After 35 years of teaching, a central lesson I have learnt is that in education if there is a way of getting things wrong, governments will usually find it. Whether it be the sub-standard national curriculum, the GCSE ‘examination’ that is impossible to fail or the latest ‘wheeze’ – political correctness masquerading as so-called ‘British Values’ – government loses its educational compass and ends up miles off course.
A new disaster is just around the corner! With the best of intentions, the Department of Education is going to introduce ‘baseline assessment’ for four-year-olds as they start reception classes and prior to their entering mainstream schooling. During the ‘pilot’ first year, the baseline testing will be optional, but the Government wants it to become universal in due course.In theory, this is a great idea. It will provide a starting point from which to judge the progress children make during their school career. Currently, this has to be measured from a complex system of unreliable and fairly subjective teacher evaluations. Most independent schools shun the whole process.What, then, is there not to like about a formal baseline assessment? After all, with this achieved, all future assessments can be measured from a clear starting point. If only education could be so simple! The problem is that age four is much too young to produce any such reliable assessment. I should know since, as head teacher of a heavily over-subscribed independent preparatory school, I was faced with the task, on an annual basis, of determining which infants to accept into year one. These children were a year older than those for whom the Government is introducing, baseline assessments.
I used one-to-one ‘discussions’ with each candidate, some simple exercises in letter and word recognition, or reading for strong candidates, plus elementary non-verbal reasoning. None of this was very satisfactory and I often re-tested children a year later. It was the best we could do but assessment at this age could not in any substantial way be regarded as a reliable ‘baseline’. One eminent university professor, with particular expertise in the area of assessment, once told me that the most reliable way to assess my five-year-olds would be to look at the qualifications of the mother. He was not joking. I well recall the look of horror on the faces of some, but not all, parents of prospective pupils when I, light-heartedly made reference to this novel perspective on assessing young children.
A petition against the Government’s baseline assessment is now ‘up and running’ with mass teacher ‘disobedience’ and refusal to cooperate just around the corner. Many teachers wish to keep the current system of continuous assessment for all its unreliability.
The Government is in a ‘no win’ situation. If its gets its way on baseline tests, teachers, who will be assessing each child individually, will be inclined to mark harshly in order to to lower the already unreliable baseline. This will mean that subsequent improvement and progress will be easier for a teacher and school to demonstrate. If, however, teacher resistance to the new tests proves successful, the Government will have been shown once again to be hapless and helpless when confronted by the educational establishment – the Blob. Heads we win, tails you lose – as the Blob might say.