Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was something called the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) profile. It worked like this:
Developed in 2007 and overhauled in 2012 by the DfE, reducing the number of Early Learning Goals from 69 to ‘just’ 17, the EYFS Profile and assessment levels were divided into four age bands, called Development Matters Bands at 16-26 months, 22-36 months, 30-50 months and 40-60 months.
For each age band, and each area of learning, there was a series of statements relating to a child’s development: for example, ‘notices simple shapes and patterns in pictures’. Teachers and early years staff noted these developmental statements as they saw children demonstrating them.
Assessment was ongoing throughout the EYFS, but the official EYFS Profile for each child was completed in the final term of Reception. Whilst the Government didn’t specify what form the assessment should take, it usually it was through teacher observation of children’s learning and development. Parents and carers could also contribute to the Profile, by adding comments to the child’s Learning Journal, which was a record of achievement compiled by the school and nursery, comprising photos, pieces of work, observations about the child’s development, etc. Children were assessed at three levels: Expected: the child was working at the level expected for his/her age, Emerging: working below the expected level, Emerging is working above the expected level
And so, in this galaxy far, far away, starting school used to be about settling in, making new friends and learning to be independent - but no more! From this September, four and five year olds are set to face ‘Reception tests’ within just weeks of arriving at ‘big school’.
The DfE claims that the purpose of the 'baseline check' is to assess each child’s level of development at the beginning of their formal schooling in order to measure how they’ve progressed by age 11. It says the new tests will ensure higher standards and that all pupils receive the attention they deserve.
How will Reception assessments work?
So although all teachers already assess children when they start school, these new tests are likely to be more formal, taking place during the first few weeks, when most children are just aged four. They are designed to give teachers and schools a clearer picture of each child’s initial skills, helping to show a child’s ‘baseline’ abilities in very basic literacy, reasoning and cognition (how a child understands and acts in the world). The tests will be supplemented by teachers' broader assessments and observations of a child’s development.
What will the tests look like?
Schools will be able to choose from a number of approved assessments and we understand that about a third of them are opting for tests carried out one-to-one with a Reception teacher, focusing on the very basics of learning such as counting, picture, letter and number recognition. This NFER assessment uses common Reception classroom resources like counting bears, plastic shapes and number and picture cards. Children work through the activities (it takes around 30 minutes) while the teacher records the child’s progress on a digital device or in individual paper pupil booklets. The children will not, it is claimed, even know they are being assessed.
The other two-thirds of schools have decided to use an assessment that relies on teachers' observations of children's skills within the normal day-to-day school routine, devised by a small educational consultancy called Early Excellence and approved by the DfE. This is also designed so that children don't even know they're being tested. Schools have already been able to opt in to the baseline assessments from September 2015 or alternatively opt out altogether and instead be judged on whether children's attainment meets the required standard in reading, writing and mathematics in KS2 SATs at the end of Year 6 (and this will be set at 85 per cent of children, whilst the current level is 65 per cent).
What’s the thinking behind them?
So, by giving each child a baseline assessment when s/he first start primary school, it is suggested that schools will not only have a clearer idea of how much progress their pupils are making but it should also help teachers identify which children are likely to need most help. Schools Minister David Laws is quoted as saying, “In primary schools we are raising the bar to improve standards and introducing a proper measure of progress from when children start school to age 11.” But the government isn’t entirely ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ as the current Phonics Screening Check, carried out at the end of Year 1 to assess reading progression, will remain unchanged.
How have parents and teachers reacted to?
Of course, for some parents, the idea of testing children won’t bring smiles to their faces, as children of just four and five already have to contend with the anxiety of starting school and are often daunted by unfamiliar tasks at this age. For some young children, concentration levels may well be an issue too, particularly for summer -born pupils who’re likely to be a whole year younger than their autumn-born peers.
In schools where the tests are administered on a one-to-one basis, it will be a time consuming procedure for teachers too. As you might expect, it hardly get three rousing cheers from such organisations as the Pre-School Learning Alliance as they are concerned that government policymakers “attach little value on childhood and the basic right of our young children to play, explore and experience the wonders of the world they are growing up in.”
However, to me this is almost like ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’, as some 11,000 out of England's 16,700 primary schools have already signed up for the observation method of assessment. This suggests, to me at least, that for most children the whole process will pass by unnoticed. Let's hope so.
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