The baseline assessment of children right at the beginning of their school life is coming – the Department for Education recently announced that NFER has been awarded the contract to develop the new test which is expected to be rolled out nationally in 2020-2022, despite calls from education unions, academics, teachers and early years professionals for the idea to be put aside. In the debate about the merits of a baseline assessment, we must be careful that parents with pre-schoolers are not discouraged from supporting their child’s early achievements in literacy and numeracy.
The new assessment is not, as the Department for Education has clearly said, about measuring individual children’s performance but, rather, a means for evaluating the starting point of a cohort of children beginning school. The idea is that officials can evaluate how much progress a school helps its pupils make in the time between the baseline assessment in reception and the next cohort test in the Key Stage 2 SATS, seven years later.
But the assessment is not an observational process over time, it’s a snapshot looking at all pupils in the same way. It still risks looking like a test – and for some parents that could raise alarm bells.
One potential obstacle is for parents who have had a bad experience of education. If a parent has dropped out of school early or struggled in exams, their own confidence in supporting their child to develop essential skills in, for example, numeracy and literacy could be undermined. They may be doing lots at home that has the potential to support their child’s development, but because school didn’t work for them, their confidence may be easily dented or they may simply see early learning as someone else’s job. The baseline assessment mustn’t give these parents the impression that testing, assessment and streaming are all their children can look forward to at school, and that family life and school are totally unrelated.
Before children start school their parents, carers and family are their first and most enduring educators. What parents do at home has a major impact on the social, emotional and intellectual development of their child. Of course other factors are at play here too: family income, their living conditions and parents’ own education levels are all factors in their child’s developmental outcomes. But the quality of the home learning environment acts as a significant modifying factor.
In fact research evidence consistently shows the importance of parents as children's first educators, and of practitioners supporting parents in this role. Engaging parents in their children's early literacy development has been shown to improve children's outcomes and is a valuable intervention for narrowing the gap between disadvantaged and other children.
The importance of showing that ALL parents can contribute to and enhance their child’s early progress, is one of the cornerstones of Making it REAL – an early literacy and numeracy programme developed by the National Children’s Bureau. We work with early years practitioners so they have a good understanding of how literacy develops in young children, based on pioneering work by Professor Cathy Nutbrown at the University of Sheffield. Practitioners are encouraged to share this knowledge with parents, often through home visits, so the home learning environment and the everyday activities of the family can play their part, to the fullest extent, in their child’s literacy and numeracy development.
The experience of working with parents and practitioners across the country has shown us the importance of seeing the ‘whole’ child, praising and encouraging them wherever they are in their development. A testing system for children at age 4 should acknowledge the wide spectrum over which development takes place, something the Early Learning Goals in the existing EYFSP attempted to do.
What we can’t do is undermine the enthusiasm of parents for playing their part in helping their children reach their potential. Or, heaven forbid, create a climate where parents start to see the merits of exploration, creativity and fun in the early years only in terms of being stepping stones towards the assessment at the beginning of their school life.
To find out more about Making it REAL visit: https://www.ncb.org.uk/making-it-real-supporting-early-literacy-training
Joyce Connor is Director of Early Years at the National Children's Bureau.