Last week the government announced details of their latest attempt to introduce Baseline Assessment into Reception classrooms in England. As widely reported, this policy will cost £10 million, with the sole aim of producing data on children aged four which can be compared with their test results seven years later. The return of Baseline, after an unsuccessful foray into testing four-year-olds in 2015, is based on the idea that the best way to judge schools is to measure their ‘value added’. The outcome of the Primary Assessment Consultation was that the best place to establish this starting point was in the first weeks of school in Reception.
There is a certain logic to this, and the resultant possible downgrading of Key Stage 1 Sats to non-statutory in 2023 (as they will no longer be needed as a starting point) may be popular. But, the findings from my research on the previous version of Baseline (with Guy Roberts-Holmes), suggest that Baseline the sequel will be a much harder policy move to sell to teachers, for the following reasons:
- It has to be test-based
Last time around, the vast majority of schools chose the Early Excellence Baseline (EExBA), which was based on observation of children rather than a formal test, much like the existing assessment in Reception. This time the DfE has stated the assessment must not be observation based. We have argued that in 2015 Early Excellence functioned as a translator between government and the early years sector, making an unpopular policy palatable by reproducing the language used in early years but still keeping within the DfE demands to reduce children to numbers. This time, the use of tests may cause more concerns.
- It has been tried before
Headteachers in our research told us they were engaging with Baseline in 2015, even though it was not yet statutory, because it was ‘better the devil you know’. They invested time and resources in learning how to do Baseline because they thought it was a long-term plan, only to find it had been dropped in mid-2016. Making schools engage enthusiastically again with new version of Baseline will be a difficult task.
- It has been dropped before
In 2015 Baseline was deeply unpopular with many early years experts and teachers, and there was a significant campaign against it from the Better without Baseline group and the teachers’ unions. The publication of a report demonstrating the incomparability of the different providers was the final straw forcing a U-turn. Campaigners will hope this story repeats itself.
- There is no certainty Key Stage 1 Sats will go
Key Stage 1 Sats, which continue to be unpopular, will only be scrapped if Baseline is deemed to be a sufficient alternative starting measure. This will not be clear until 2023, when the first children to do the new Baseline in 2020, will be old enough to do Sats. There is a risk that schools will be asked to continue both sets of tests, adding to the growing ‘datafication’ of early years.
- There’s still no evidence it will work
Doubts about the accuracy of assessment at age four and its use to predict future expected progress remain unanswered in this new iteration. In a context where education is research-informed, shouldn’t that matter?
- Parents won’t like it
In our 2015 research, parents were largely unaware of Baseline, but thought it sounded acceptable if it identified where children needed help. However, the guidance is clear that the new Baseline is not to help teachers, only for accountability. Furthermore, in our study teachers reported children crying when asked to do formal tests, during the vital ‘settling in’ period of Reception. If children come home from school upset by formal testing, parents will not be reassured by the idea that this is to assess the school in seven years’ time.
So will Baseline 2 be another policy flop? With Guy, I have argued it is simply a return to a flawed policy, as the problems of accuracy and the emotional and pedagogic impact of testing young children, remain in place. But, due to the ‘reification of progress’ the government seems intent. Baseline does not have the support of the early years community, however I fear that given the wider issues of teacher morale, resigned acceptance may prevail: as one teacher said last time, ‘As a teacher you know you have to do things you don’t necessarily want to do or you might not see a purpose for, but it is just one of those things that you have to do’.