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Credibility on the line;Primary

All primary schools are assessing their five-year-olds this month: parents worry about premature labelling of their children; teachers foresee yet more paperwork and fancy new names for longstanding classroom practices. Jill Parkin finds out what the fuss is about

The pressure is on down in the home corner, on the drawing table and in the sandpit. Baseline assessment - the compulsory informal testing of four and five-year-olds - is beginning in reception classes all over England. By the end of the seventh week of term it will all be over, but will we be any the wiser?

More than half of all education authorities were already assessing their children in June 1997 when the Government first published its National Framework for Baseline Assessment. All authorities have had to win Government approval for their own schemes or use another accredited scheme by this month.

Ninety schemes have been accredited. Some are less than whole-hearted. Few products come with as many built-in health warnings as your average baseline assessment scheme.

The Durham County Council scheme has the optimistic name "A Flying Start''. Yet the last few lines of the package read: "Baseline assessment should be used to support pupils' future development. It should not be used as a mechanism for categorising pupils or for limiting expectation."

Norfolk's scheme starts with the reminder that "all children are skilled learners'' and says baseline assessment should "celebrate each child's uniqueness, individuality and achievements".

Many of the others are full of the same cautions, equivocations and uncomfortable wriggling. There is deep ambivalence about baseline. Parents worry about their child being labelled on the basis of the first few weeks at school. Teachers have doubts about the extra work and the formalising of something they do anyway: getting to know a child and teaching him or her appropriately.

There are misgivings, too, in the minds of early years workers who have recently said goodbye to these four and five-year-olds.

Karen Walker, spokeswoman for the National Private Day Nurseries Association, says: "How do you get across to parents that it isn't a passfail test? We also have to ask ourselves how appropriate so much testing of very young children is.

"And just how much are we expecting them to be able to do? Children develop in many different ways and at different speeds. There's no such thing as an average child. It's not until they've been at school for a couple of years that they begin to come more into line.

"Parents may panic and think their children don't have the necessary skills."

Ms Walker fears this could lead to a demand for nurseries to start setting formal work. "That panic could be used by some people to say: 'Send your children to us and we'll make sure they are okay at assessment time'. We are going overboard on how we bring young children into education."

Desirable outcomes, baseline, literacy hour: it's an awful lot. "And if it is to work," says Ms Walker, "schools need to use information from those who have known those children well for a long time. Few schools ask us for our records. We need to build up a better relationship."

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which accredits the schemes, explains to parents in a special leaflet that baseline has two aims: to find out about the child so teaching can be planned; and to help schools measure progress.

One of the best-known schemes is the five-year-old PIPS (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools), developed by the school of education at the University of Durham. Dr Peter Tymms, PIPS project director, is unconvinced that all 90 schemes will meet both of the QCA aims.

"I'm keen on baseline assessment," he says, "but the trouble with this sudden explosion of it is that it may be seen as promising more than it can deliver. You can't pin down a child's future on the basis of this assessment.

"On the other hand there is a danger in all the scheme providers thinking, 'We can do this ourselves'.

"Many of the schemes are well-meaning but lack a research base: what they think up to test may or may not predict later success or failure. I fear that in a few years' time, when some of these schemes are linked to key stage 1, we will find they have been poor indicators and the whole thing will be discredited. A lot of them will fall by the wayside."

Another early years expert, Dr Cathy Nutbrown of Sheffield University, takes issue with the QCA in a recent article in Early Education, the journal of the British Association for Early Childhood Education.

She criticises the QCA for concentrating on children's difficulties rather than their strengths, and for having a separate special needs scale.

For children in Bournemouth, however, baseline assessment is a roll of achievement; a list of all the wonderful things they can do. they begin their school life with a glowing report.

"It's a deliberate can-do philosophy," says Karen Tomkins of Bournemouth council's learning and achievement unit. the scheme will be used by the education authority, grant-maintained and independent schools.

Lesley Staggs, the QCA's principal manager for the under-fives, says that ultimately there will be "a seamless set of scales which will cover all children".

Unsurprisingly, Ms Staggs is optimistic about baseline assessment. She says many of the "health warnings" come from education authorities that have a single entry in September and therefore reception classes with a wide range of age and ability.

She defends the diversity of schemes by pointing out that many of the education authorities' packages have been drawn up by teachers with extensive classroom experience.

"Children get the best possible start if the teacher finds out as much as possible about them so he or she can plan appropriately. You need appropriate expectations, support for special needs and a system of sharing information with parents. If that's what baseline delivers then it is a good and right thing for children,'' she says.

"As with any information, teachers must use their professional knowledge and what they know about the child when acting on baseline results. If a child is scoring low, don't jump to the conclusion that this is a special needs case. Take into account the age, the pre-school experience, and decide whether it's just a case of needing time and support.

Ms Staggs agrees, however, that baseline could put pressure on the curriculum in pre-schools. "There could be a pressure to teach to the test," she says. "We've commissioned independent evaluations this year, which will include visits to different pre-school settings."

In reception classes all over England baseline is underway. It is being piloted in Wales. Baseline book in hand, the profession is approaching the chair, but it is not yet sitting comfortably.

For a copy of 'Early Education', in which Dr Nutbrown's article appears, Tel: 0171 739 7594

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