When I imagine the perfect way for a four-year-old to spend an afternoon, it chiefly involves making mud pies, eating raisins, finger painting with friends, all topped off by a much-needed afternoon nap. What it does not include is marching to Downing Street to protest against government education policy. Nor does it involve being subjected to a high-stakes assessment in the first six weeks of beginning school.
Yet the government’s plans to reintroduce compulsory baseline assessmentsfor four-year-olds next year means that parents and their young children have been left with little choice but to protest. The baseline tests will supposedly assess the maths and literacy ability of children when they start school. Schools can then be held accountable for the “progress” students make from reception to year six. But the March of the Four-Year-Olds will descend on Downing Street on Thursday to deliver a petition, signed by 64,000 people, demanding that the government listens to the growing evidence that these tests are both damaging and unnecessary.
First and foremost, the baseline tests will be prone to the same distortions that make existing high-stakes accountability assessments so unreliable. Schools will have an incentive to keep scores low on the test in order to show greater progress later on. Not only that, but extensive evidence has shown that testing very young children produces inconsistent outcomes depending on how a child might feel on that day. It is little wonder that a YouGov poll showed that 74% of primary leaders feel the baseline tests are an unreliable way to measure a child’s progress.
To make matters worse, the baseline tests serve no educational purpose whatsoever; teachers and parents don’t even get to see the results! As a teacher, I use assessment in order to gather information about what my students know in order to adapt future planning. I could not teach without rich information about my students’ abilities, interests and motivations. But the baseline test is for accountability, not assessment. With reports from the initial pilot revealing children crying and disoriented during the tests, this accountability mechanism certainly isn’t worth the potential damage it causes to our youngest students.
Teachers and schools want to be held accountable. Receiving feedback and honing our craft is a vital part of teaching. But teachers want to be held accountable for the things that matter – not just the things that can be easily measured in a standardised test. The baseline assessments will only assess literacy and maths, in spite of convincing evidence that spoken language, play and playfulness, and “self-regulation” are far better predictors of later academic achievement.
Labour was right to oppose the introduction of baseline testing in its 2017 manifesto. The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, a passionate early-years advocate, has also pledged to reduce class sizes to fewer than 30 for five-year-olds, introduce free school meals for all primary children, and invest £500m in Sure Start centres that provide children’s services. These policies are particularly important for the 4 million children who grow up in poverty in the UK today, given the stubborn link between school achievement and socioeconomic disadvantage. In Finland, very low rates of child poverty and inequality, not high-stakes accountability measures, have created one of the most successful school systems in the world.
While Labour will have to think carefully and consult widely about what will replace the Sats assessments it recently pledged to scrap, when it comes to the baseline assessments, there is no argument for keeping any tests at this stage of schooling at all. Reception teachers already assess children by observing them across a rich variety of activities and experiences when building their early-years foundation profile before children enter key stage one.
Rather than impose a numerical data collection on early-years teachers as the baseline seeks to do, the existing observation skills of reception teachers should be honoured and enhanced. Labour’s plans to transition to a graduate-led workforce across the early-years sector, alongside a much greater focus on child development in primary teacher education, will only further strengthen the provision that already exists.
As any parent knows, a child’s first few weeks at school can be distressing, but getting it right can sow the seeds for a love of learning that can carry on through school and into adulthood. A child’s first experiences at school should be full of awe and imaginative possibility in a caring, collaborative environment. In our troubled world, extending this period of creative wonder for as long as possible is the greatest gift we can give to the next generation.
Holly Rigby is a teacher, a Labour party member and an activist in the National Education Union.
Source: The Guardian