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Baseline assessment won't come cheap

I am ever watchful of developments south of the border. Wherever Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary treads, the Scottish Secretary is sure to follow. School boards, a 5-14 national curriculum and national testing all have their mirror image in England and Wales.

I listened keenly to the ins and outs of the "new 17-point plan on baseline assessment" announced by Mrs Shephard. I am a supporter of taking account of prior learning in any given situation whether it be at primary-secondary transfer or nursery-primary transition stage. But a national commitment to baseline assessments must come in the form of specific funding for early assessment initiatives. And assessments must be linked to early intervention work in schools.

Initiatives such as those in Pilton, Wester Hailes and Easterhouse have proven that early intervention pays off. The Scottish Office has recognised the need to change reading development in schools as a result of its recent research (summarised in Interchange No 39). For many disadvantaged children it is too late to ignore prior learning and put off making assessments until they are well into their years of statutory education.

Many schools have begun to use this research to devise their own ways of assessing children's prior learning to allow the earliest possible intervention for all pupils. Staff in Bonhill primary are working closely with their colleagues in Dalmonach nursery to carry out detailed assessments in maths, language and personal and social development. The assessments may not stand up to reliability checks or national comparisons of pupil scores. None the less, the scheme has many strengths which any national scheme should try to incorporate.

First, the assessments are embedded in the ongoing work in both establishments. The language scan involves each child working individually for 20 minutes as well as working in groups for another 30 minutes. The tasks range from oral to written work. Information is available about the children's performance in specific language skills such as visual discrimination, hand and eye co-ordination, comprehension, awareness of rhyme and word recognition. The language scan has been produced for the pre-five, primary 1 and primary 2 stages of education so that the progress of the children can be followed. In this way, focused teaching programmes can be developed and learning facilitated. The assessments become a tool for targeting people resources, tackling skills needing attention in individuals, groups or classes and reporting progress to parents.

Unfortunately, the "baseline assessments" do not seem to be part of any such bigger picture. They have to be carried out seven weeks into the primary 1 session and one can presume that the assessment will stand until the introduction of the national tests at the end of level A. There is no mention of resources being used to support intervention based on assessment results. One can assume that such baseline assessments will be used as a national comparison of children at certain stages rather than an assessment which moves the teaching and learning along for each child.

Both schools show commitment to the importance of these assessments by channelling resources towards the early stages. Staff were released for training. Regular meetings were held. Senior staff were timetabled to help carry out assessments and support class work. Learning support staff were targeted to work alongside the class teachers to target areas of concern. Parent workshops were held to explain the purpose of the skills being taught and ways to help out at home.

Sadly, such commitment is increasingly difficult to maintain in the current financial climate. Scottish school will find it difficult to meet existing demands when budgets and staffing are under threat. Resources should be made available to all schools, not simply "showpiece" projects.

The resources should facilitate the process of genuine, informed intervention across the country and not just assessment measures unlinked to an intervention strategy. Otherwise, we will have a national framework of baseline assessments, funded by central government, which have to be implemented through the already overstretched finances of local authorities and their schools.

Janice Hislop is acting headteacher of Bonhill primary school, West Dunbartonshire.

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