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Early tests fail black pupils

Foundation stage profile assessments may reveal teachers' unconscious racism. Simon Atkinson reports.

Tests used to measure children's ability when they start primary school are damaging black pupils, but policy-makers are not worried, a leading academic claims.

Professor David Gillborn of London institute of education said that the foundation stage profile assessments for children aged three to five saw white pupils attaining higher marks than all other ethnic groups.

But in the baseline tests which they replaced in 20023, black children were the highest achievers going into primary school.

Professor Gillborn was due to address this week's British Educational Research Association's annual conference at Glamorgan university with a talk subheaded: "It's not a conspiracy, it's worse than that."

He believes the trend may have emerged because the foundation stage profile assessment draws more on teacher observations. He said there was evidence that many teachers have lower expectations of black children and grade them accordingly.

Most people, he said, linked racism with groups such as the BNP but that "well-meaning white professionals who simply do not see equality as a major concern" were guilty of institutional racism. He said: "The official data shows that changes in the assessment of three to five-year-olds have been linked to a reduction in the attainment of black kids relative to their white counterparts.

"Here's one area that black kids were doing well and it has disappeared, almost overnight. There is no evidence of conscious intent. There does not need to be. The normal workings of the education system put racial equality at the very margins of debate.

"Policies are enacted with little or no regard to how they will impact on minority ethnic students. Changes are made that can have a serious detrimental effect but no one in authority seems concerned."

In 2000 Professor Gillborn and Professor Heidi Safia Mirza challenged the preconception that black children entered the school system poorly prepared, finding they were the highest achieving of all groups in baseline assessments at the start of primary school. Only as they progressed through school did attainment drop off.

Professor Gillborn says those findings had "passed into common understanding of the field" and were often quoted by politicians and media.

"But now the pattern is reversed, and no comment is made," he said.

"If black kids have a lower achievement when they enter the school system then their lower performance later on will not look like a problem because they started from a lower point," he said.

He added that because schools are "setting" children for numeracy and literacy from an early age, there would be greater segregation of black and white youngsters as separation "kicks in earlier".

Chris Davis, chair of the National Primary Headteachers' Association said the change could be due to the new tests, agreeing that the increase of teacher assessments could be a factor. But, more important he said, was that: "The baseline assessments were done within the first few weeks of school whereas the current assessments are designed to be carried out at the end of reception year or the beginning of year one."

More than 900 talks are being given at the Bera conference, including a paper by Carl Parsons from the Policy Research Bureau, London, who says that the over representation of ethnic groups in school exclusions should also be considered institutionally racist.

"These irregularities appear to be repeatedly reproduced as a matter of organisational practice," he said, pointing to poor awareness of the issues, poor assessment and monitoring of policies and the limited range of targeted, positive actions.

Other work being presented included teachers' perspectives of marketing at an independent school and a look at creativity in primary education. Durham university academics presented findings from a longitudinal study on the "achievements, progress and attitudes of inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive children".

More Bera reports next week *

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