual headteachers feel very differently.
In a YouGov Survey of primary headteachers (February 2019):
- 79% agreed testing pupils in Reception is an inefficient way of measuring future progress (9% disagree)
- 74% agreed it’s not possible to reliably assess four-year-olds
- 96% agree teachers should not be spending the first few weeks of term preparing children for assessment
- 73% believe Baseline assessment is an unfair way to measure schools' future progress.
The More Than A Score (MTAS) campaign is taking the message to parents: more than 75,000 have signed the petition against Baseline, and the campaign continues to build momentum among heads, teachers, parents and politicians.
The general educational climate is changing, and belief in universal testing as the basis of accountability is beginning to weaken: even Ofsted has said that another approach is needed. Baseline assessment is the weakest link in the whole chain of testing – a rehash of a failed project, based on a model which cannot promise reliability. Jan Dubiel, of Early Excellence, put it like this: “I don’t think the Baseline assessment will have a long life because it is so pointless and absurd and unsustainable. Many people are against it and there are calls for it to be boycotted. It won’t last as long as a celebrity marriage.”
This is the context in which we’re saying that we’ll support schools which do not participate in the voluntary pilot. We want them to pass the model resolution, based on a resolution drafted by reception teachers in one primary school and to tell us about it. Where school leaders have felt obliged to sign up to the baseline pilot, we’re calling on members to monitor their experience of the tests, and to feed back to the union.