Primary heads condemn baseline tests as ‘utter madness’

Study suggests many primary headteachers think baseline tests in Reception year will be unreliable and could disrupt learning

Catherine Lough

Hands-on learning is about more than just 'play' and having fun - it develops key skills for children's development, writes teacher Sian Ward

Many primary headteachers are critical of Reception baseline assessments, with some branding them “appalling” and “total and utter madness,” according to research published today.

A study by Dr Alice Bradbury at UCL Institute of Education – Inappropriate, unnecessary, unhelpful: The headteachers’ verdict on baseline assessment – found that 86 per cent of primary school teachers surveyed had negative or qualified views of the tests, with only 8 per cent expressing positive views.

Related: Baseline pilot snubbed by more than 7,000 schools

Need to know: Reception baseline assessment

Background: Teachers vote to stop 'immoral' baseline primary assessment

The controversial tests for four- and five-year-olds are due to become compulsory from 2020, but in May, DfE figures revealed that more than 7,000 schools primary and infant schools had refused to take part in an assessment pilot going ahead this month.

Dr Bradbury’s research was based on 288 survey responses and 20 in-depth interviews with primary school headteachers, conducted for More Than a Score, which campaigns against assessment of young children. Overall, 160 survey respondents gave their views on baseline assessments.

"The fact that data from the new version will not be made available to teachers means that they will still need to conduct their informal systems alongside the statutory test, so that they can use the information to inform teaching and learning," the report said.

"Combined with the statutory Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, this will mean teachers potentially doing three forms of assessment in the Reception year."

The baseline assessment will be a 20-minute assessment of maths and language, communication and literacy (LCL) skills. Pupils will be assessed one-to-one by teachers within a few weeks of starting school.

The assessments use physical objects such as plastic shapes, with teachers recording pupils’ responses to the task online.

However, in Dr Bradbury’s study, many headteachers said one-off assessments of this kind for young children were unreliable and unnecessary.

“Ridiculous! There is nothing wrong with the way in which early years staff assess the children on entry in the Reception class at the moment. They don't need a 'formalised' way of doing this,” one respondent wrote.

Another said: “NO NO NO! It goes against all good FS [Foundation Stage] practice and is not an effective predictor of future success.”

Others said the difference in children’s ages at the start of the Reception year would distort results.

“I think it is appalling! The difference between an almost five-year-old to a ‘just four’ year old is huge,” one headteacher commented.

Headteachers also said the tests might lead primary schools to “game the system” and award pupils lower scores to demonstrate more progress by Year 6.

And respondents said schools with high levels of mobility would be affected – as they would have many pupils in Year 6 who had not joined them in Reception class.

The report also found primary heads thought the first few weeks of school should be a time when teachers were helping pupils adapt to school life and building routines, so removing them from the classroom for one-to-one assessments was unhelpful.

“Overall, the headteachers’ views on Baseline were largely negative, with even those who had some sympathy with the principle of assessing progress often expressing some concerns,” Dr Bradbury said.

“There was some very negative language used in relation to this policy which suggests that some headteachers feel very strongly that this policy will not benefit schools or children.”

“These findings raise questions about the need to bring back Baseline and how it might affect children as they start school.

"Headteachers are frustrated that the problems which emerged in the last version of RBA have not been resolved and that this policy continues to disregard professional concerns about accuracy and the appropriateness of a test for four-year-olds.”

Nancy Stewart, a spokesperson for More Than A Score, said: “Heads agree with education experts and parents: this scheme is a waste of everyone’s time and a waste of £10 million. It has no basis in academic theory or even simple logic.”

“It is simply another way for the government to judge schools, using unreliable and unfair testing methods. A batch of reception pupils will be used as guinea pigs when they should be settling into school and the government still can’t tell us how they’ll use the data which will be extracted from these four-year-olds.”

“It’s time for the Department for Education to admit failure and halt the roll-out of this pointless and damaging experiment.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The reception baseline assessment is a quick check of a child's early language and ability to count when they start school to help inform teachers - nine in ten schools already carry out on-entry checks.

“We are confident that the Reception Baseline Assessment will lighten the load for schools, which will no longer have to carry out whole-class assessments at the end of year 2 or deal with the test papers and administration that comes with that, while also being stress-free for children.

“We have been listening carefully to feedback we have received throughout the development process to ensure we get the experience right for pupils and schools.”





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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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