Baseline assessment: will early childhood education be further commercialised?

Guy Roberts-Holmes. 

Last month the Department for Education (DfE) invited primary schools to volunteer to take part in the national Reception Baseline Assessment 2 (RBA2) test pilot planned for September 2019. If successful, it will be made statutory for all primary schools in 2020.

The DfE states that RBA2’s purpose is to provide a snapshot starting point for a measure to assess the progress of the cohort as a whole, from where pupils are when they arrive at reception class aged 4 to the end of primary school in Year 6, aged 11.

This is not the English Government’s first attempt at a national Baseline Assessment test for four-year-olds. That was in 2016, when it was scrapped  as a performance measure after considerable resistance from the education community and evidence that the methods offered by three different test providers produced measurements which could not be compared with each other. The government subsequently negotiated a deal with the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) to bring back the baseline assessment test in exchange for removing the statutory tests at the end of Year 2 in 2023. RBA2 seemingly provides a digital ‘solution’ to the over-burdened primary school accountability system. However, until 2023 teachers will have both RBA2 and SATS, which adds to schools’ accountability burden.

In July 2018 an expert panel from the British Educational Research Association (BERA) stated that RBA2 was ‘flawed, unjustified and wholly unfit for purpose. They would be detrimental to children, parents, teachers and the wider education system in England’. This conclusion was based upon the evidence that as a performance measure RBA2 will provide low levels of reliability leading to highly unreliable value-added calculations to hold schools to account and that it is an untried experiment that cannot be properly evaluated until at least 2027.

The DfE says Reception teachers will receive simple narrative results for each child after the test, leading the panel to state that ‘some children – particularly the summer-born, those with English as an additional language and those with special educational needs – could be unnecessarily labelled as low-ability at the very beginning of their education, with the risk that premature judgements about their abilities may then become ‘self-fulfilling’. Research evidence conducted by Alice Bradbury and me noted the rise of ability grouping in the early years, so RBA2 may inadvertently compound this problematic pedogogy.

The Association for Professional Development in Early Years (TACTYC) similarly conclude that ‘children at the very start of their school experience should not be used in an experiment in an ill-advised accountability system’. The evidence cited includes that raised during the first attempt at the introduction of Reception Baseline Assessment in 2016 whilst also stating that the RBA2 tablet based test will take approximately ‘10 hours for a class of 30 children’, taking teachers away from building positive relationships with children in ‘authentic contexts’ as they settle very young children into school. Additionally TACTYC note that ‘there are serious questions regarding the rights of parents to the data held on their child – and to give permission for the data to be generated in the first place. This is data produced and held without parental consent or oversight, regarding children who are not even yet of statutory school age.’

Given the government’s failure to implement Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) in 2016 and the above evidence based strident critiques regarding RBA2, it seems pertinent to ask the reason for this new more cautious approach in reinvigorating it as a performance measure.

The answer may be found in the furthering of a larger national education neoliberal project, for which England has served as what Stephen Ball calls ‘a social laboratory of experimentation and reform‘, dating back to Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Education Reform Act. At the heart of this ‘experiment’ is the accountability regime of which RBA2 is yet another performance measure against standardized goals. What is of particular interest is that the Government has opened-up RBA2 to private enterprise – what has been termed edu-business – and the profit motive. The interplay between the competitive measurement of education through data and its associated commercialisation through privatized ‘solutions’ is exemplified by RBA2.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), has received £9.8 million from the DfE to run RBA2 and more than £3 million from the DfE to run a similar international version, the OECD’s International Early Learning and Well-being Study (IELS). Both measure performance against predefined standards and, to facilitate management, both share a timeline and use digital tablets to collect data.

If the DfE can encourage enough headteachers to pilot RBA2 in their schools, then it will enable NFER to run its performance measurement experiment on a national scale. There is a possibility that, in the future, if RBA2 and IELS were to develop as planned, then much larger edtech companies such as Pearson might have an interest in smaller companies such as NFER. Stephen Ball and Ben Williamson have noted the growing prevalence of ‘digital governance’ and commercial relationships throughout education. I argue that RBA2 represents such a development into the early years.

Photo by vsuydam via Creative Commons

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Posted in accountability and inspection, Childhood & early education
One comment on “Baseline assessment: will early childhood education be further commercialised?
  1. As a former NAHT member, I am concerned that by taking the stance they have over the proposal to re-ignite the earlier argument about reception baseline assessment by supporting RBA2 as a pilot, the association has lost its way. To describe the proposal as “a digital ‘solution’ to the over-burdened primary school accountability system” is failing to take account of the growing chorus of concern about the ownership and security of individual data. To accept this for children of reception age in a new data farming exercise is irresponsible. The fact that the edu business community will be involved and that the profit motive will surely influence decisions, makes it vital that professional opinion reflects the needs of pupils and families, perhaps even disproportionately. It must never be that decisions of this magnitude, with potentially far-reaching consequences for individual students’ future, are sacrificed in favour of the interests of schools and their leaders.

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