Education: A little early understanding can go a long way

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The Independent Online
TEST CHILDREN at seven and you get furious teachers, boycotts, and a political storm. Test them at five, and what do you get? Horrified disbelief? A breakdown of the system? Not a bit of it. One of the paradoxes of modern education is that, despite the furore over national curriculum testing, formal tests for five-year-olds - taken in the child's first term at school - are growing in popularity.

At least a year before ministers said this week that they were considering assessing five-year-olds as part of new-style league tables to measure schools' performance, education authorities in Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Wandsworth, south London, had been running schemes in their schools. About six authorities are running pilots and others are thinking about it. The Department for Education is considering producing national guidelines.

Some schemes tell teachers exactly what to look for and how to score, others allow them more discretion. Some test more for skills and knowledge, others for attitude and behaviour. In some, parents provide most of the information, others are conducted in the classroom. But each is designed to produce a detailed record of a child's ability and experience in a variety of subjects when they start school. Teachers stress that the schemes differ in principle from the national curriculum tests given at seven because the results are not used to compare children or schools. Most teachers make a point of not calling them 'tests' - because of the associations with examination pressure and league tables - preferring to call them 'assessments' or 'screenings'. But whatever they are called, the inspiration for the schemes was the growing understanding that children's educational deficiencies need to be corrected as early as possible if they are to succeed in later years. In two influential pieces of research, published in 1987 and 1990, Peter Blatchford, senior lecturer in educational psychology at London University's Institute of Education, found that it was invariably the children who failed at five who failed later at seven and 11. 'The best predictor of a child's ranking in the 'Three Rs' at 11, is the child's ranking at five,' Dr Blatchford said.

His research prompted Anna Wright, chief educational psychologist in Surrey, to devise the Surrey scheme. 'They were absolutely shocking studies, and made us realise you have to catch the under-performers early,' she said.

Each scheme involves teachers in a great deal of work. The Surrey scheme tests children on language, literacy, mathematics, drawing, physical skills and behaviour and is one of the more academic and prescriptive. Each subject is divided into several sections, and in each section the teacher is expected to ask a series of questions. Under 'language', for instance, there is a section called 'sound categorisation and phonological awareness'. In it, teachers are expected to find out whether the child can recite a nursery rhyme, spot rhyming words, and repeat three-syllable and four-syllable words accurately.

Shirley Rump, headteacher at Eastwick County First School in Surrey, said her staff were happy to conduct the tests. 'They are worth the effort, because they mean the school can plan properly for each child,' she said.

Buckinghamshire's county-wide scheme - the Buckinghamshire Observation Procedure (BOP) - is far less prescriptive than Surrey's, but no less time-consuming. First, a long questionnaire is sent to parents, who are then interviewed about their child by the school. Teachers then write a report on what they consider are the child's strengths and weaknesses in various subjects. The scheme does not prescribe questions, and there is no scoring.

PRIMARY school teachers have always made informal assessments of their five-year-olds, , according to Steph Neale, headteacher of Beatrix Potter Primary School in Wandsworth. But their assessments were not always rigorous or unbiased. 'The advantage of a standardised test is that it tells teachers what parameters to use in making their judgements, and it helps reduce inconsistencies,' he said. But for Mr Neale, its primary benefit is that it allows schools to show their 'value added' score - the amount they have increased their pupils' knowledge and skills - should they find themselves low on the league table of schools following SATs at seven. 'It is a wonderful weapon for us. It gives us evidence. We can say to the local authority: look where we started from. You can't make total geniuses if you start with this,' he said.

The discovery of educational imbalances at five raises the question, 'why?' Tony Cline, senior educational psychologist at London's Institute of Education, said it comes down to how early a child is introduced to the 'Three Rs' and starts learning. 'Of course there are genetic differences between people, but most differences in ability at five are based on differences in experience,' he said.

The idea may come as a surprise for many teachers, according to Mr Neale. There had been a tendency, he said, to assume that children came to school at five on a level pegging. 'But the assessments have shown us that there are some five-year-olds who are already well into reading and writing from previous experience. It was amazing to realise,' he said.

So the spotlight is on parents, illuminating the responsibility they have for starting their child's education in pre-school years. This may seem an alarming prospect for parents. For those in Surrey, help may be found in a booklet, Right From the Start (Surrey County Council, pounds 1.50), that explains how they can help their children to learn from the age of four.

(Photograph omitted)