One of the government’s key advisers on primary education and most feted headteachers, Dame Alison Peacock, has revealed that her school will refuse to carry out the controversial new baseline assessment.
Dame Alison, headteacher of the Wroxham School in Hertfordshire and a member of the Department for Education’s Commission for Assessment Without Levels, has chosen to join almost 3,000 heads who are believed to be continuing with their own internal assessments for four-year-olds in Reception, rather than adopting the new system.
Although the tests are not compulsory, the DfE has said that, from next year, they will be the only accepted way of measuring how children have progressed when they are in Year 6 – meaning schools will be under heavy pressure to sign up.
“We are not doing the baseline,” said Dame Alison (pictured, right), who has also advised ministers on teacher training and professional development. “We already have a very comprehensive way of assessing the children: we do it through observation and talking to the children. We also have a nursery and it seemed strange to have a formal assessment after working for a year with them.”
Threat of national boycott
The baseline assessment has been criticised by early years campaigners and teaching unions since it was first proposed in 2013.
The official consultation revealed that only 34 per cent of respondents agreed that it was a good idea to introduce a baseline check at the start of Reception. And, earlier this year, the NUT union threatened a national boycott over the tests, saying that children aged 4 were too young to test.
The government argues that the new system will be better for schools, because the current baseline against which schools are measured is key stage 1 and does not take into account the “excellent work” done in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2.
Ministers also want the system to reinforce the importance of early intervention.
But Dame Alison is not convinced. “For me, the most important driving factor is the wellbeing of the child and we don’t believe in labelling children,” she said. “I have reservations about putting a label on a child early in school through an external test. I worry that people will look at the external test and give greater weight to that score [than to teacher assessment].”
Schools minister Nick Gibb issued a written response to a parliamentary question during the summer, stating that although there was no finalised list, 2,859 of approximately 16,700 primaries in England had not signed up to the test.
Anne Heavey, education policy adviser at the ATL union, said: “The numbers certainly suggest there are a group of schools choosing not to do this.
“They already have procedures in place to get to know their kids when they start school and do some assessment. The question is whether this is a legitimate assessment – whether it is measuring the right thing at the right time.”
‘Black and white’ grading
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of the charity Early Education, a founder member of the Better Without Baseline campaign, said: “One problem is the way the DfE criteria insisted on a yes or no answer to assessments. There are no subtle gradations, it all comes down to a single score. It is a very black and white decision about a child’s ability.
“The government says it’s about school accountability, but the reality is the schools start labelling children by ability at far too young an age, which will have repercussions for the rest of their schooling.”
A DfE spokesman said: “The Reception baseline has not been introduced to track the progress of individual pupils, but to capture the starting point for a cohort of children.
“Most schools already do some form of assessment when children start in Reception.”
The DfE has given schools three baseline assessment options. About 12,000 schools have opted for Early Excellence’s baseline assessment, which is based purely on observation. The other two options, from the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, are based on more formal assessment.
Is ‘gaming’ built into the system?
Government-funded research into baseline assessments warned earlier this year that schools might try to “game” the baseline by cutting back on teaching at the start of the Reception year and carrying out the assessments when scores are likely to be at their lowest.
But some teachers on TES forums are concerned that, because it is a baseline assessment, this is exactly what they are supposed to do – despite their reservations.
“I was told that, in order to make each child’s baseline fair, we cannot teach the children anything new, especially in the way of phonics/maths,” said one commenter, Jollypocket.
“I have been pondering this issue,” added another teacher, Melh42. “I know for a fact that my school will not accept no teaching occurring for the first half-term, and neither would I.”
Twistedficus said: “On our baseline training, we were told it had to be conducted before we taught anything other than PSED [personal, social and emotional development].”
Jan Dubiel, national development manager at Early Excellence, said that the idea of delaying teaching was wrong.
“I would counter that idea in the strongest possible terms,” he said. “Teachers should do what they usually do in those first six weeks. Some people start phonics on Day 1; if that’s what they do, by all means do that.”