Published on: 12 Nov 2014

Why are we testing 4-year-olds?


The Telegraph, 12 November 2014, By Greg Watson

Next year, primary schools will test four-year-olds when they start school, but what is the point and how useful will it be? Greg Watson reports

Any parent will tell you that one of the most nerve-wracking moments of their lives was dropping their child off at school on their first day. We believe we’ve done everything we can to get them ready, but has it been enough?

By the time the first parents’ evening comes along a few weeks later, we find out.

I’ve been through that moment of truth twice and, looking back, what’s striking is how different the two experiences were. The first time round, my daughter’s reception teacher was politely reassuring: “She is doing very well. In fact, they are all doing well.” So far, so good, but no clue as to how she was really doing or what we could do to help.

Eight years later, my younger daughter’s teacher painted a much more personal picture – how she was getting on with reading and numbers, who her friends were and, most importantly, how she was settling in. We were shown examples of what she was doing and given some ideas about how to help her along.

Clearly, a lot had changed in those intervening years. These days, teachers are more likely to spend those first few weeks building an accurate picture of each child as an individual.

In my mind, the new reception baseline – the assessment that school starters can undertake from September 2015 – will help this process, allowing parents and practitioners understand this personal picture of each child. 

Without some sort of yardstick, how can teachers and parents know that every child is making progress; that the already able child is being stretched and that a child who was less school-ready is closing the gap on their peers?

As a parent, I understand the fears about a new assessment for such young children too. No one wants to see four year-olds sitting exams in their first few weeks at school instead of making new friends and enjoying all the new experiences that ‘big school’ offers.

However, as chief executive of one of the organisations developing a baseline assessment, I know that we need not have rows of children taking paper-and-pencil tests.  Rather, we envisage children sitting side-by-side with their teacher, each holding a tablet computer, and running a simple and enjoyable set of exercises. The aim is that the children won’t even realise they are being assessed.

Some parents have voiced concerns about how schools can reliably measure the ability of children who have only just turned four. There is no doubt that designing an assessment for this age group is tricky. But, with all of the baseline assessments, every question will be trialled with hundreds of children before the assessments are released. Additional analysis will also be carried out to make sure that the assessments are as fair as possible for all children, whether they are girls or boys or have English as a second language.

There are also questions relating to the scope of the test. Currently the baseline assessment will focus on the language, literacy and maths knowledge typical for children at the start of reception year. I’d actually like to see the Department for Education extend the requirements eventually to encompass some of the other equally important things teachers need to know for children of that age, such as their understanding of the world around them. But we have to remember that schools will not use the baseline in isolation. They will assess these elements alongside other complementary methods of assessment – including teachers’ own day-to-day observations – to get a complete picture of each child.

Above all, when the baseline arrives in schools, we have to remember what it’s really for.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, put this well when he said that it was easy to slip into the idea of a baseline measure as a predictor of future attainment, when really we should see them as an indicator of what help and support children need.

I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Read the full article on The Telegraph.

Product reference: 
Baseline - our award winning Reception baseline assessment

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