The Reception Baseline Assessment: Why It Needs To Go

Let’s avoid testing times for school transition.
February 20, 2019
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Our guest author from More Than A Score explains why the Department for Education’s plans to introduce a reception baseline assessment for all children in their first weeks of school could undo all the hard work done by nurturing childcare professionals like you.

A good friend of mine’s rambunctious and free-spirited son started school in September last year after a wonderful experience at nursery school. He had an older brother at the same school and knew the setting well.

He’d attended holiday clubs run by teaching staff and so had already developed a fantastic relationship with his new reception teacher, Mr Barnes. His dedicated nursery team has provided ‘transition’ visits to the school and he was very proud of his new uniform.

All this meant that starting Big School was not in the least bit concerning for him. After his first week, he happily reported that he was in fact playing a great game with his new teacher. With a glint in his eye, he announced proudly as we stood in the yard “Ha ha… I’m keeping everything I know a secret… Mr Barnes won’t find out if I know things… I won’t tell!.”

As he sniggered away to play amongst the willow trees we laughed along too – it was, after all, the innocent gameplay of a four-year-old and we were delighted he was enjoying big school.

My own child was a different kettle of fish – super confident in the house but virtually mute outside of the family home and certainly not one to talk willingly to people she had only just met. Her reception class teacher was, in her mind, someone to be wary of, school something to suss out and be suspicious of – she would therefore also be keeping her knowledge to herself.

Mr Barnes was in for a tough ride! Starting school for my little girl was a tremendous ordeal and I doubt she spoke more than a few syllables for the first term while she sussed everyone out. I knew from experience that given time she would come round – the same situation has occurred in her nursery setting but with patience and loving care, the staff had eventually gained her trust.

Two very different children starting the same school. Two very different personalities to be nurtured and cherished in their own way by staff who specialise in the early years and the transition to Big School.

Thankfully when these two very different children started school, they arrived in a relaxed and play-based environment with staff fully focused on nurturing their confidence and helping them understand what Big School was all about.

In 2020 this is all set to change.

The fallacy of testing young children

In 2020 the Department of Education aims to have all children take a reception baseline assessment in the first weeks of reception class. The test will take place on a tablet and take 20 minutes to complete, assessing the child’s ability in English and Maths.

Now, we know that assessment for learning is essential – testing children is not a new idea, nor is it a bad one when done properly. Sadly, the massive opposition to the reception baseline assessment shows this assessment to be anything but helpful for learning.

But why?

The truth is, formal testing just isn’t suited to such young children. They can only be assessed in an open-ended way through teachers observing and interacting with them. Since that is difficult to standardise and score, a formal test is being introduced which is limited to things which are easy to score.

That means fragments of literacy and numeracy: match B to b, does cat rhyme with mat, what is the next number after 3, 4, 5, and so on. This is a world away from enjoying a book or counting the stairs as you climb.

All this means that baseline tests are very unreliable indicators of a child’s future achievement. They don’t look at things that really matter. Curiosity, confident communication, persistence, personal organisation – these aren’t things you can measure in a standardised test.

The last time a reception baseline assessment was attempted, using three different agencies, the most experienced was only able to make a sound prediction of children’s attainment two years later in four cases out of ten. Summer-borns, children with little English, late developers, children from disadvantaged backgrounds – they simply cannot be standardised in this way.

So who is the reception baseline assessment for?

Assessment for learning is a great tool when getting to know new children – but these one-off snapshot tests aren’t for that. They’ll go straight to the government and be used for accountability purposes only.

The unreliable data described above will feed the data machines used to judge and scrutinise school settings. In fact, teachers themselves will not even have access to the outcome of the assessment, so it clearly serves no purpose for the child.

Trials of the reception baseline assessment have taken place before. The evidence showed clearly that the data was unreliable and so the project was scrapped. After massive opposition to testing in KS1 and the decision to scrap SATs for 7-year-olds in 2023, the Department of Education have revived the idea and invested £10 million in the process.

In a stark demonstration of the lack of belief in the project, only one company tendered for the job because all others recognised the task as impossible. It seems that everyone can see that you cannot and should not measure 4-year-olds by a one-off test, except for those at the DfE.

Unfit for purpose

In nursery schools all over the country, parents are promised that their child’s progression to ‘Big School’ will be managed well and the nurturing environment in which they have already thrived will continue.

Both my daughter and my friend’s son were ‘transitioned’ beautifully from one setting to another and thrived in the reception class. Next year will nursery leaders be able to say the same to concerned parents about their child’s transition?

The British Education Research Association describes the plans as ‘flawed, unjustified and totally unfit for purpose’ and we completely agree. Starting school should be an exciting, stimulating introduction to the joys of learning through play and those crucial early weeks should not include tests which reduce children to data points used to measure school performance.

We urge you to join us and support More Than A Score in our fight against this reception baseline assessment. Help us to stop the government’s plans in their tracks by joining our protest and spreading the word.

As nursery leaders you do amazing work in the early years – we need your help to ensure this hard work isn’t undone by baseline tests.

How to get involved

If you’re keen to get involved, here’s how:

  • Visit our website to find out more information about the reception baseline assessment.
  • Sign Our Petition.
  • If you’d like to help out with the campaign, please contact us at campaign@morethanascore.org.uk.
  • Take part in our #PlayNotTestsAt4 campaign by chalking the message #PlayNotTestsat4 in your setting, taking a photograph, and uploading it to social media. Don’t forget to include #PlayNotTestsAt4 and #morethanascore and let us know your location. Tag us on Twitter @morethanscore and on Facebook: @morethanascore.

The big ideas

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.