How the new pupils score at St Peter's

Diana Hinds assesses the value of 'baseline tests' for measuring the effectiveness of schools and helping teachers to plan their work
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The Independent Online
When Victoria Kelly's new class of four- to five-year-olds started school last September at St Peter's Church of England Infants School in Harborne, Birmingham, two of the children could count up to 100, while others could not make it up to five.

Such a range, in terms of children's ability and previous experience, is what most reception teachers expect. But Mrs Kelly, teaching this age- group for the first time, was greatly assisted in her task of quickly sorting the children and giving them appropriate work to do by Birmingham's baseline assessment scheme.

"Without it, I would have had to devise my own assessments, and it would have taken longer. But it gave me a tool, and within a few weeks I was able to put them into ability groups, which have since proved to be the right groups, as there have been very few alterations."

The assessment scheme, developed by the local authority and headteachers, is closely related to the national curriculum and concentrates on maths and English. Through teacher observation, each child is assessed for English, in speaking and listening, reading and writing, and for maths, in number, algebra, shape and space, and handling data. Teachers then confer, and place the child on a scale from 0 to 3.

In algebra, for instance (for which the assessment might be carried out while a group of children works with coloured beads), a child would score one for being able to copy a pattern, two for devising a repeated pattern, and three for devising and describing a repeated pattern in numerical terms (such as one yellow bead, three red beads). In writing, a child who enjoys using writing materials scores one, using pictures or isolated letters and words to communicate meaning scores two, and writing in simple sentences, three.

School participation in the scheme is voluntary, but this year, its second year, more than two-thirds of Birmingham primary schools took part. In some cases, the assessment is carried out in the nursery class in July, and the results passed on to the reception teacher. Teachers receive half a day's training, and are required to submit their scores to the local authority.

The main purpose is to provide information that can be used to measure the "value added" by schools when children take national tests at seven. David Blunkett, Labour education spokesman, is taking a keen interest in the Birmingham model. But many of those involved say, value-adding aside, there have been other benefits.

"There is known to be a correlation between children's achievement at five and at seven, and we now have data showing that children who have been in a nursery class or school perform better in the assessments at five than those who have not," explains David Bartlett, Birmingham's assessment co-ordinator. "This reinforces our policy of aiming to make a nursery place available for every four-year-old who wants it."

Elaine Davis, a reception teacher at St Peter's, says the assessment has helped her to plan her teaching. "You also get to know the children better, because you are calling them over in ones and twos. If you see them only as a class, it is quite easy to miss one or two out."

Children with special needs benefit in particular, she believes. "You can sort them out more quickly and help them, rather than letting them struggle. And with the brighter ones, you can set their work at a higher level straight away."

Ros Jones, deputy head of St Peter's and a member of Birmingham's baseline project team, says the assessment is extremely useful when teachers meet parents, a month after their children have started school, and incorporate details about what they have done at home. "It means we have something written down to show them. Parents like to see that you know a lot about their child. They also like to know that you value what they are telling you about the child's life at home."