Baseline Assessment- what’s all the fuss?

Assessment of children in schools has hit the headlines this week, with the announcement from the Department for Education that Baseline assessment for four- and five- year- olds will be trialed from September 2018 (Department for Education, 2018). Meanwhile, parents throughout England are contemplating withdrawing their child from year 6 SATs tests. On Twitter, parents shared stories of their year 6 children going into school every morning over the Easter holidays for SATs revision. Some parents gave accounts of their experiences when Baseline assessment was last introduced in 2015, with stories of children crying and being placed into the lowest ability group because they were too shy to talk. And yet, some seem to have no problem with the issue of testing children.

It is important to be clear about what the new Baseline assessment is and is not  (this piece gives an excellent summary of the problems with Baseline). The twenty-minute test will be carried out in the first 6 weeks of school and will be one-to-one, with the teacher using a tablet or computer to record the child’s answers. The test scores will not be made available to teachers, instead they will be black boxed until the cohort reach the end of year 6, at which point the data will be used to measure the progress that pupils have made throughout their time at the school (an important aside is to consider how many of those children who sat the test in reception will still be at the same school seven years later). Because of this, teachers will still need to carry out their own assessment in addition to the test. This will probably be the same assessment of children that is already carried out in most schools now, with teachers observing children during their play to find out what children can do, what they are interested in and what the teacher may need to do to support the child’s development.

And this is the crux of the difference, and the problem that many EYFS professionals have with the test. A test has predetermined answers, answers that are either correct or incorrect, meaning that children are either going to get them right or wrong. It is a way of measuring children to see how much information valued by adults they have taken on board. A test will always have notions of normativity, of what a child ‘should’ know, and therefore position those who do not have that knowledge as lacking, as behind. At the age of four. It does not recognise the child as “strong, powerful, and rich in potential and resources, right from the moment of birth” (Rinaldi, 2006, p. 123). Whilst I often discuss the problems with observation-based assessment (eg the child’s privacy, issues of consent, governance of teachers and children), it looks at what children can do, at what they do know. It allows teachers to build a picture of children’s strengths, of their interests, of their engagement with others and the world. It allows you to watch children in their natural habitat, at play, not sat in a room with a teacher, some plastic bears and an iPad. It allows you to understand the ‘hundred languages’ (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 2011) that a child speaks, be it the language of song, maths or construction. In a more literal sense, the test will certainly be problematic for those children for whom English is an additional language. Starting school can be a difficult transition for children who speak little English, imagine throwing in a test in the first weeks.

Naturally, there has been lots of discussion regarding Baseline assessment between early years professionals and teachers working in other sectors within education. Some secondary teachers and headteachers are welcoming Baseline assessment as it means that Key Stage One SATs tests will be scrapped. It could also mean a lower starting point in terms of data for some schools, allowing them to show that children have made more progress. Amongst some, there’s an air of ‘It’s just a twenty-minute test, do it and get on with it.’ At a basic level, it shows a lack of understanding of life in the reception classroom, particularly at the beginning of the year. Reception teachers will be required to remove children from the classroom one at a time to sit the test. Many early years teachers will have experience of returning to the classroom from, say, PPA time to find one child has wet themselves, one has painted 38 pieces of Lego and is about to put them into the fish tank whilst another is missing their mum and just needs some attention. You leave the room 25 minutes later, once some kind of calmness has been restored. No reception teacher can just pop in and out of the classroom in the first six weeks of term. As for the twenty-minute test, who knows how long that will take in reality. A larger problem with the ‘just do the twenty-minute test and get on with it’ attitude is where does it lead? Should that be the attitude reception teachers take when told by headteachers that children must write for 30 minutes at a table everyday? When they are told that play must be kept to the afternoons?

Public response to Baseline has generally consisted of concerned parents, but there has been an element of ‘Children need to get used to testing’ with regards to SATs. A piece on ‘The Wright Stuff’ around parents boycotting the year 6 SATs led to comments such as “What does it teach children? If you don’t like it or it’s too hard just don’t bother and refuse”, “Stop wrapping these kids in cotton wool”, “Breeding more generations of snowflakes” and “That’s life so get on with it. It ain’t easy at times.” The message is clear; adults have to deal with stress, why should children be any different. But children and childhood are different. Childhood is a distinct life phase, unique and different to any other time. It is not simply preparation for adulthood. When did this lack of regard for childhood begin? What next? ‘We might as well get children used to filling in tax return forms/ driving/fixing that dodgy looking wire coming out of the oven. ’ I see much in education that makes me think of Victorian era England, the focus on providing a moral education for children from backgrounds the government considers to be unsuitable, for example. We are at risk of returning to that Victorian notion that children are just smaller adults, just waiting to become, not yet fully human.

So in response to ‘What’s all the fuss about Baseline?’, the answer is this. Baseline represents how we see children in England, how we view childhood. For some, childhood has become a watered down version of adulthood in which children take on many of the qualities and responsibilities required of adults, such as work ethic, perseverance, determination- qualities ‘taught’ in schools under the guise of ‘character education’ or ‘growth mindset.’ Children are seen as incomplete adults, going to school to learn the knowledge that we already hold. It is this view of children and childhood that we need to change. Childhood should be a unique time of life in which children play, play and play some more, exploring, hypothesising, creating. If we are simply reproducing ourselves and passing on knowledge, what is the point? Children need to be encouraged to explore new ideas, new ways of thinking.

Perversely, the discussion around Baseline assessment has made me feel more positive about the future of early years education in England than I have for some time. Thanks to Baseline, there is evidence of properly political discussions around the purpose of education, of whether schools should be measured and held accountable using test data. There is more discussion of what the tests mean for childhood. The policy seems to be galvanising the workforce, bringing the different sectors that comprise the early years together and getting parents on board with the early years ethos. A unified workforce, with parent backing, could thwart Baseline, for if children do not sit the tests, they cannot be used as a progress measure. And because I cannot write anything without including some Foucault these days, let’s end with this quote:

…as soon as one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them,         transformation becomes very urgent, very difficult and quite possible.

(Foucault, 1988, p. 155)

References

Edwards, C. P., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. E. (2011). The Hundred Languages of Children : the Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation. ABC-CLIO.

Foucault, M. (1988). Practising criticism. In L. Kritzman (Ed.), Politics, Phiosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984. New York: Routledge.

Rinaldi, C. (2006). In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching and Learning. London: Routledge.

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