DfE scraps baseline as a progress measure

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The controversial Reception Baseline will not be used as a starting point to measure children’s progress – the purpose for which it was designed - the Department for Education has confirmed.

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Campaigners against the baseline at last year's NUT conference

The DfE has decided to abandon the baseline for school accountability measures, after research concluded that the three assessments used by schools are not comparable.

The Reception baseline comparability study has concluded that the three baseline products from Early Excellence, Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, and the National Foundation for Educational Research are ‘not sufficiently comparable to create a fair starting point from which to measure pupils’ progress. As a result, the results cannot be used as the baseline for progress measures, as it would be inappropriate and unfair to schools.’

However, schools will have the option to use the baseline in the 2016-17 academic year, as part of their ‘on-entry assessment’ for children starting school, and will be funded by the department to do so.

Although the baseline is not statutory, primary schools had been under pressure from the Government to sign up to one of the schemes, as it was intended to be used by Ofsted to measure schools’ performance.

The vast majority of England’s 17,000 maintained primary schools took part in the baseline last September, with just 2,000 of them opting not to do so.

The DfE said it would still encourage schools to use the baseline as it was important to assess children when they start school to help identify children who need extra support.

It also said that it would continue to look at the best way to assess children in the early years.

However, the DfE’s decision not to use the baseline as an accountability measure is a victory for many early years campaigners and teaching unions, who have been united against it, because they say that it is inappropriate to assess young children in this way and is of no benefit to teachers.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown, head of the school of education at the University of Sheffield, said, ‘It is crucial to distinguish from assessment for accountability and assessment that supports learning and teaching. In early childhood education there has been a long and well-established practice of understanding and supporting children's learning through observation so that practitioners can work with all of children’s talents and interests, and best meet their needs. It seems the plan to progress this latest policy on baseline assessment is not going ahead for technical reasons, [but] it should be halted once and for all for moral and pedagogical reasons.’

Sector reaction

Early years organisations and teaching unions have welcomed the DfE’s decision. Supporters of the 'Better without the baseline campaign', include Early Education, TACTYC, the Early Childhood Forum, and 'Too much too soon', among others.

In a statement on the campaign website the coalition said it remained 'concerned that the emphasis has been on the lack of comparability, rather than the impact on child wellbeing. The EYFS was carefully developed over time to 1. support children's learning through observation 2. nurture their unique talents and interests, and 3. best meet their needs.

'We note the DfE intends to begin a process of engagement with 'stakeholders' around issues of early years assessment. We look forward to participating in these discussions, but will continue to treat with caution any statements that lack an appropriate recognition of the importance of developmentally informed practice and the holistic nature of early childhood development.'

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘We have long warned that, not only would these tests place unnecessary pressure on children at the start of their schooling experience and risk wrongly labelling them as failing, they are also an incredibly unreliable and restrictive method of assessment.

‘While it’s disappointing that mass cross-sector opposition to this proposal was not enough to prompt this decision earlier, we are nevertheless incredibly pleased that the Government has seen sense, and abandoned these flawed plans.’

Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, said, ‘PACEY has long supported the Better without Baseline campaign because we believe schools need a rounded assessment of the children entering their reception classes. There is strong evidence that a snapshot of a child’s development within six weeks of starting school provides limited information and can distract teachers from the important job of settling children into full time education.’

‘PACEY's view remains that any form of assessment at this age is unnecessary. Testing in this way at such a key stage in their school career does nothing to support their early development and is instead about monitoring school performance.

‘But this is a great first step. The early years sector and Better Without Baseline supporters should be proud of their achievements in campaigning tirelessly to reverse this ill-advised policy.’

The move to scrap the baseline for accountability purposes follows a damning report from the teaching unions earlier this year, which found that less than 8 per cent of teachers believe the baseline was ‘fair and accurate’. They aslo warned that the baseline was potentially damaging to young children.

Only last week, ATL members at the union’s annual conference voted overwhelmingly for the reception baseline assessment to be scrapped.

Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary (policy) of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said, ‘ATL believes the reception baseline assessment is a waste of money, a waste of time, and tells reception teachers nothing useful about the children in their class. And as the outcomes cannot be used for accountability, we see no reason why schools would choose to undertake baseline assessment in September. We look forward to being properly consulted as the Government considers future options.’

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said, ‘The NUT has already congratulated the schools who chose not to inflict baseline assessment on thousands of children this year. The NUT, campaigning alongside a wide range of early years professionals in their organisations, has made the Government come to its senses and realise that baseline assessment was never a good idea in the first place.

‘However, what we need is for the Government to discuss with us what appropriate assessment in early years education looks like. The qualified teachers working in early years would be only too pleased to share the good practice they have developed to support the learning of the children with whom they work day in day out.’

Baseline providers’ response

Meanwhile, the baseline providers maintained that their assessment is valuable to teachers.

Jan Dubiel said of Early Excellence’s model, ‘EExBA was developed as an effective approach to assessment. It stands by itself as an effective assessment for children on-entry. It remains an effective baseline assessment.’

Professor Robert Coe, director of CEM, said that some schools had already signed up for the baseline for next year.

He said, ‘What I hope is that schools will still continue to use our assessment to inform their teaching. I hope that schools have found it useful and will want to use it again.’

Catherine Kirkup, research director in NFER’s Centre for Assessment, said, 'We firmly believe that NFER’s task-based approach is the most appropriate choice for schools. Our Reception Baseline Assessment is easy to use and provides accurate and consistent outcomes. It provides a snapshot of children’s starting points at the beginning of Reception and enables teachers to tailor support to each child’s needs.'

A DfE spokesperson said, ‘When the baseline assessment was proposed we were clear that we would carry out a comparability study of the programme. That study has shown that the assessments are not sufficiently comparable to provide a fair starting point from which to measure pupil progress. In light of that, we will not be using this year's results as the baseline for progress measures. This would be inappropriate and unfair to schools.

‘Assessing pupils on entry to school is important in ensuring all pupils receive the support they need to achieve their potential regardless of background or circumstance.

‘We remain committed to measuring the progress of pupils through primary school and will continue to look at the best way to assess pupils in the early years. In the meantime, we will continue to offer the optional baseline assessments for schools to use next year, and while it will not be used for accountability purposes next year, we would encourage schools to use this for their own purposes, for example to identify pupils who may need particular additional support.’

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