The news that the DfE has restarted attempts to create a reception baseline has been met with fury from the early years sector. It’s just two years since the DfE last tried to find a test to measure the progress primary school children make between reception and Year 6.
When given a choice of providers, 11,000 out of England’s 17,000 primary schools chose the Early Excellence observation based assessment as being the most appropriate option for this age group. When the DfE finally figured out that an observation based test couldn’t possibly be comparable with a tablet or paper based one, they dropped the whole idea like a hot potato. Now, in what feels like Groundhog Day, the idea is back. Except that this time the DfE has decided not to give the troublesome early years sector a choice, just in case we make the ‘wrong decision’ again. The DfE said: “we do not intend this to be an observational assessment which is carried out over time”. This time round it is a test or nothing.
No matter how desperate you are to measure a system for accountability purposes (and the DfE seems particularly hooked on this approach), it is completely inappropriate to give a test to a four-year-old child who isn’t even in statutory education. The moral case here seems to be compelling, and if schools or unions don’t organise a boycott, I suspect that many parents will refuse to participate (which will make the data gathered useless).
What head teacher could ignore a letter from a parent saying that they do not wish their child to participate in this test when that child is not even of compulsory school starting age?
If the majority of people in the sector are clear that only observation based assessments are appropriate at this age, how can the DfE possibly ignore their advice, and railroad through a test on four-year-olds instead? In addition, the administration of the test will add to workload, and take time away from the process of settling children into school. The DfE admits that this test “is not intended to provide on-going formative information for practitioners”. Any pretence that this data will be useful for teachers, rather than a stick to beat schools with in seven years’ time, has been well and truly dropped.
Probably the strongest case we can make against this baseline test though, is how unreliable, inaccurate and damaging it will be for schools and the children they serve. For a start, children in a reception class will be different in age. We already know that summer born children don’t have the same level of outcomes at the end of Early Years Foundation Stage as their autumn born counterparts, and this is only logical since they are younger.
This test can only exaggerate the effect, and I predict it will lead to more parents of summer born children asking (as is their right) to defer entry to reception for a year. This will have a knock-on effect on capacity in the early years sector, at a time when settings are struggling to put the 30 hours childcare offer in place. It will also cost the DfE more money, as they have to continue to fund the child’s entitlement to a place in an early years setting.
It seems inevitable that the test will cause unhelpful tensions between parents (who will want their children to ‘do well’), early years settings (who will want to demonstrate the progress children have made with them) and schools (who will need children not to do well, so they can demonstrate maximum progress to Year 6).
No matter how much faith I have in schools, the scope to game this test, and the pressure to do so under our current accountability regime, is really quite breath taking. We have all seen the damage that SATs have done to children’s entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum. It is almost inevitable that there will be a downwards pressure on early years settings to ‘prepare’ for the tests, at the same time as schools being incentivised not to help their children make good progress prior to being tested.
Any practitioner or teacher who works with children in the Early Years Foundation Stage knows how quickly they change from moment to moment, depending on whether they are tired/excited/hungry or any number of other factors. Even the time of day that the test is done will affect the outcomes. How can this possibly be reliably moderated between settings?
Those who teach in early years settings know that some children settle in quickly, but that there are some who really struggle with transition, and can spend a term or even more clinging onto parents in the mornings, or getting so over tired that they fall asleep on the carpet during story time. As the test is to be ‘administered within the first half-term of entering a school’, the incentive is clearly to do it as early as possible, rather than to give space and time for the child to settle in.
Perhaps the main reason why this test cannot possibly be an accurate measure of schools, though, is that it claims to be able to test a child’s progress over seven years on the basis of a short test done on a wet Friday afternoon in October. During those seven years, some children will change schools several times, some children with EAL will learn an entire new language, some children will have a supportive home background and others will not, some children will suffer trauma or poverty, some children will be unwell, or undergo a bereavement, some children will be taken to drama lessons, and brownies, and museums, and be tutored at home.
The amount of ‘noise’ that can potentially interfere with the data is immeasurable and unknowable. The idea that we can filter out this noise to show the school effect is laughable. The idea that we will even have the same government, with the same educational priorities in seven years' time, is pretty laughable as well. Whatever your political ideology, educational philosophy or take on pedagogy, any test that is this fundamentally unreliable is a monumental waste of money.
Teachers, parents, unions and schools need to join together and boycott this baseline. This time they are coming for our four-year-olds, and it's time to make a stand.
Sue Cowley is an author, trainer and presenter who has helped run her local preschool for the past ten years.