Baseline £10m contract goes to NFER despite protests over Reception assessment

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The sector has expressed concern that the DfE is pressing ahead with plans for a Reception Baseline check following the news that NFER has been chosen to design and deliver the assessment.

The Department for Education (DfE) announced today that the NFER has won the £10m contract to run the Baseline, which will include trialling and piloting the assessment and its delivery in the academic years 2020/21 and 2021/22.

Nursery World reported in November that the DfE had put out a contract to tender for a supplier to develop, pilot and oversee the Baseline, which will be statutory for all pupils in England from September 2020.

The news that the NFER, which is also delivering the OECD International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study, known as ‘Baby PISA’, has won the contract follows calls from educational experts, teachers and parents for the Government to abandon plans for the  assessment.

In February, the More than a Score coalition, whose members include leading academics Professor Cathy Nutbrown from the University of Sheffield, Dr Alice Bradbury and Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes from UCL Institute of Education, as well as the National Education Union (NEU) and TACTYC, published a dossier highlighting evidence to show the plans for a new Baseline are ‘statistically uninformed and educationally damaging.’

The previous Baseline pilot was scrapped by the DfE in 2015 because the three assessments, one of which was NFER's, were found not to be comparable. The new Baseline will not be an observational assessment carried out over time. It will be carried out and mediated by the pupil’s usual teacher or teaching assistant.

The new assessment will be used to establish pupils’ prior attainment at the starting point for calculating school level progress measures when pupils reach the end of Key Stage 2.

Key Stage 1 tests will effectively be scrapped and made non-statutory from 2023.

In the DfE tender notice, it stated that the Baseline should include an 'age-appropriate assessment of communication, language and literacy as well as maths, and be clearly linked to the learning and development requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

Carole Willis, chief executive of NFER, said, 'We are pleased to have been selected as DfE’s preferred supplier for the new Reception Baseline Assessment. As a not-for-profit organisation, we are committed to projects that will improve education and outcomes for children and young people, such as our recent work on teacher recruitment and retention, and our work on social mobility.

'NFER has been developing robust assessments for over 70 years, for use by teachers, schools and Government agencies. Our experience in producing a Reception Baseline Assessment in 2015 demonstrated that it is possible to undertake a robust assessment of children’s language, literacy and numeracy skills at this age. Reception children enjoy taking our assessment – which involves using resources such as counting teddy bears, plastic shapes and picture sequencing cards, reflecting familiar classroom practice.

'This new assessment is intended to be a cohort level measure, rather than an individual pupil measure. Introducing such a measure at the start of reception allows the huge contribution that schools make to children’s progress in the first three years of school to be properly recognised.'


September 2017: Education Secretary Justine Greening confirms new Baseline measure will be brought into Reception from 2020

November 2017: Department for Education puts Baselineassessment contract out to tender

April 2018: NFER chosen as preferred supplier

2018/19: Trial of Baseline

2019/20: National pilot

2020-2022: Delivery of the assessment by NFER

Sector comments

Madeleine Holt, More than a Score spokesperson, said, 'Baseline Assessment in various guises has been repeatedly introduced and failed. Reintroducing it is an expensive and pointless exercise which only serves to damage children’s education and well-being.

‘There is no research evidence that four-year-olds can be reliably tested; the Government has certainly not produced any. The score that the Baseline test produces will not be a true picture of what children can do – yet it will be used to judge schools seven years later to assess whether they have enabled children to make enough progress

‘By focusing almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy, the proposed baseline assessment will force a narrowing of the curriculum to these areas.  This is counterproductive, as young children will not develop these skills without developing their oral language, physical development and having rich experiences across the curriculum to engage their love of learning and understanding of the world around them. Teachers around the country are already telling us how they are being pressured to teach in ways that are not in children’s best interests.

 ‘Baseline Assessment is doomed to fail again. In the interests of children and their schools, More Than a Score will be working to make sure this happens sooner rather than later.’

Jan Dubiel, national director of Early Excellence, said he was disappointed that the DfE had not listened to ‘huge disquiet’ about the Baseline assessment.

He told Nursery World, ‘I’m surprised they [DfE] are motoring ahead with an assessment that is non-observational, which can’t really be used, is highly unreliable and only looks at a partial view of a child. The whole policy is a disaster. The DfE has not learnt from previous experience.

‘Saying that, I don’t think the Baseline assessment will have a long life because it is so pointless and absurd and unsustainable. Many people are against it and there are calls for it to be boycotted. It won’t last as long as a celebrity marriage.’

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, 'The government's position on baseline assessment is simply not credible. They are basing accountability of primary schools on comparison of data from a very limited and unreliable test of four-year-olds, with KS2 SATS data seven years later.  Even if there was any evidence of a reasonable expectation of correlation between the datasets (and data shows very limited correlations even over much shorter periods of time for similar tests), it is likely that an average of almost 40 per cent of the children who finish Y6 will be different from those who started in YR. a significant proportion of teachers and leaders will also have changed over this time. In what sense is that a sensible basis for holding anyone to account? 

'In the meantime, children’s opportunity to settle into Reception and flourish will have been impaired and Reception teachers’ workloads will have increased, despite all governments’ assurances on reducing workload.  This policy is doomed to fail and should be abandoned now before it does further damage.'

The National Education Union (NEU) said that the Government needed to answer some ‘important questions before subjecting four-year-olds to an experimental test.’

The union’s joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said, ‘We now know which private company is set to profit from running this test, but the most important question remains unanswered. Is a 20 minute test of four-year-olds a reliable way to measure how well primary schools are doing seven years later?

‘We know that four-year-olds aren’t consistent in what they say or are able to do from one day to the next, and a test won’t capture that. A test at age four will not reflect that children change schools between four and eleven years old or pick up that some children will be five when they are tested while others will have only just turned four. And a test will definitely not reflect that children born in the summer, who are almost a year younger than their autumn born friends, are likely to perform worse in these tests. 

‘We are deeply concerned that a baseline test will lead to four-year-olds with SEND or who are very young being labelled as low ability. Our own research, and that of the Education Endowment Foundation demonstrates that this limits children’s educational opportunities through their entire school life.

'The Government’s failed attempt to introduce a Reception Baseline Assessment in 2016 cost tax payers a significant amount and wasted a great deal of teachers’ time. Yet the Department for Education has not shown that the weaknesses in the last failed attempt to introduce Reception Baseline Assessment have been addressed. Rather than rushing in head first again, the Government must stop, listen to education professionals, and find a fairer way of assessing the effectiveness of schools.’

The Pre-school Learning Alliance also raised concerns about the new assessment. Its chief executive Neil Leitch said, ‘The simple fact is that no test-condition assessment can be designed well enough to reflect the complexities and variation of a child in reception. A baseline test, conducted on a tablet and before a teacher has had a chance to develop a relationship with the child, won’t tell teachers anything about the children they work with and won’t be of any use to parents. Instead, what it will do is pile pressure on to our very youngest children: from those forced to sit an exam at the tender age of four to those in settings under pressure to get pre-schoolers ‘test ready’. 

‘Ministers’ determination to see this through would be admirable were it not so wrong-headed. This policy has failed twice before and there must be very few parents, teachers or academics who believe this time will be any different. The fact that some of the companies involved in the last abandoned attempt to introduce baseline ruled themselves out of contention completely this time around speaks volumes.’

Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), said, 'PACEY is disappointed the Department for Education (DfE) has decided to move forward with a new version of its proposed Baseline Assessment (BA), despite our and many others repeated calls for this proposal to be abandoned. The arguments against baseline assessment are numerous - it is unreliable, it distracts teachers from settling children into their reception year – whilst the arguments for it are limited. Holding schools to account is important but collecting unreliable data on four-year-olds that is then reviewed seven years later is not the way to do it.

'No matter how much the DfE has responded to our and others’ concerns, by stating it will ensure the new BA is focussed only on literacy and numeracy and, perhaps self-regulation; it remains a flawed concept and one PACEY cannot support.'

Support for Baseline

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) welcomed the news, however.

NAHT general secretary of school leaders Nick Brook said, ‘NAHT support the concept of a reception baseline. The progress that children make in primary school is a far better indicator of school effectiveness than attainment figures alone, which ignore the fact that children have very different starting points. It makes little sense to take a baseline measure for progress midway through the primary years, as is the case now, effectively ignoring the incredible work and progress made in those critical first few years of school.

‘Developing a reliable and workable baseline assessment, that does not hinder teachers and children in those important first few months of school, is fraught with difficulty. Get it right however, with the associated removal of SATs at the end of year 2, and we should finally start to see the reduction in the volume of high stakes testing in primary that NAHT has long called for.

‘NAHT strongly believe that the approach of working with the DfE and the Standards and Testing Agency on the development and piloting of a new baseline assessment is in the best interests of school staff, parents and children, to ensure that the baseline assessment is well designed and properly implemented. The ongoing support of school leaders for roll-out of the baseline will be dependent upon STA and the DfE addressing our remaining concerns.’

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