DfE confirms participation in ‘baby PISA’ pilot

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The Department for Education has confirmed England will take part in an international pilot study that will see five-year-olds subjected to a series of 'tests'.

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The OECD study will use activities on tablets to look at children's behaviour and language, literacy and numeracy skills

England, along with the United States will participate in a pilot of the international Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study (IELS) that will assess, through tablet-based stories and games, children's social behaviour, empathy, memory and self-regulation, as well as their early skills in language, literacy and numeracy. it will also take into account family characteristics, home environment and children's individual circumstances.

A pilot of the IELS will take place in October-December this year with around 300 children in 20 schools from each participating country.

In February, Nursery World reported that the DfE had expressed an interest in taking part in a pilot of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study, described by academics as a ‘pre-school PISA' or ’baby PISA’. It is understood that Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium rejected the 'tests', that are heavily criticised by academics as they 'apply a universal framework to all countries' and don't 'accommodate diversity'.

PISA tests, which already exist for 15-year-olds, are regarded as an international benchmark by which countries can compare their education systems.

The DfE has confirmed that the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) will carry out the IELS in England.

Following a review of the pilot, a decision will be made as to whether to continue with the main study in Autumn 2018, which will include a total of 6,000 children from 400 schools in England and the US.

The findings will be shared among parents, carers and professional and included in final reports – a report on the study in England as well as the overall OECD findings, published in 2020.

If the study is successful, the OECD is expected to repeat the research in future years and invite other countries to take part.

Speaking to Nursery World in February, Mathias Urban, professor of early childhood at the University of Roehampton, criticised plans for the OECD study, along with Peter Moss, emeritus professor of early education at University College London's Institute of Education, who called them 'concerning'.

Minister for Children and Families Robert Goodwill said, ‘Every child deserves the best start in life, whether this is in a formal childcare setting or at home in a supportive family environment.

‘We already know that a child who attends any pre-school can increase their GCSE attainment by as much as seven grades, so now we want to sharpen our understanding of how it can have the most impact. This study will build on the evidence available, driving our work tackling low social mobility and helping to spread opportunities for all children.’

Iram Siraj, professor of early childhood education at UCL Institute of Education, a member of the OECD’s technical advisory group on the IELS, said, ‘This study will provide valuable insights into how five-year-olds develop, and these will benefit both professionals and parents who want to know how best to support their children’s early home learning.

‘The holistic approach of the IELS will give us a better understanding of young children’s social and emotional well-being, not just their academic skills. It will be carried out using enjoyable, age-appropriate assessments with stories and games by professionals who are used to working sensitively with this age-group.’

Professor Siraj is involved in both, devising and advising on the assessments and studies. She is an advisor on the OECD IELS at an international level for the main pilot, which is run by Australian Council for Educational Research and a German and Belgian group, and also as a research expert on the NFER study to the UK.

Commenting on the news, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, 'While we recognise the importance of constantly looking at how we can improve and enhance children’s early development, experience has taught us to be very wary of any early assessments that are focused on gathering data, rather than supporting learning.

'Proposals for reception baseline tests have been rightly criticised for taking a narrow, reductive approach to assessment likely to provide an inaccurate picture of children’s learning and development, and while the Department for Education claims that this OECD study will take a "holistic approach", the fact that it will take the form of tablet-based tests immediately suggests this won’t be the case. 

'We know the enormous pressures that children today face as a result of a growing obsession with gathering data, testing and league tables. Any attempt to place such pressure on children aged just five-years-old should, and most likely will, be roundly rejected by the education sector.'

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