A London borough is finding out how much its under-fives know, backing up its commitment to early years profiles (see below) with tests on school entry. Teachers like both - they say testing allows them to measure progress comparatively, while profiles mean they can note individual achievement. Lucy Hodges reports.
The four-year-olds have baffled expressions. "What's a sentence?" says one, chewing on a Berol felt-tip pen. The others are equally puzzled. But they look in vain for help.
This is a test, and their teacher is not allowed to explain anything. They are taking part in an experiment in baseline testing in their reception class at Holy Trinity, one of 16 volunteer primaries in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea to be included in a pilot project.
If John Major has his way, all four-year-olds could soon be assessed for how much they know about language, sums and science, as reception children already are in the London borough of Wandsworth.
The idea may make the blood run cold - and certainly the sight of four-year-olds bent over test booklets when they can't read is bizarre - but their teachers think it has merit. If the practitioners are in favour, one must listen to their reasons.
"It's a snapshot," says Deryn Welbourne, headteacher of the 205-pupil school off Sloane Square. "It's useful for the school to identify the special needs of children and it's a very quick way of doing so."
For deputy head Paula Best it's a useful measuring tool. "It gives us a baseline to measure progress throughout the school, so you know exactly where the child started from," she says -when children reach Year 2 and their first national curriculum tests, the school has something against which to judge progress. Teachers can work out whether or not they have fallen behind, where special help is needed and whether they should adjust their teaching accordingly.
The test I observed was assessing, for example, whether children could distinguish letters from numbers, whether they knew a capital from a small letter, whether they had an idea about punctuation.
Angie Phillips, chief inspector in Kensington and Chelsea, thinks the baseline testing is particularly useful. "It can show you the value added of a school - it enables you to contextualise achievement."
She says expectations will be different for children coming in with low levels of achievement, compared with the expectations for those who are reading at four.
Crucially, this testing also enables schools to tell parents, politicians or others who call them to account that they are doing their best. They can point to the raw material they start with and show the progress made.
The test taken by four-year-olds at Holy Trinity last week was marked by their teacher, checked by others in the school, and despatched to National Foundation for Education Research where the information will be standardised.
Kensington and Chelsea is using baseline testing developed by Wandsworth. It will assess the experiment at the end of this academic year after talking to heads and teachers. But the LARR (Linguistic Awareness for Reading Readiness) test is only one part of baseline assessment pioneered by Wandsworth in all its primaries. In addition, teachers observe children through their first term in school and make a series of judgments about their development in reading and mathematics.
All are graded on a three-point scale - teachers look, for example, at whether children read for pleasure, whether they can write their own name, how competent they are at naming shapes and counting. Kensington and Chelsea pilot schools will do the same.
Wandsworth schools are now in their fourth year of such testing. According to Stephen Strand, head of research and evaluation, it has enabled schools to look at how children have performed as groups as well as individuals. "They can see how ethnic minorities are doing; whether children have made as much progress in maths as well as science."
The English test which I observed consisted of a 19-page booklet, made up of pictures and words in large letters. Children were divided into groups of four and asked by their teacher to circle items on each page.
Much of it was a doddle for the group I watched. They had a sound grasp of English, though were shakier on the finer points of grammar. Full stops left them as flummoxed as sentences. The whole thing took 20 minutes.
There was clear relief when it was over. Not because it had been difficult. Simply that it was dull. They had better things to do with their time - like having a snack.