Schools: Being four can be such a testing time

Forget league tables: baseline assessment is set to change the way we judge our schools, says Diana Appleyard
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The Independent Online
British primary schools are about to embark on an initiative that could prove to be at least as important as the introduction of league tables. From this September they will be legally required to formally assess - or test - every four- and five-year-old starting school.

It is hoped that this "baseline assessment" will give parents and teachers a clearer idea of how individual children should be taught in their vital first year. It should also make it easier to see how a school is performing by taking into account the quality of its pupil intake.

The objection to league tables has been that they take no account of parental background: schools in leafy suburbs do well; those in inner cities don't. Baseline assessment gets round the objection that it's all down to class and wealth. Schools will be examined for the progress they make with the children they get - and will then be compared with other, similar, schools.

Each child will be set specific targets to achieve in the very first term, based on the assessment. They will be given scores for their ability in a number of areas covering maths, language, literacy and personal and social development, and these scores will be shown to parents at their first meeting with their child's teacher. Once all the data has been collated, schools will be able to judge the overall ability of that year's intake, and compare their performance with other schools.

Tim Coulson, who is running the scheme for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says: "The most important thing is that parents will be able to see what progress their children and the school as a whole are really making, because they have a base to work from."

The scheme has been pioneered for several years in a number of local authorities, including Birmingham and Avon, and this year the QCA has been piloting the project in more than 80 per cent of primary schools around the country. Baseline assessment becomes statutory for all schools in the next school year, and more than pounds 9m of government funding has been set aside to implement it.

Mr Coulson says: "The response of the schools taking part in the pilot project so far has been extremely encouraging. At the conferences we've held up and down the country a number of heads have said, `This has changed the whole ethos of the school.'"

He adds, "The problem for many reception teachers is that children come into school with a wide variety of academic skills. Some can write their names and sound out letters with confidence; others can barely hold a pencil. If a child has a summer birthday, he or she can be almost a whole year behind others in the class. What baseline assessment does is allow the teacher to carry out a formal test which shows them exactly where the child is at - and how they go forward from there. In essence it formalises and sets an agenda for what most good reception teachers have been doing on an informal basis."

The aim is also to strengthen the link between parents and reception class teachers. "At this age the most powerful way for a child to learn is through the partnership between parent and teacher," says Mr Coulson. "Often parents don't have a clear idea of what their child can do, how they can best help them at home, and how their children are doing compared to other children in the class. The first meeting with their child's teacher can be intimidating, and sometimes parents say they feel they don't get as much information about their child as they would like - and that the meeting is over in minutes."

Baseline assessment, he says, will shape that first meeting in that the teacher will be able to point to the child's scores and then set out the targets the school now has for him or her. To many parents, this will shed light on what is happening in the classroom, which can at present seem a mystery.

Baseline assessment schemes for schools are being developed locally - primarily by local authority education departments, but in some areas by universities, research organisations and education-based private companies. In most cases, there is also consultation with reception-class teachers and heads.

Mr Coulson says the beauty of this is that the scheme can be tailored to the needs of local schools; factors such as the number of pupils who enter a school speaking English as a second language or whether the age of entry is four or five can be taken into account.

The assessments will be carried out in the first seven weeks of term. Mr Coulson explains: "In the pilot project we've seen two slightly different models emerging. In the first the child is set specific tasks and activities; perhaps they will be taken through a book and asked if they can point to some of the words, or asked to write their own name. Other teachers have a list of criteria which they assess through the normal classroom activities, and over a couple of weeks make a judgement of what stage the children are at."

There are eight areas of assessment, covering English, maths and personal development. Teachers collate their children's results then all the data is sent back to the local scheme provider, who assesses the overall "score" of the school, as well as working out data that could be useful to the school, such as an average score for summer birthday children. "It allows teachers and parents to see whether a child is under-performing - or doing exceptionally well - for what is the average at their age," says Mr Coulson.

The pounds 9m of government funding for next year works out at only a few hundred pounds per school - but it will allow reception class teachers to attend training days about the scheme, and will pay for several days of supply teacher relief so they can get on with testing individual children.

Another aim of the project is to strengthen the links between pre-school nurseries and schools by persuading nurseries to send on records about individual children to the schools, who often say they do not receive them.

This year the QCA has provided a leaflet for parents about the scheme, which answers such queries as "Should I prepare my child for baselines assessment?" (Answer: "No. In the areas that are assessed, your child's skills and capabilities grow over a long time. If you coach the child, the assessment may give only a snapshot of what they have learnt recently.") A new leaflet will be produced for September, and the QCA is soon to begin a major campaign to inform parents about baseline assessment.

Mr Coulson says: "I firmly believe this scheme will make a big difference to the relationship between primary schools and parents. I believe it will give parents far more information about the initial skills of their children, what targets they are then set and how they progress. Baseline assessment will also mean that any learning difficulties should be spotted at the earliest possible stage - and that could then make a difference to a child's entire educational future."

`Tests showed the school had a number of children with much higher than average ability for their age'

The Vineyard Primary School in Richmond, London, has been carrying out baseline assessment tests for more than a year as part of the pilot project, and the head, Sheila Wiggett, says the scheme has proved to be "incredibly useful".

"This year we had children coming into reception class from more than 20 different local nurseries, with an amazing range of ability," she says. "We carried out the assessment tests, which were developed by our local authority in consultation with our own teachers, over the first two or three weeks of term. They gave us a clear picture of the skills the children had when they started school."

She says that after analysing the children's scores, the two reception class teachers made "significant" adjustments to the curriculum they had intended to teach, to make sure they met all the needs of that year's intake. The tests showed that the school had a number of children with much higher than average ability for their age, therefore much more extension work was planned.

Sheila Wiggett adds: "It has also given us a vital early indication of any problems we may face. For example, one child scored very poorly on matching shapes and had poor listening skills, so we knew there might be a possible difficulty in learning to read."

The Vineyard carried out the tests as part of the children's normal activities. For language and literacy, for example, children were asked whether they could say the alphabet, recognise sounds such as "th" and say them, and identify their name out of a group of words. In maths, the tasks included being able to count to 10 and identify and match shapes. Sheila Wiggett says: "In personal development we were also looking at whether children could balance, if they could hop, if they could use scissors. We also looked at the child's overall confidence: how did they relate to adults, could they sit still and listen, how did they get on with other children? What we found was that it gave us an in-depth understanding of each child, because we were looking at their all-round development."

She says the tests made the first meeting with parents much more useful on both sides. "Our parents like to have concrete information about their children, and this really helped. We could say, `By the time we meet you next term, your child should be able to write their name', or, `they should be able to recognise and write the numbers one to 20' - and then advise them on what they could do to help at home." If any of the children scored very low in the tests, the school repeated them the following term to check if progress had been made.

As a result of baseline assessment, the parent-and-teacher meeting slots have been extended at the school from 10 to 20 minutes. Sheila Wiggett says the tests have proved time-consuming, but she feels they are well worth it.