School tests are a welcome tool for improving primary education

If teachers are to get up to the standards of the best, it makes sense to give them a template from which to work

Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, has learnt one thing from the problems faced by her predecessors. The new baseline tests for four and five-year-olds will be voluntary. This is the sensible response to the threat by National Union of Teachers to boycott them. The plan is to encourage schools in England to adopt them because they would be recognised by Ofsted inspectors as examples of good practice.

That way, if the tests turn out to be useful in practice, schools and teachers will be keen to adopt them and the opposition of the NUT will fade away. Our view is that the tests are likely to help teachers work more effectively, and that the NUT’s fears about exposing children to formal testing too young will prove unfounded.

As our education editor reports today, the tests would take the form of a one-to-one conversation between pupil and teacher. This would be designed to find out how familiar children are with letters and simple maths concepts. As Professor Robert Coe, whose Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University designed the tests, says, “You can learn a lot about a child in 20 minutes.”

We suspect that the NUT may be confusing “formal” and “systematic”. There is much to be said for learning what children know and what they can do in an informal setting but in a systematic way. Good teachers would have this basic information about their pupils anyway. Good teaching needs to start with a clear idea of what children know. If all teachers are to get up to the standards of the best, it makes sense to give them a template from which to work.

The NUT is of course right that four and five is too young to start pencil-and-paper testing. Many children would benefit from delaying the start of formal learning until much later, but that is not an argument against collecting basic information of this kind. 

It is a less important point, but one of the advantages of the Durham test is its flexibility. It would be possible, if children were capable, to go up to questions as hard as “What is 45 plus 19?” As Professor Coe says, “The proportion of four-year-olds who could do that may be quite small but – in the past – these children have been hidden because nobody knows who they are.” This is a welcome feature. One of the most encouraging developments in English schools in the past two decades has been the spread of high expectations of all pupils, and there should be no cap on expectations even in the first few years of primary school.

The other fear expressed by the opponents of baseline tests is that the results would be used to assess teachers or schools. Plainly, it would be absurd for the tests’ raw scores to be used in this way, as the purpose is to assess children before teachers have got to work on them. It is important to note, however, that Professor Coe is also opposed to using the tests as the starting point on which to construct “value-added” scores, to show how much progress has been made under the guidance of teachers or the school. “Seven years is too long to wait to see if a child has made good progress or not,” he says.

Inevitably, if the tests do produce useful information, the results are likely to be used in this way. In so far as they can offer a measure of each pupil’s progress, they will be a better record of  a school’s achievement than any single set of tests at the end  of primary school. We should be cautious about this, but more information about schools and their pupils (in aggregate) is always a good thing.

If these tests are well designed and sensitively implemented, they could be a powerful tool for improving primary education in England or, indeed, in the rest of the UK. We believe that the opposition to them will fade over time.

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