By *not* having a national baseline test, we are neglecting the needs of the most disadvantaged children

Yet another baseline-bashing article appears in mainstream media and I wonder whether I’m the only person despairing over (what looks like) naivety of all these high-profile academics, consultants and experts. It’s as if they don’t have a handle on the reality of what children really need to have in place in order to access the wonders of a knowledge-rich curriculum, or even just have a happy life that includes being able to communicate (and play!) with all sorts of people – is it because most people who work in the early primary years tend not to have had experience with KS2, KS3 or beyond? Do they just see little children in a bubble of childhood, completely separate from the teenagers and then responsible adults that they will become?

I believe the government, policy makers and indeed everyone in this country has a right to know about the state of early childhood. Currently, we are mostly in the dark, save for emotional stories about a certain kind of material poverty, but what we have no public discourse on is something I call a poverty of aspiration. It is this kind of poverty that has the most far-reaching effects and I believe it is more endemic than material poverty. Put simply, a poverty of aspiration is what happens when parents are led to believe that parenting is something that happens, rather than something that one must do – the latter being about the goal of sending out in the world intelligent and caring adults into the world who will have an overall positive effect on society. The early years curriculum rhetoric reinforces this laid-back attitude of just letting everything unfold ‘naturally’ and the result is that children arrive at school without speech, without general knowledge, without stories, songs or nursery rhymes, even without those basic habits that make us different from animals (frankly).

This is not an OK situation.

The sheer extent of this issue is covered up by the fact that it is mostly the stalwart nursery and teaching assistants who have to roll their sleeves up and stoically get on with the job of dealing with all this evidence of benign neglect without making a fuss. In the meantime, people like me look at the EYFS data, the phonics data and see enormous numbers of children who are increasingly unable to access the academic aspects of the curriculum (the real purpose of schools might I add!). If we had a national picture of the real state of early childhood, then we’d be able to deploy those resources more effectively. We also might have a little more respect for those reception year teachers and teaching assistants who have to try to teach children who are relatively unteachable within a framework, moderation and inspection process that pretty much frowns on teaching in early years – the upshot of which is that disadvantaged children in particular are disadvantaged even further, and combined with the fact that there is no magical process that suddenly makes them ‘naturally’ catch up (like, in the 6 week holiday between reception year and Year 1, for example) as well as the fact that all children in later year groups sit the same tests, those disadvantaged children are looking at fewer choices in life when they become men and women.

(At this point, as usual, I have to put in the usual clause about how, yes, I agree that little children still need to have lots of play and fun.)

I think a baseline test would also wake parents up as to the minimum expectations for school preparedness and be made aware of what the consequences are for their own child if their child cannot access the learning or even play happily with their friends. This is about honesty, joined up thinking, working in partnership with parents and sometimes we need to have difficult conversations as part of that process. Of course, many might then look at this national picture of early childhood and surmise that perhaps we simply need to delay school entry, perhaps have children start school at 6 or 7 years of age – but imagine the word gap by then! I think we’d also end up with children still starting school without the basics, only this time the bad habits would be even more entrenched.

So, let’s have that national baseline test and brace ourselves for the massive wake-up call that it will bring.

Who’s with me?

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8 thoughts on “By *not* having a national baseline test, we are neglecting the needs of the most disadvantaged children

  1. I don’t know how we can make much headway now that smartphones are all but universal. Ironically, what we are learning from this is that Noam Chomsky was wrong–language is not a natural behaviour that chldren pick up just from being in the presence of adults and older children talking.

    The other problem was put very succinctly by Teachwell:

    “Most controversially perhaps – we need to stop pumping “white mc left-wing progressive minded bleeding heart women” into primary. This is one area where I call for diversity of not only people but thought as well. The reason why improving primary is hard is because it’s become a job creation scheme for this particular type of person. The group think is almost impenetrable and it’s only by changing the workforce itself that we can improve outcomes here.”

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  2. I believe baseline testing is essential at every grade, but we have to explore what is actually being tested and what we do with the results of these tests. The testing industry and yes, today, companies clamber to own the rights to testing because it is a multi-billion dollar industry. Textbooks are old school and testing is now the goose that lays the golden egg! If only a fraction of that could make it into schools to pay for extra instructional staff.
    Testing should be simple and based on a rubric of what basic skills we require students to have at each early grades. This is not rocket science!
    However, when exploring the tests that are given to some Gr 3 and 4 and 6 students I wonder who creates them and what are they trying to achieve?
    Many of these tests are online and we know the challenges of pathetic internet service in many communities, so the test is a joke of constant crashes, interruptions and cannot possibly give an accurate assessment of anything. Some paper-based booklet version are so long, students simply tick the boxes to be done!
    Shaming a community or school is also not the object- testing should give us an indication of where we need to urgently offer extra help and employ the best methods to support instruction and ensure that struggling students have all the advantages to support them. They need a diet of enriched, supportive teaching.
    As one parent said, ” My biggest fear when my daughter was designated with Dyslexia was that people would focus on the designation and stop teaching her.
    Luckily for that parent, the school put in systems to support her and the outcome has been truly wonderful, thanks to the hard work and incredible dedication of all involved.

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  3. Have you been in an EArly Years sitting and seen all the good work we do. This feels like you are undermining the staff who work in early years. We work hard and prepare the children for school. There are some children who arrive in early years settings who need extra care and nurture to get them to reach their potential. There is no where to record this on the profile. Perhaps if we followed an early years curriculum as other countries do and extend the curriculum and make the school starting age 6/7 we would have more time to help the children who would benefit from a curriculum which recognised their needs. Not all children arrive in EY settings developmentally ready to access the curriculum. As staff we have a year to bring out the potential in each child. Please stop bashing the staff and realise the good work which takes place in Early Years. I’m upset that you have written such a negative article. We should all work together to have the best education system for our children

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  4. Any test on progress needs a baseline for it to be fair and accurate. I cannot understand how anyone can disagree with this. This should not be controversial.

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  5. Hi Quirky teacher. I understand your concerns but feel I need to point out a few facts. Reception teachers already baseline. The majority do so against the statements in a fabulous document (which you can find online) called Development Matters. We observe, interview, interact with and speak to parents to get the information we need about where each child is in relation to 17 of the Early Learning Goals. No school would not do this. I understand the desire for a universal baseline assessment that could be used across the UK (as SATs do at the end of KS2) but the reasons EY teachers are up in arms is a) the nature of the test and its efficacy and b) the enormous amount of time it will take during a crucial time in a child’s life- their first weeks at school. This last point cannot be emphasised enough. Your child has started school and where is the teacher? Out in the corridor administering the baseline on a tablet (no doubt).
    You have also conflated two ideas which are absolutely incompatible: The “Laissez faire” approach to parenting (it will happen when it happens and not because of anything I do) and how Early Years teachers teach. The reason quality teaching through play is so powerful and our best tool against disadvantaged children failing (alongside well structured adult lead teaching experiences) has been documented enormously by some big names- Montessori, Froebel and other giants of Early Years pedagogy. It is absolutely not laissez faire. Spend some time in a Reception classroom to see how children of this age learn and the enormous amount of work teachers put in to instructing, demonstrating and modelling to young children how to share, speak, write, sit, listen…..the list of what is taught is endless. We do not just sit back and let it all happen. That is a chronic misunderstanding of what happens in EY.

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