Interview: Fran Watson

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Chair of the joint primary group of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics and The Mathematical Association


Your group recently wrote to education secretary Nicky Morgan about your concerns about the early years baseline assessment, why?

We represent a group whose members have a particular interest and expertise in primary maths, including teachers, teacher trainers and academics. Our members believe the new baseline is costly, inappropriate and flawed in terms of both reliability and accountability.
All the Reception teachers we spoke to make ongoing assessments of children as a daily part of their job. But there is danger in attaching such heavy weighting to an unreliable snapshot of a child at such a fluctuating and crucial stage in their development.
Why do you think the score allocated to baseline tests will be ‘meaningless’?

A Reception baseline will not compare like with like. Reception children will be of significantly different ages when assessed: comparing the scores of a four-year-old with a five-year-old is akin to comparing those of a 12-year-old with a 15-year-old. The difference is phenomenal and magnified by their stage of development.
Some schools will not use the baseline at all, while those that do will be using different baseline checks, so they will not be comparable against each other. Junior or middle schools won’t have to use the Reception baseline at all, instead measuring their progress from Key Stage 1 data, and primary schools can choose to use it or another measure of progress by the end of Key Stage 2.
Finally, it would appear to be in schools’ interests to obtain low baseline scores, to both benefit from ‘low prior attainment funding’(DfE, 2014) and to demonstrate ‘progress into Key Stages 1 and 2’.
What are your recommendations regarding mathematical assessments in particular?

Teachers need help to assess our youngest children in ways supported by research findings, rather than engaging in time-consuming activities of questionable merit.
One reliable assessment of a Reception child’s number knowledge is their ability to count out a small number of items from a larger amount. This task is replicated easily, with a variety of materials in different contexts, and predicts ability to access later mathematics (Gifford).
The Government should also replace costly baseline proposals with the funding of mathematical professional development for early years practitioners to address teacher confidence in subject knowledge and pedagogy, including effective assessment.

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