Climbdown on tests for five-year-olds

Baseline assessment for reception pupils looks like going beyond the three Rs, report Linda Blackburne and Diane Hofkins. The Government has bowed to pressure from teachers and parents and agreed to include social and oral skills in its tests for children starting school.

A new 17-point plan on "baseline assessment" of reception pupils was welcomed by the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, earlier this week.

Earlier proposals required only the three Rs, although they encouraged broader assessment. Parents and teachers, however, complained that this missed out skills such as speaking and listening which were essential for such young children.

Mrs Shephard accepted recommendations from her education advisers for a national framework on baseline assessment. She said the plan, which would mean all local schemes would have to be accredited by the Government, would ensure that every child gained a good start in basic skills from the first day at primary school.

There will also be an optional national model, which is likely to take the form of a ticklist of targets, because this is what most teachers said they wanted in a survey of 7,500 primary schools.

But the Government has yet to decide its final shape. Trials in schools over the next few months will try out ticklists with four grades of ability for each skill.

A 20-item checklist of reading, writing and numeracy skills was tested last term, and found slightly too difficult because it was based on targets for five-year-olds, while most children starting reception are only four.

The trials showed what proportion of children could perform each of the skills.

Researchers found that while more than 80 per cent could hold a book the right way, while turning the pages and retelling the story from memory, and show a one-to-one correspondence by matching item to item, less than 10 per cent attempted to write sentences or to spell unfamiliar words, or to solve numerical problems using addition and subtraction. About half could write their own names with upper and lower case letters.

The Government is pumping Pounds 8.5 million of new money into the scheme to fund training and support of teachers. The 17-point plan says the Government should not impose a single national scheme but encourage the development of local schemes.

About half of local authorities already carry out some form of baseline assessment. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is carrying out a further consultation on criteria for accreditation and guidance, which will run until 13 March.

SCAA recommends the schemes should all test language and literacy, mathematics and personal and social development also.

The tests should take place within seven weeks of a child starting primary school, and should take no more than 20 minutes per child. Schools should be provided with sufficient resources to allow all reception class teachers to attend a day's training on the administration of baseline assessment, the use of it, reporting to parents, and to give teacher supply cover.

Mrs Shephard will decide on the exact form of the checklist next month. Local schemes will have to be submitted for accreditation in July, and the pilot year starts in September. By September 1998, all schools will be required to use an accredited scheme.

The central proposal of a national framework was supported by more than 92 per cent of teachers in the survey. And the recommendation that baseline assessment should measure children's attainment on entry to school so that it could provide the basis for future value added measures was approved by 80 per cent of schools.

A mixed reception, TES2, page 13

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