Baseline trial data censored in FOI release

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The Department for Education has been accused of hiding data gathered from the trial of the Reception Baseline Assessment.


The DfE explains how the RBA will work in a promotional video on its YouTube channel

  • Freedom of Information request leads to response with key data missing
  • DfE defends the redactions

The Department for Education has been accused of hiding data gathered from the trial of the Reception Baseline Assessment.

sue-cowleynewIn response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from author and teacher Sue Cowley, the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) said it had applied a number of ‘redactions’ to the trialling data and is withholding the full analysis, practitioner feedback and timing data because it is information relating to the development of Government policy.

The full pilot of the Baseline starts in September, with implementation a year later.

In her request, Ms Cowley asked the DfE for the full analysis of the Reception Baseline Assessment trial that took place last September, feedback from a questionnaire sent to all schools involved in the trial, analysis of how long it took participants to perform the assessment, along with any practitioner feedback that indicated children were upset at any time during the test.

Her request was in reaction to confirmation from the DfE that it would not be publishing the results of the trial, which was led by the National Foundation for Educational Research and in which more than 300 schools took part.

Much of the information visible within the redacted documents, of which there are three, is on the self-regulation element of the Reception Baseline Assessment, which was dropped from the assessment in January as a result of the trial. Information on the maths and literacy tests has been largely withheld.

The STA said it has withheld information as the Reception Baseline Assessment remains ‘under development and all information relating to the items is confidential. Therefore releasing this information puts the policy at risk’.

It added, ‘There is a large-scale national, voluntary pilot due to take place this autumn, and any release of information from which items could be identified will put this pilot, and subsequent planned statutory introduction of the assessment [in September 2020], at risk.’

However, Ms Cowley said she was not convinced by the reasons given for redacting such a ‘huge amount of the trial information’ and plans to appeal the decision.

She said, ‘You have to wonder what they [the DfE] are trying to hide by refusing [to reveal] so much of the data, especially given that we regularly see them claim it is all going so well.’

Practitioner survey

One of the reports made available by the STA includes findings from the practitioner questionnaire on the self-regulation tasks, completed by 155 people. They show that the majority of teachers did not think the workload involved in assessing pupils’ self-regulation was ‘reasonable’.

A total of 30 per cent ‘strongly disagreed’ and 42 per cent ‘disagreed’ with the statement that the ‘workload involved in administering the [self-regulation] assessment was reasonable in terms of what they learnt about the child’.

Most respondents to the questionnaire also disagreed that the 25 minutes they spent with each child doing the self-regulation assessment was a ‘valuable use’ of their time and that it helped them to understand children’s level of attainment.

Suitability of the assessment for children with SEND was predominately rated by respondents as ‘poor’ or worse.

In the trial, children took part in seven self-regulation tasks to assess their ‘working memory’, ‘inhibitory control’ and ‘attentional flexibility’. Tasks included ‘colour sort’, ‘forwards and backwards numbers’ and ‘hiding animals’.


Ms Cowley said, ‘I’m deeply disappointed that the DfE have seen fit to redact so much of the trial information. With the pilot about to go ahead, and the baseline due to come in from September 2020, teachers and parents have a right to know what happened in them.

‘Practitioner feedback from the trials clearly shows that teachers do not feel the baseline will be a valuable use of their time, or that it is developmentally appropriate for children, particularly those with SEND.’

She added, ‘I’m astonished that the DfE is planning to go ahead with implementing the baseline from September 2020, given that it has had to make so many changes between the trial and the pilot. The pilot is starting to look like it will be an additional trial, rather than a final check before going ahead.

‘If I were a primary head teacher who had agreed to take part in the pilot, I would be very worried about the DfE’s refusal to share information on how long the baseline takes to administer, and about the workload implications for my staff.’

The More Than a Score campaign group also questioned the DfE’s reasons for redacting information from the trial.

A spokesperson for the group said, ‘Parents and teachers are looking for answers about baseline, before four-year-olds are subjected to tests in September. Instead, the DfE has supplied a heavily redacted report on its recent trial.

‘Does the Government have something to hide or has it finally come to realise these tests are unfair, unreliable and useless?’

A DfE spokesperson said, ‘As part of the assessment development process, the Reception Baseline Assessment was trialled in more than 300 nationally representative schools in autumn 2018.

‘Evidence from the trial was carefully considered and used to inform the pilot – this has helped to ensure that the assessment is high-quality and appropriate.

‘It would compromise the assessment to release trial data that relates to items that might be in the final version of the assessment, therefore this has not been released.’

Expert opinion

gemma-mossGemma Moss, professor of literacy at UCL and director of the International Literacy Centre, who has studied the documents released under the FOI request, argued that the DfE ‘are spending an inordinate amount of money on tests that teachers already know the answers to’.

She told Nursery World, ‘Despite the DfE saying in the original outline they weren’t going to pay attention to age-related outcomes, the documents reveal researchers compared children’s mean score by age for the self-regulation part of the assessment.

‘The data shows that children’s mean score advanced by age, penalising younger children. Teachers said this would happen. Age makes a real difference in terms of child development.

‘This would mean if you had a large cohort of summer-born children, they would achieve lower scores than if children in a cohort were predominately born in the autumn, for instance.

‘The self-regulation element has now been shelved, but none of the documents make visible the findings for literacy and maths, which makes you wonder if the scores are even more pronounced with age?’

Professor Moss says the documents also show researchers paid attention to children with English as an additional language, when it wasn’t the DfE’s original intention.

However, she said because the tests are only conducted in English, it means they are less reliable, and any ‘delay’ has no significance for children’s future progress.

Professor Moss also told Nursery World that it is unclear whether the sample of schools in the trial included proper representation of disadvantaged pupils and schools in disadvantaged areas.

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