Reception assessments ‘harmful’, say unions and academics

An open letter expressing deep concern about the intended introduction of reception baseline assessments from September has been signed by 17 associations and unions.

The signatories argue that the assessments, to be completed by pupils within their first six weeks, are “unreliable, disruptive, statistically invalid and harmful to child wellbeing”.

They say they will “detract from the rich physical, exploratory, playful, creative and intellectual experience that research shows benefit children in the early years”.

Full details of the approved baseline assessments are not yet available, but suppliers’ promotional webpages do carry sample questions, some of which are quoted on the Stand Up for Education website. Examples include asking children to “say parrot without the p”, asking them to say what sounds are in the word “net” and requiring pupils to point to a picture beginning with “c”.

Signatories to the open letter include academics and two general secretaries of teaching unions.

Neil Leitch is chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which is the largest early years membership organisation for providers of education and childcare. Also a signatory, he has expressed concerns in a press release issued by the National Union of Teachers that the majority of the baseline products “are computer or tablet-based and rely heavily on a ‘tick-box’ approach to assessment”.

But one of the six approved assessment providers, the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University, said the assessments covered a broad range of areas and generated useful information for schools.

Spokesperson Kate Bailey added that there was “much evidence that the use of a quick computer-delivered test is both informative for the profession and engaging for the children”.

Schools wishing to use the baseline assessment from September should sign up with a provider of their choice before the end of April. The names of the six approved providers were confirmed by the government in February. Each must recruit at least 10 per cent of primary schools by the end of April to remain an eligible provider.

The assessments are optional but if schools opt in they must use them to receive a “progress measure” based on pupils’ learning gains between the start of school and the end of key stage 2. If they choose not to opt in then, from 2023, they will only be held to account by pupils’ attainment at the end of key stage 2, according to the DfE.

The National Association for Primary Education also signed the open letter. Their spokesperson Anne Nelson said there was “a great deal of pressure on heads to sign up to the baselines, even though it is optional and not statutory”.

Concerns are also raised in the letter about knock-on impacts to the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) which is currently completed at nursery and is an assessment of children’s development based on observations over time.

The letter alleges that “any loss” of this data would “damage” work with health and social services, who make use of the EYFS Profile in bringing together services for children and families.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Primary checks have not been introduced to track the progress of individual pupils – but to measure the starting point of them all. There is absolutely no suggestion of introducing the kind of formal testing in reception that is used with older children. That would be completely inappropriate.”