The new system of baseline assessment for five-year-olds could be in danger of getting off to a disastrous start because of an apparent lapse in quality control.
Less than a handful of the 90 assessment schemes that are expected to be available to primary schools in September have been properly researched and validated, according to Professor Geoff Lindsay who is director of the special needs research unit at Warwick University's Institute of Education.
Professor Lindsay told last weekend's British Psychological Society conference in Brighton that he supported baseline assessment which aims to identify children's learning needs and help "value-added" judgments of schools' effectiveness.
But he condemned the lack of quality control.
"If schemes are well-developed then we have good evidence that they can help teachers structure their observations of children," said Professor Lindsay.
"But not only does the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority not require schemes to meet technical quality standards, it doesn't even have to provide evidence of their technical quality.
"Potentially we will have as many as 90 schemes out there whose technical quality we have no knowledge of. If this is the case, how can we judge effectiveness? How can we compare schools and local authorities? There is no way that a valid comparison can be made.
"If we introduced a medical procedure for all our children without proper controls there would be outrage," he said.
Professor Lindsay said that very few schemes had been thoroughly researched and evaluated by university departments in association with education authorities, teachers, inspectors and psychologists.
Teachers' initial resistance to one universal scheme had led to a proliferation of schemes on offer. Many had been devised by education authorities themselves.
He said that his own scheme - Baseline Plus, developed by Warwick University and Sheffield education authority - had undergone rigorous quality control. He also praised the Wandsworth system and the PIPS scheme (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools) which was devised by Dr Peter Tymms, reader in education at Durham University, in conjunction with the National Association of Head Teachers, and Solihull, Bradford and Newcastle education authorities.
Lesley Staggs, principal manager of the under-fives team at the QCA, disputed Professor Lindsay's claims.
She said that 90 schemes had been accredited by the QCA after meeting stringent criteria laid down by the authority. Each was considered by two independent evaluators who negotiated with the providers on any changes or amendments which needed to be made.
The criteria for accreditation included guidance for teachers for using the schemes, how to use numerical outcomes for value-added analysis and the inclusion of procedures to ensure consistency, she said.
BPS conference, page 8
leader, page 18
Additional reporting by Dorothy Lepkowska