A sales pitch too far?

Will parents become publishers' prey as baseline assessment at five draws closer? Jill Parkin finds out. The back page of the spring and summer Usborne catalogue shows the way the wind may be howling by the time baseline assessment is with us all in September 1998.

It's a bright and cheerful display of books and games - first steps to reading, a Bible story, Usborne's First Thousand Words and First 100 Words - all the sort of thing our three under-fives have on their shelves.

But the page is headed "The Preschool Starter Collection (special offer Pounds 99)" and the blurb presses the parental worry button. It says: "Today, the traditional reading corner, found in playgroups and nurseries throughout the country, is more essential than ever. Pre-schools wishing to participate in the Government's voucher scheme must provide an extensive range of books and resources designed to support the experiences of the vital early years, especially in language and literacy.

"Schools now assess all five-year-olds, following guidelines set out recently in the Government's statement of Desirable Outcomes of Children's Learning on Entering Compulsory Education. This places an added responsibility on both pre-schools and parents to make sure that high standards are reached. This special collection of Usborne titles has been carefully selected to help pre-schools meet many of the new standards required - and it's excellent value for money!" The worried parent may splash out the Pounds 99, or put pressure to do so on the nursery school, which is worried about losing its four-year-olds to school reception classes. (Many schools are pulling all of them in in September, to safeguard funding because of the voucher scheme.) Or that parent may come across another publisher, World Book Inc, whose portfolio includes a Pounds 170 home reading scheme. A letter from one of the company's representatives asking for publicity in The TES claims that World Book's new division, called The Learning Journey, has a package "especially designed to help parentscarersteachers develop the six target areas of learning". And it thunders: "All parents have the moral responsibility to help their pre-school children prepare for the baseline assessment test."

Is it true, and is that what baseline is about anyway? Tim Coulson is responsible for managing baseline assessments for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He's also a former primary head. He says: "Coaching is certainly not the message we want to give. Schools are mainly positive about assessment, but one of their reservations is about inappropriate coaching.

"We're not trying to push the pressure down the educational system, though we are aware, as with reading, that where parents help their children the children make more progress. We recognise that parents are their child's earliest and prime educators.

He adds: "We're producing a leaflet for parents telling them that the assessments are going to become statutory and explaining them. There will be many different kinds. Some will be teachers making observations over a period of time. It's not a test for the children to do. It's an opportunity for observation and assessment. And an opportunity for keeping parents informed.

"Most primary schools are already communicating with parents. The picture we have is that some are better than others. The leaflets, which will be ready by September 1997, should extend awareness of what the school is doing."

Four and five-year-olds will be assessed in their first term in reception. The results won't be published, but will be reported to parents "to get a good dialogue going between parents and school". The idea, according to SCAA, is to find out where they're at, so that later tests give an indication of what school has done for them in the intervening terms. SCAA proclaims that the assessments are not tests, but the possibility that four and five-year-olds may be labelled as failures, even unconsciously, is hard to banish. It's also easy to exploit.

Karen Walker, spokeswoman of the National Private Day Nurseries Association, says: "The whole picture has been clouded by the voucher scheme, and the element of cramming is creeping in. There's been a huge increase in literature about what we should be doing with children in nursery school. It seems every publisher is getting on the bandwagon churning out stuff to sell to nurseries. "

But perhaps a little focus would be a good thing for our pre-schoolers. Perhaps their lives are just too aimless? Ruth Baldwin is an inspector for early years with Kirklees education service in west Yorkshire. She is in no doubt that grooming children for the baseline tests, whether at home or at nursery school, is a bad thing, because it puts children under unnecessary pressure and narrows their curricular experiences, as well as making parents anxious about their child's performance.

She says: "The danger is that, because the pressure is on everyone to be good at the core subjects, other things are neglected. When you think about how we fill the space in our lives which is for ourselves, it's with things like sport, music, theatre, and other creative pastimes. These are the things which are important to us. You wouldn't have a musical hobby in later life without the chance of music early on, but it's not core.

Concentrating only on core subjects is very narrowing. The tests at seven, 11, and 14 are in this narrow range of subjects, and the baseline tests are narrow so comparisons can be made at that later stage.

"Parents want their children to be happy first of all, to enjoy going to school, and then to do well. But some, who can afford it, will buy materials aimed at the baseline tests. In fact, parents can get hold of commercial tests, which are designed for teachers, and put their children and themselves under a lot of pressure before school.

Margaret Lochrie, of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, jokes grimly about checking up on one-and-a-half-year-olds. She says: "It's up to the educational establishment to make sure the cramming doesn't happen. Testing is double-edged. This should be a diagnostic device to give a measure of the effectiveness of a school. It's wrong if it's used to categorise children. Parents need to be as involved as possible with their children's development, but they don't need to cram them or spend a lot of money. Parents who are talking and reading to their children are likely to achieve the same results.

"Assessments could be used to capitalise on parents' fears. You don't have to be very tied into current affairs to know that lots of children are failing, or being failed. So parents are vulnerable to clever marketing.

"Pre-schools involve parents a lot, so there's more information and a more rounded view among them. They see the point isn't cramming their children for the tests but ensuring they have opportunities. If they concentrate on that the baseline assessments will take care of themselves."

There's obviously a fine line to be drawn between good parenting and inappropriate coaching. Keeping it in view could be difficult.

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