Amidst the fierce debate about the government’s education recovery plan, another policy is set to be introduced in September which warrants far more discussion and, I contend, stronger opposition.
Unless they have kept up with obscure political debate and education policy, many parents of four-year-olds may be surprised to discover that their children will be formally tested in English and maths in the first weeks of term.
The Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) is intended as an accountability measure for primary schools. It is designed to provide a baseline for the Department for Education to help track children’s progress between their first weeks in school and their final Sats results in Year 6.
The DfE postponed the rollout of the RBA last year as it was considered too much pressure for teachers who would have “to provide extra support to children to recover from the impact of the coronavirus”. It has now confirmed that the tests will go ahead this September.
In a new House of Lords report, Peers have argued that the planned introduction of the RBA should be delayed until January next year to allow schools time to focus on reopening after the summer and to alleviate teacher workloads:
“We are concerned that the RBA will be introduced at a time when the workload of teachers will be significant, schools will be focused on re-opening and special attention will need to be paid to those children who were unable to develop their language skills because of social isolation during the pandemic.”
According to the report, giving schools the “flexibility” to deliver the RBA term later than planned would also allow them to pay “special attention” to children who were unable to develop their language skills during the Covid crisis.
The Peers’ recommendation is a good one, but I would go much further and completely abandon the proposal to assess very young children at the start of reception as they begin their journey into education. It is a foolish, potentially damaging and largely pointless policy from a government that totally lacks imagination in this area.
Much of the criticism to this policy will inevitably come from the usual suspects who are ideologically opposed to testing and examinations in general. To be clear, that is not the position I’m coming from. But as a parent of young children, I find it risible that testing a four-year-old will provide much useful information to teachers or the government.
Ask a four-year-old a question, whether it be what their favourite food or colour is or something more trying, you’ll often get a different answer each time you ask. We are talking about very young children here, little erratic bundles of energy being introduced to a formal education setting for the very first time.
The focus should be on settling them in: helping them to learn the routines of their new school life, giving them a chance to make friends and get used to their surroundings. This is especially important after the pandemic, when so many young lives have been horribly disrupted. They have missed out on so much, from socialising and exciting days out, to nursery settings where they learn skills, socialise and play. It is simply not necessary to test such young children within the first few weeks of school.
It’s important to ensure accountability in the education system. This requires the government to gather data to evidence whether schools are performing to the required level. Yet an idea that sounds sensible in theory – assessing children when they begin primary school and again when they leave – is flawed in practice.
The first few weeks of reception is a terrible time to assess children. Many will have only just turned four – few will already have turned five. It’s such a young age to test children and it’s potentially damaging to do it just as they enter a new setting for the first time. Teachers need to get to know their new pupils better which is why many believe the current arrangement, whereby an assessment is carried out towards the end of the reception year, works better.
Fundamentally, it shows a lack of imagination on the government part. The education system is underfunded, faces a recruitment crisis and the achievement gap between the rich and poor needs to be addressed. Time-limited tests for four-year-olds does nothing to resolve the pressing issues and is likely to fail on its own terms: providing little useful information, adding to teacher workloads and putting undue stress on young children.
Our young people deserve better.