The bottom line

Jill Parkin has some last-minute tips on how to measure your new pupils' abilities with baseline assessment

You're into it already. The little strangers who came into your Reception class at the start of term now have to be assessed. And something more formal than "Denis is a menace" is required.

Baseline assessments - mandatory for the first time this year - have to be completed within the first seven weeks of term. There are 90 schemes accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in England, each with its own guidance notes. In Wales, 1998 will be a pilot year in which schemes accredited by the Welsh curriculum body, ACAC, or those being considered for accreditation, can be used.

Alan Egdell, headmaster at St Bernadette's Roman Catholic primary school in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, has been working on baseline assessment since 1992, when North Tyneside began researching its own scheme. He now chairs the authority's baseline assessment group, which has been refining its ideas for the last six years.

Mr Egdell says: "It's important to bear in mind that you are testing very young children. If they become tired or listless the assessment should stop. You have to bring your own professional judgment to the assessment. There is no point in taking the approach of 'I've started so I'll finish'.

"Children will react better if the assessment can be done in a natural or familiar setting, such as the home corner. Don't take them out from their peers by saying 'Come to me. We're going to do your test'.

"A lot can be judged by observing their normal activity, say in a shoe-shop game, even if you have to move things along by asking things like 'I'd like a pair of brown shoes. Have you got any brown shoes?' "Sometimes a child has already demonstrated the ability to do a task. In that case, it's pointless to set it up again. Often you can get the information without going into a huge testing regime."

Parents should be reminded that scores are not used to rank children, but to allow teachers to write individual plans that will enable all children to have a curriculum well matched to their needs".

Other teachers and early years workers point out that new pupils may be shy or bewildered. Checking records from their previous nursery or playgroup will help you see how they normally behave.

Early in the term, try to read all the information passed on by parents, nursery schools and playgroups. Some baseline schemes suggest getting together - either face-to-face or by means of a written record - with these groups in the term before Reception. Others suggest waiting until you have had a chance to observe the child in class.

This is bound to be easier in schools with their own nurseries, but many nursery schools have their own assessment schemes that are passed to the parents to be handed to the school.

Don't underestimate the usefulness of song and rhyme. They're effective group activities to assess counting skills, ordering and sequencing, as well as speaking, listening and sound work.

Personal and social development

Things to note:

* Independence and self-organisation during their arrival in class and parting from parent.

* Caring and sensitivity to others during role play activities.

* Solving problems, sharing and co-operating during brick play and other technology activities.

* How they relate to others during group maths and language games.

* Their ability to express a range of feelings in class discussions.

* Concentration during painting and drawing.

* Appropriate behaviour, confidence and co-operation during PE, assembly, break and lunchtime.

Tips adapted from Rotherham council's package

Cultural and language differences

* Normally baseline judgments in language and literacy will be made in English to assess fluency, but other areas should be assessed in the child's first language.

* Some Asian communities do not encourage direct eye contact with adults, as it challenges authority. Staff may need to make allowances.

* Learning the naming of colours and shapes may be less important in some cultures than in others.

* Children are often nervous during their first weeks at school. Children for whom English is a second language have an added stress.

* A silent period is a recognised phase of learning a second language - it may well coincide with baseline assessment.

* Muslim children may not have been encouraged to draw pictures of living things because of their beliefs. This may affect their art work.

Handling the parent-teacher meeting * Be sensitive. Parents of pupils with a low score may worry that children will be labelled through their school lives and may see it as a reflection on them.

* Be positive. Stress what children can do rather than what they can't.

* Present the negatives as targets for learning and development.

* Parents should be given an indication of the ways in which they can help and support their child's learning. Explain how planning will relate to future learning.

* Emphasise the wide range of abilities on entry into Reception.

The QCA says that schemes must:

* Cover aspects of language and literacy, mathematics and personal and social development as specified in the Government's Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning on Entering Compulsory Education.

* Include clear guidance to teachers on how the outcomes of the assessment can be used to inform the planning both for a class and for individual children.

* Provide one or more numerical outcomes - measurable scores of each pupil's ability - that can be used for later value-added analysis (such as comparison with national test results).

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