Early years organisations and teaching unions have joined forces to call for "potentially damaging" baseline tests for four-year-olds to be scrapped.
In an open letter, the groups, including the NUT and ATL unions, say they are “deeply concerned’ about the impact of baseline tests for four-year-olds. The assessments may be used by schools from September 2015, and will be the only accepted way of measuring progress from September 2016.
Six tests have been approved for use by the Department for Education, varying from computer-based assessments to using observations of children to judge how well they are progressing. The DfE insisted that the majority of assessments focused on communication, literacy and mathematics.
The campaigners say the new tests will be unreliable, disruptive, statistically invalid and potentially harmful to children’s well-being – because teachers will have to administer the tests rather than pay attention to the immediate needs of children who are adjusting to a new environment.
The NUT is due to debate the issue and decide what steps should be taken at its annual conference over the Easter weekend.
Christine Blower, the union's general secretary, said: “The union believes passionately that a policy which is so harmful to the interests of children should not be imposed upon schools. Baseline assessment has everything to do with holding schools to account for pupils’ progress in a limited number of topics, and nothing to do with developing motivated, creative, adaptable learners.”
John Coe, of the National Association for Primary Education, said: "The baseline assessment of four-year-olds, resulting in the identification of children as failures at such an early stage in their lives, would be the most destructive action ever implemented by government."
The signatories are also concerned that the corresponding loss of the early years foundation stage profile – a wide-ranging assessment based on observations, currently carried out at the end of the reception year – will undermine current research tracking children’s progress.
The letter has been backed by former government adviser on childcare Cathy Nutbrown, as well as the Pre-School Learning Alliance, National Day Nurseries Association and Early Education.
It comes after a petition on the issue was launched by Early Education earlier this year. It now has more than 4,000 supporters.
The tests are optional, but the groups say there is likely to be significant pressure on headteachers to comply as the alternative to using a baseline measure is for their schools to be judged on pupil attainment only, rather than progress, from 2022.
But thinktank CentreForum argues that the importance of measuring schools on progress is such that the baseline assessment should be introduced in principle, but that campaigners' "legitimate concerns" about reliability and fairness should be addressed. It points out that the baseline could end up being a burden on disadvantaged schools if the assessments are not properly comparable.
The DfE has said that reception class is the most sensible point from which to measure progress and thatthe checks were not being introduced to track individual pupils, but to measure their starting points.
A DfE spokesman said: “As part of our plan for education, we want to see all children leaving primary school with a good standard of reading, writing and maths, and teachers agree that measuring progress is the best way to ensure primary schools are doing this.
“Most schools already do some form of assessment when children start in reception, so they already know what care and attention the child needs.
“Primary checks have not been introduced to track the progress of individual pupils – but to measure the starting point of them all. There is absolutely no suggestion of introducing the kind of formal testing in reception that is used with older children - that would be completely inappropriate.”
Give early years tests the human touch, say critics – 13 February, 2015
Rethink needed on reforms to primary league tables, report warns – 21 January, 2015