Organisers of the new computer-based PISA tests the UK is to pilot for five-year-olds have hotly denied claims they will heap pressure on pupils and burden schools.
Around 20 English schools and nurseries will take part in a field trial of the OECD’s international early learning and child wellbeing study, which is to be run by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) between October and December this year.
The pilot will involve around 300 children, and uses games and stories on tablet computers to map pupils’ early capabilities – which will then be linked to educational performance at 15 through the international PISA tests given to teenagers across the globe every four years.
The children’s minister Robert Goodwill claims the study will “sharpen our understanding of how it can have the most impact”, but the OECD has been forced to defend itself from criticism that the tests will force schools to “narrow and standardise” early childhood education.
The study is not like other tests for young children because it involves no reading or writing and is fun to play with
Andreas Schleicher (pictured), head of the OECD’s directorate of education and skills, insisted that the tests would give schools and politicians a better idea about the cognitive, social and emotional development of children and would improve early education policy.
He claimed schools would not be held accountable for the outcomes of the study because, as with other PISA tests, school-level data is never published or handed to the government.
English education leaders are unconvinced.
Kevin Courtney, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said early-years educators were concerned about the pilot and he criticised the government’s decision to take part without consulting teachers and researchers.
The Pre-school Learning Alliance also expressed concerns about “any early assessments that are focused on gathering data, rather than supporting learning”.
Neil Leitch, the group’s chief executive, said any attempt to place “enormous pressures” that children face as a result of a “growing obsession with gathering data, testing and league tables” onto five-year-olds should be rejected.
Schleicher said the study is not like other tests for young children because it involves “no reading or writing” and is “fun to play with”.
“If anything, this study is designed to counter the increasing schoolification that we see in early childhood education,” he said.
He said schools in the early years were often left with “very few insights about where their relative strengths and weaknesses are”.
The study will show schools those strengths and weaknesses, he added, and data collected from parents, teachers and other stakeholders will give institutions “a really good understanding of that context and how that compares with other schools”.
Schools will also be able to see how different groups of children compare to similar groups in other schools.
He accepted the pilot would be a big commitment for schools, but was adamant it was worth the time investment.
“Institutions have to schedule three or four hours to administer it. I do recognise that is an additional burden, but I do think the value of knowing better about where your strengths and weaknesses are and how you can improve is so much greater.”