As the government prepares for another round of consultations on the state of primary assessment, the issue of the failed Reception baseline tests looms large. There will be those who opposed it and are glad to see the back of the statutory approach; equally, there will be others disappointed that a simple check was undermined by teachers choosing not to use it. But the matter hasn’t gone away entirely.
Now that the Department for Education has recognised that its first attempt at a solid system of primary assessment and accountability hasn’t worked according to plan, I am hopeful that it will listen to the advice of the profession when trying to find a way forward in its consultation planned for this spring. And so we must prepare for the possibility that a Reception baseline assessment could be back on the agenda. Indeed, I’d argue that – done well – it is something we should welcome.
A Reception baseline assessment – done well – is something we should welcome
Back in 2014, when the profession was last asked about whether a baseline should be introduced, almost half of respondents said it should not.
However, a good many of those stated that this was because it was “too early to assess children”. That in itself is, of course, nonsense. We know that excellent early years practitioners are assessing children long before they reach the Reception classroom.
Perhaps the concern was more about the nature of the assessment that the government proposed – or fears about what it might be like.
'The vast majority opted in'
For the year in which the baseline assessment wasn’t compulsory, the vast majority of schools did opt into the scheme, with a huge number choosing the observation-based Early Excellence model. Schools were not so opposed to the model that many eschewed it altogether.
Perhaps the question is more whether we can find a suitable model that early years teachers can get along with, and can provide the DfE with the statistics it wants to help judge school effectiveness. Yes, the DfE got it wrong last time: the freedom to choose from such wildly differing providers was never going to work. But that’s not to say the principle couldn’t be improved.
The data that the government wants is likely to be far narrower than the information that is useful to early years practitioners. Perhaps a Reception baseline needs a common core of measures that are used by all schools, as part of a wider product. Schools could still have a choice about whether to use a full range of bought-in assessments or to complete the minimum requirements of the DfE alongside their own evaluations.
It’s not about a rounded assessment to support teaching and learning
Let’s not confuse the two purposes here: all early years practitioners will be assessing their pupils as soon as they set foot in the door. But all the DfE needs is a measure to compare schools’ progress over the following seven years. It’s not about a rounded assessment to support teaching and learning, but a simple starting point for comparisons. We don’t need to use its numbers for teaching and learning any more than we want to label children as a particular level.
There are still plenty of questions to resolve: when should a baseline measure be taken? How can we ensure fair and equitable measures? If we’re using teacher judgement, how can we ensure teachers are not under pressure to manipulate results?
But if we start from the premise that a baseline is not automatically unacceptable, then we might be able to get the best deal for our schools and their pupils.
Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire