Part of the current administration’s obsession is that we can measure progress essentially throughout the school years using a range of narrowly defined success criteria, principally that of how literate and numerate a child is when they come into the school system and how much they have progressed in that literacy and numeracy when they have left it. As a measure of success this approach is questionable on its own terms, since the range and depth of the curriculum in English and maths that children experience is not encouraging to begin with, particularly since September last year, but against a broader understanding of created humanity and the historical reason for schooling children, it is absurd. If they have had any success at all (and the current lot are not the first to try this), it is in the field of persuading parents (who really ought to know better) that they are right. If this were not the case, where does the present obsession of “getting behind in maths/reading/writing” come from, with all its attendant work for tutors and others on the periphery of what should be regarded as a flourishing, comprehensive education system?

It is against this background, that the government has decided that a range of baselines might be used to enable them to measure progress of teachers at KS1 and KS2. In the earliest profiles for the Early Years (the 9-point Foundation Stage Profile pink booklets of the last decade), there was a specific warning against measuring progress, except in the broadest terms, between the end of foundation (when the pink booklets were completed) and the end of KS1. This was quite right, because most schools’ internal data was good enough to enable OFSTED and interested others to make a sound judgment on how effective the school was in terms of achievement, if that is what floats your boat.

Those of us who were knocking about at the start of the National Strategies in 1997/98 will remember the pressure there was to use these strategies for improving maths and English, even though they were not statutory. Part of the attraction was the amount of training that New Labour was throwing at them in the years between 1998 and 2005. You couldn’t move for courses. But there was also a lot of pressure simply because that was what “everyone else was doing”. There is now a similar pressure for schools to take up one of these new baseline assessments, not least from the companies flogging them, which each have to gain 7000 adherents nationally in order to make the play-offs. Of course, there isn’t so much cash washing about now for schools, but the pressure to conform, principally out of lack of confidence or simply from fear, is still there, and schools who should know better or trust themselves more, are falling for it.

This paper from TACTYC examines the issues around most of the published competitor baselines. It makes a strong recommendation that we do not use one of the published baselines at all, and outlines a number of reasons why adopting a published baseline could be damaging both to schools and to the children in them:

  • Unreliability: whether these tests are applied in the same way, or whether they can be compared across baseline types, or whether the children will be assessed out of context – these are all factors that lead to a likely unreliable baseline assessment being formed. This is not beyond repair, of course, by experienced practitioners, but in that case, it would be best if there was no baseline and we left the assessment to the judgment of practitioners in the first place as we do at present. A subtext to this unreliability is of course that we have the baseline in the first place because teachers are deemed unreliable if we have to rely on human judgment alone.
  • Disruption to children’s learning and well-being: the TACTYC paper’s concern is that removing children into an “assessment situation” damages the “smooth transition and supportive relationships” required for effective teaching and accurate assessment in class and creates anxiety in the learner. The paper further expresses the concern that “taking teachers away from their class group in the sensitive early days of the reception year for the time required to assess up to 30 children will compromise vital early teacher-child relationships and result in a focus on the tests rather than the essential underpinning well-being of individual children starting school.” We can’t really expect government ministers or the mandarins in the DfE to take this too seriously, because in the name of efficiency we must treat children in a machine-like way. However, from the point of view of an early years practitioner, this is a vital issue that would completely undermine both the relationship with the child and have an impact, born of anxiety, that may actually compromise a child’s attitude to learning for some time to come.
  • Invalidity of assessment based on checklists: checklist-based assessment is no predictor of future attainment because it disregards the manner in whihc humans learn. Take for instance the common observation that some autistic children do not find individual word acquisition easy and may in some cases be electively mute, before one day coming out with a whole or near-whole sentence. How do you accurately set a baseline for that? How do you cater for summer born children in such an arrangement without effective age adjustment? The government has said quite categorically that age-adjustment or age-standardisation must not be used: “The scores from the assessment must not be age-standardised” (from p2 of this nefarious document). The same document requires that baseline providers take account of cultural factors and provide a high level of reproducibility of results across a range of genders and backgrounds, but unless these are specified, how would you know what to measure, or what it was you were measuring? One simple example – a number of well-motivated families in our school from the Indian subcontinent and west Africa have come through a school system where testing is the norm, and therefore they are used to it as an educational culture and older siblings will have been schooled in such a way; similarly aged children from poorer white British backgrounds may not have the same educational culture at all. This simple comparitor can make a huge amount of difference if a yes/no checklist is used, skewing children’s ability on the basis of a family’s educational experience and expectations.
  • Harm to effective practice and hence to children’s learning and development: for some of the baselines, the pressure on teachers to teach only to those areas assessed, in order to maximise progress in them, will be irresistible, particularly as I know some headteacher colleagues around the country who will have no compunction about forcing a teacher focus on these areas. This will result in a “distorting (of) the early years curriculum and detracting from the rich physical, exploratory, playful, creative, and intellectual experiences which research shows benefit children in the early years”. The damage done to both practitioners and to children through this narrowing is a theological issue as well as an educational one because of the nature of our createdness under God in the rich natural and cultural world he has placed us in. Once again it is necessary to say that education is not, repeat not, for the purpose of a greater national prosperity and Britains’ greater glory in PISA tables. It is for the effective flourishing of created humanity within relationship and within community.
  • Harmful to the home-school relationships: there is a real danger here that parents’ thinking will, from this early stage, be “misdirected in terms of the most important markers of their children’s progress and attainment, toward supporting narrow measures rather than engaging in the responsive, playful interactions which best support children’s learning and development”. This quote is an excellent summary of the problem. Some parents will be seduced into thinking that the scores and the progress against those scores are all that matters, and this in turn will pressure teachers and other practitioners in the silly way that many parents are already seduced by the scoring systems further up the school. The fact that the current EYFS framework is a broad and responsive document that enables practitioners and parents to imagine new activities at each stage will be thrown out in favour of a “narrow range of excellence” agenda, to quote John Hattie.

One of the real issues facing the early years is that we have a perfectly good system already, only three years old, that has gained widespread support despite its wordiness and the tinkering of the current government around its edges. This system has, inherent to it, a means of creating an effective and broad ranging baseline which schools and nurseries and other early years settings have used well and which has given good quality data to us as a school, enabling us to demonstrate progress.

We are in a fortunate position. Our KS1 data has been improving over the past three years, and any adoption of an online baseline would undoubtedly help us. This is not a good reason for adopting it. We need to look at theological and anthropological arguments about the nature of the type of people we want to develop here, and then, and only then, decide if an online tick-box system will help them grow into the fullness of all that God has for them. A faulty anthropology is no basis for assessment, and these challenges from TACTYC and others to the adoption of a baseline indicate more than anything the ineffectiveness of the machinist arguments trotted out by an increasingly desperate department.



About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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  1. […] due to the statistical problems of comparing different starting points. I have written on this elsewhere, but it is pleasing nonetheless. The STA study […]

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