Four (uncomfortable) truths about the new primary baseline test – from inside the eye of the storm

Jan Dubiel

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Dame Alison Peacock’s decision that her school would not use a Department for Education-accredited baseline test provoked a predictably supportive response on social media, decrying, among other things, the assessment of children in reception, the production of numerical data and using that data for accountability purposes.

For those opposing baseline assessment, an attempt to whip up a storm of refusal has, so far, been largely unsuccessful among reception teachers. As one of the accredited providers, the company where I work, Early Excellence, has watched this unfold with interest.

Dame Alison said: “We already have a very comprehensive way of assessing the children: we do it through observation and talking to children.”

Which brings us the first uncomfortable truth:

There is nothing new or different about the concept of baseline (except perhaps the word itself, which has historical connotations). Reception teachers always have had to and always will do a baseline in the first few weeks of a child starting school. They might call it “on-entry assessment”, “establishing starting points for learning” or “getting to know the children” but it amounts to the same thing – assessment is a critical aspect of effective pedagogy and in order to teach children effectively a starting point has to be understood. This is what a “baseline” does. Nor is submitting numerical data to the Department for Education about children in reception a novel idea. It has been happening successfully since 2003 through the early years foundation stage profile assessment – which, incidentally, is now being deified by the anti-baseline campaign.

Ofsted has always used information from assessment on entry (usually reception year) to judge progress in a school and to ascertain its effectiveness – because key to any view of accountability is the starting point from which progress is measured. The only real difference now is that the DfE has stipulated quite clearly through the accreditation process which systems will be officially recognised.

Currently there are three providers: the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring [based at Durham University], Early Excellence and the National Foundation for Educational Research.

And this provides the second uncomfortable truth:

Not all the baseline models are the same.

The Early Excellence model, EExBA, does not involve tests or pre-set tasks. It uses “practitioner-led assessment” through observation, interaction and questioning, and relies on professional teacher judgement. It occurs as part of everyday practice without children or teachers having to be “withdrawn” for the purpose. It assesses children’s wellbeing, their levels of involvement and their “characteristics of effective learning” [information about how the child demonstrates learning through the way they play, for example the way they get involved in activities and come up with new ways of doing things]. It does this as a precursor to understanding their development in the areas of learning and development and provides real pedagogical information to support the child’s individual development.

Which leads us to the third uncomfortable truth:

The content and process of EExBA undermine the principles of the campaign against baseline. It has been used by 12,000 schools assessing 500,000 children in an accurate, appropriate and pedagogically useful way, and the feedback we have received from teachers regarding this has been positive and supportive. It is not a test, it does not compromise the settling-in period, it will not put pressure on children or parents, it will not damage children’s self-esteem nor downgrade the value of play – all key components of the campaign against baseline.

Which leaves us with the fourth uncomfortable truth:

The fact that more than 70 per cent of schools have chosen to use EExBA means that the campaign against baseline is de facto a campaign against EExBA – the very type of assessment that reflects the principles of those opposing it.

Margaret Carr, professor at the University of Waikato’s Institute of Educational Research, New Zealand, stated that: “If, as Pamela Moss (professor at the School of Education, University of Michigan) suggests, ‘what isn’t assessed tends to disappear from the curriculum’ then we have to find a way to assess educational outcomes that we value. Otherwise outcomes that can be easily measured will take their place."

This is why EExBA is so strong and so many headteachers and practitioners have chosen to use it as their preferred baseline. It is the expression of the outcomes we value within the Early Years Foundation Stage, making us accountable for what really matters. Whatever we think of the word "baseline", shouldn’t this be something we should be supporting?

Jan Dubiel is national development manager of Early Excellence

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