The Department for Education is currently consulting on proposals to reform the whole primary assessment system and plans to introduce a new reception baseline in addition to keeping and improving the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile.
The education select committee report on primary assessment, published today, blames the accountability system in primary schools for leading to a narrowing of the curriculum, with ’teaching to the test’, which it says also affects teacher and pupil well-being.
While the cross-party group of MPs welcomes the increased focus on progress in performance measures and supports the introduction of an improved baseline measure, it urges the Government to be cautious in introducing one.
The report warns that, ‘There is a risk that introducing accountability into the early years will lead to narrowing of teaching and added pressure in the early years, shifting the issue from Key Stage 1 to a lower age group.’
During its inquiry the MPs heard ’mixed opinions’ about introducing the baseline and the report notes that many early years practitioners were ‘understandably sceptical about the introduction of a test at the age before “formal” schooling has started.’
The Better Without the Baseline group of early years organisations and teaching unions expressed concern about assessment and said it was ‘crucial’ that it did not have ’a negative and distorting effect on the Early Years Foundation Stage, which differs from the national curriculum for sound reasons relating to a child’s development’.
The MPs’ report notes that in its consultation document, ‘the Government fails to appreciate potential harmful consequences of introducing a baseline measure used for school accountability in reception.’
It adds that, ‘The Government must conduct a thorough evaluation of potential benefits and harmful consequences of introducing any baseline measure, involving early years experts and practitioners, including impacts on pupil wellbeing and teaching and learning.
‘The primary purpose of a measure of children at age four should be a diagnostic tool to help early years practitioners identify individual needs of pupils and should only be carried out through teacher assessment. We welcome the Government’s commitment that no data from a baseline will be used to judge individual pupils or schools.’
Accountability and assessment
The report notes that assessment is closely linked to the accountability system in primary schools, with Key Stage 2 results used to hold schools and teachers to account on the progress and attainment of pupils.
‘Many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself…We recognise the importance of holding schools to account but this high-stakes system does not improve teaching and learning at primary school,’ it concludes.
Instead it recommends that ‘the stakes should be lowered’ to combat some of these negative effects.
Performance tables should include a rolling three-year average of Key Stage 2 attainment and progress data to reduce the focus of an individual year’s results.
The MPs are also concerned that the emphasis on the ‘technical aspects of writing’ has led to less of a focus on composition and creativity at primary school, and recommend that the Government make spelling, punctuation and grammar tests non-statutory at Key Stage 2.
The report is published a week before primary school children take their SATs in English and maths. The Government consultation on primary assessment also includes plans to remove statutory assessment at Key Stage 1.
Neil Carmichael, the Conservative chair of the education committee, said, ‘Many of the negative effects of assessment in primary schools are caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself.
‘The resulting high-stakes system has led to a narrowing of the curriculum with a focus on English and maths at the expense of other subjects like science, humanities and the arts.
‘It is right that schools are held to account for their performance but the Government should act to lower the stakes and help teachers to deliver a broad, balanced, and fulfilling curriculum for primary school children.’
The committee's inquiry scrutinised Government reforms to primary assessment and their impact on teaching and learning in primary schools, and also examined the debates over the benefits and drawbacks of testing at primary school.
It also looked at the wider effects of assessment on primary schools, and possible next steps for Government policy.
During the course of its inquiry the committee took evidence from teachers and headteachers, teaching organisations, academics and researchers, Ofsted, Ofqual, and the school standards minister Nick Gibb.
Early years organisations and teaching unions praised the committee's recommendations about the baseline.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘We welcome this report for raising concerns about baseline testing, and support its recommendation that the Government must conduct a thorough evaluation of the potentially harmful consequences of introducing any baseline measure.
‘As the report clearly identifies the failures of testing at Key Stage 1, it would be incredibly short-sighted if the Government did not learn from these mistakes and instead chose to revisit them on a younger age group.
‘Aside from being an unreliable and limited method of assessment, baseline testing puts unnecessary pressure on children at the beginning of their formal educational journey.
‘At this important stage of a child’s life, we should be focussing on fostering a love of learning and supporting their development, not using them as a way to rank and measure schools.
‘We believe that any early assessments should be observation-based, informed by early years experts and focused on supporting children’s learning and development. As such, we remain firmly opposed to the proposed reintroduction of baseline testing.’
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, 'Early Education welcomes the view of the Education Committee that assessment at age four should be formative, and based on teacher assessment, and also should move away from accountability systems which depend on high stakes testing. We hope that the consultation on primary assessment will take on board these messages and reject the idea of basing primary school accountability on primary assessment in Reception to save another abortive attempt at introducing this policy.'
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said, 'Primary assessments, including SATs, and how they are used to hold schools to account are critically flawed and our children deserve better.
'We are pleased the Education Select Committee’s report raises so many of the concerns that we have highlighted. ATL agrees that the Key Stage 2 (KS2) spelling, punctuation and grammar test should be made non-statutory. We hope the incoming Government will accept the report’s finding about the potential harmful consequences of introducing a reception baseline assessment for school accountability and decide against reintroducing it.'