From next year, an approved reception baseline assessment will be the only accepted way of measuring how well a primary school’s pupils have progressed to Year 6. Thousands of heads, however, are declining to participate

Over the years I have learned, on arrival at a wedding reception, to reconnoitre the best escape route (“My dear, the noise! And the people!”), which is why, recently, I was sitting in an hotel garden alongside two fellow fugitives, a young woman and her small daughter. The child — I’ll call her Alice — who was certainly no older than four, had talked her mum into handing over her phone. The game she was playing involved choosing colours.

“What colour are you using now?” said Mum.

“Red,” said Alice, not looking up.

“That’s not red, it’s blue.”

“Never mind.”

Mum smiled, and explained that because red is Alice’s favourite colour, she deals with other colours by simply calling them all “red”.

“She knows they’re not really all red. But she doesn’t see why that matters.”

No surprise there. Young children can be blessedly reluctant to enter a dull adult world governed by the stern, unfriendly system of rules that we call common sense.

Coming to terms with that reality is, I suppose, an inevitable part of growing up. Even so, the idea that teachers should start the process by measuring their reception children against a set of adult-defined competencies is proving unacceptable to many primary heads, and almost 3,000 have refused to sign up. The general view seems to be that although schools already assess their new children, administering an additional, external test to produce a single score for each child is something else entirely.

Trying to put a number on what’s going on in a young child’s head is futile

Certainly the test may be unobtrusively child-friendly and observation-based, but experience shows how quickly children can sense the reality, and reflect the anxieties of teachers and parents. And in the end, whatever the assessment method, the result is a bare score that could crudely label individual children in a narrow, misleading and potentially inaccurate way.

My own view, from a rather distant end of the age spectrum, is that trying to put a number on what’s going on in a young child’s head is ultimately futile, because they come from a more interesting place where reality and imagination share a very permeable boundary. Think of Alice and her creatively “wrong” approach to colour names and you realise that you’re seeing something that you may as well just sit back and enjoy.

A fig for all that, say our betters. We need to know whether Alice is clever, average, or, (ahem), a bit on the slow side.

Perhaps we should not be too surprised, for the urge to label children has always been with us. In 1913 the chief medical officer of the Board of Education confidently divided children, by intellectual capacity, into five categories: “The child that is mentally normal, the dull or backward child, the feeble-minded child, the imbecile child, the idiot.”

Now, of course, we find it difficult to imagine a time when such words were intended to be quasi-scientific and neutral. The mindset lives on, though, in our tacit acceptance that there is a benchmark state of “normality” embodied in a notional standard-issue child who progresses steadily through school, improving all the time. Some children gallop ahead; others puff along behind, the whole farrago propped
up by tests that, in truth, measure little other than how well the children can do them.

As a way to run a 21st-century education system, it looks pretty shaky, but it’s what we have, and teachers make the best of it. Now, though, it looks as if there’s a stirring in the ranks, a feeling that cranking the Heath Robinson machine backwards to provide a jumping-off point is one absurdity too many.

“Absurdity?” Is that fair? How about “impossible”? Here’s Professor Colin Richards: “‘Part of the problem lies with the children themselves. They learn in very different ways and at different rates, so developing tests that are fair to all is difficult, perhaps impossible.”

But then, have we not had, for many years, education ministers inspired by the White Queen, who said to another Alice: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.