Only two years ago, when the Government was in the thick of the teacher boycotts over testing, introducing yet more controversial tests would have been unthinkable. The fact that it is now being considered is a testimony not only to the settling of the testing row but to the fact that without it, an accurate assessment of the effectiveness of primary schools is difficult.
If children were all tested at the age of five, the Government could compare the results with those of national curriculum tests at seven and 11, to gain a fuller picture of primary schools' performance.
More than a dozen local authorities, as well as many individual schools, are developing their own models of baseline assessment. These vary considerably: some rely mainly on teacher observation, others combine it with a standardised test; some confine the test toreading, writing and maths, while others also assess aspects of behaviour; some make a greater effort than others to include information supplied by parents.
For some schools or authorities, providing a baseline against which to measure future progress may not be their main aim in carrying out the assessment. Teachers may be more interested in finding out about individuals so as to plan their teaching more effectively, or identify more quickly children with special needs.
Wandsworth's baseline assessment scheme is in its third year, and this summer the authority will be one of the first to gain information about the "value added" in its primary schools, when its seven-year-olds sit national tests. Steve Strand, head of research and evaluation in Wandsworth, is optimistic: "I would hope, in general, that having this sort of structure in assessing children at five would lead to higher standards, because their work is focused from the start. In my view, a lot of time is lost in reception classes by having too many unstructured play activities."
All Wandsworth's primary schools test their new intake during a three- week period in the autumn term. The test consists of two parts: a "checklist", compiled by the teacher, covering social and emotional development, motor skills, language, maths and science; and the Linguistic Awareness in Reading Readiness (Larr) test, adapted by Wandsworth and published by NFER-Nelson.
The Larr test takes about 25 minutes to carry out on a group of four children, and asks them to show they understand the purpose of reading and writing, and technical terms such as "letter" or "top line".
While the checklist has proved a success with Wandsworth's teachers, Dr Strand admits that, initially at least, they were less positive about the Larr test. "I think teachers find it hard to sit back and watch their pupils make mistakes," he says.
Keith Nettle, publishing director at NFER-Nelson, one of the biggest test publishers, says demand for baseline tests has increased dramatically in the past few years. The Larr test has a reasonable take-up, but is less popular than the widely used Early Years Easy Screen (Eyes), which checks, for example, how well a child can control a pencil and his or her vocabulary and reading skills.
Knowing what stage different children have reached enables the teacher to group them for certain activities from the start. Exceptionally able children and those with learning difficulties can be identified and helped more quickly, as can quieter children who might otherwise get overlooked. A more formal system of assessment is likely to be fairer, protecting children from the inevitable biases that affect informal observation.
A baseline scheme can be a good starting point for home-school dialogue. Surrey's scheme, in operation for two years, involves parents before the child starts school, by making available Getting Ready For School packs, devised by educational psychologists together with teachers.
"Year R Screening" takes places in all Surrey schools in the term in which the child is five, and comprises a mix of teacher observation and activities for the children, such as drawing a person and reciting a nursery rhyme. Once the assessment is complete, a resource pack for teachers offers guidance on how to proceed in each area, and as with the Wandsworth scheme, the local authority provides some extra funding for schools with low overall scores.
The test itself takes about an hour per child, which has provoked complaints from teachers, and it is being slimmed down. Sonya Hinton, educational psychologist in Surrey, acknowledges that tests of this kind could make children anxious "if the school took a competitive view of them", but this hasn't happened because schools are not out to get the best possible results at five, but at seven.
Other criticisms of baseline tests are that they might place children too rigidly in categories from which it is hard to escape; or that they tend to measure not necessarily what is of most value, but what is most easily measured. And although more and more teachers are asking for help with assessing five-year-olds - Rotherham, for instance, a Labour-controlled authority, is looking into early assessment schemes "in response to teachers' need" - the teacher's unions remain deeply suspicious of anything linked with league tables and the notion of value added.
"The trouble with any form of value-adding is that people inevitably concentrate on getting to the schools that demonstrate successful value- adding, and that becomes the focus instead of taking time to help a particular child," says Arthur De Caux, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "Instead of doing what they believe to be in the best interests of the child, teachers will be tempted to do things which produce a good score for the school in terms of value added. Although they may get the child to jump through the required hoops at five, or seven, the damage may be that the child's ability to progress is hampered."Reuse content