The new reception baseline is a fairer way of assessing primary schools because it means we’ll get credit for the work we do early on, argues Cassie Young

The reforms keep on coming. Not since Gove’s day have we seen such a quick pace of change in education. There’s of course the juggernaut that is the new Ofsted framework, but also the recruitment and retention strategy, which may have just as significant an impact on teachers. Now we have news on the new reception baseline assessment.

I expect that it is unlikely that any one educationalist will be happy with every aspect of all those announcements. But, today at least, I am pretty happy with what’s come out of this new baseline.

In summary: 

  • All pupils must be assessed within six weeks of joining reception, regardless of when they join the class, if they have not been previously assessed.
  • The assessment will take 20 minutes per pupil, and can be paused and restarted as appropriate. It can also be stopped at any point if the practitioner deems it is inappropriate for the pupil to continue.
  • The assessment consists of practical tasks, using physical resources, and an online scoring system for the practitioner to complete (with yes/no answers).
  • The test content will be divided approximately half and half between literacy, communication and language, and maths.
  • The questions will change based on pupils’ answers, meaning they will adapt to the child’s level.

The final score will not be made available to schools, but will be recorded in the national pupil database and used to create a cohort progress measure for schools at the end of key stage 2; schools will instead receive a few lines about how the child is doing based off the assessment, which can be used to inform their work with the pupil over the next term.

Of course, the usual suspects have their arms up in disgust. How can children be assessed at such a young age?! It’ll destroy their self-esteem! You’re all monsters if you like this!

Actually, I think this new assessment is a good thing, and I don’t think I’m a monster either. For starters, most of the schools I know already do something similar when pupils join them. It’s fairly standard procedure that they are building upon. I know from experience that most pupils actually enjoy such an assessment – it gives them one-to-one time with the teacher or TA, and they like interactive questions in particular. 

For those who don’t already do something like this, the baseline will help schools deliver early intervention for pupils who are perhaps not school-ready coming in, or who may have special educational needs. We all know the importance of identifying difficulties as soon as possible, and the baseline will increase the likelihood of potentially SEN children getting the support they need as soon as possible, giving them the best chance to succeed.

While it’s not designed as a formative or diagnostic assessment per se, embedding the routine of assessing children within their first six weeks will surely ensure that no child slips through the net.

The data from all of this is being used to create a progress measure to assess primaries, and will include all the work done in reception and year 1 that is excluded from the current KS1 assessments – vital given that these are arguably the most important years for a child’s education, particularly when trying to close the disadvantage gap.

One criticism is that schools will not have access to the data

One legitimate criticism is that schools will not have access to the full data. The reasoning behind this seems to be that the DfE want to make sure teachers and individual pupils are not being judged on what happens in the assessment – but the data could be incredibly useful to schools.

I believe that our own practitioner judgement will still be really important, and as a school we will continue to do that. Admittedly, this is easier because we have a small reception cohort, meaning it doesn’t add much to workload to do have a second observation. In a larger school I think there may well be difficulties running two assessments to get the data that schools want, and in those cases a more detailed report  from the baseline assessment could be very beneficial.

Some are already complaining that all this is going to be another stick to beat schools with, but the fact is that schools have to be assessed on the education they deliver somehow, and Progress 8 – despite the bumps that are still being worked out – has proven to be relatively fair for secondaries; if this is similar to that, then I’m on board.

To be clear, I don’t think a score can sum up a child in their first year of school – but more information is going to be beneficial, and will help practitioners form a picture of their pupils that is also greatly informed by their own judgements.

It’s also workload-neutral once the KS1 assessment is taken away. And it’s been designed by the National Foundation for Educational Research after consultation with the sector – they took out aspects devoted to self-regulation (though this partly comes through in the other parts of the assessment) because of mixed feedback from the initial trials.

Out of all the education announcements in the first part of 2019, I think this is the one that has both the most potential to help schools, and also the one with the least room to go wrong. It’s not adding to workload, it’s not hurting the pupils, and it’s a fairer way of assessing primary schools than what we already have, because it means we will get credit for all that work in the early years.