Plans to roll out the testing of four-year-olds in their first weeks at school have been unveiled by the government in the face of widespread hostility from many teachers who have vowed to oppose the new assessments.
Ministers say the controversial new baseline assessments in reception classes will measure the progress a child makes from the start of primary school to the age of 11 and provide a fairer measure of the effectiveness of schools.
Critics of the test are concerned that children will be labelled as low ability at the very start of their formal education, and argue there is no research which indicates that four-year-olds can be reliably tested.
Announcing that the £10m contract to develop the new test is to be awarded to the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), the school standards minister, Nick Gibb, said: “This quick, simple assessment will us help to capture the progress that children make throughout primary school and provide a fairer measure for school accountability.”
The test will take 20 minutes and its aim is to assess communication, language, literacy and mathematics skills. It has won the support of some teachers’ leaders as it replaces current statutory tests sat by seven-year-olds at the end of year two, thus reducing high-stakes testing in primary schools.
The Department for Education said no preparation would be required for the new test – to be rolled out to all schools in England by the end of 2020 – and the material covered would already be familiar to many children.
However, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the charity the Pre-school Learning Alliance, warned that it risked putting pressure on the youngest children and would encourage the coaching of preschoolers to ensure they were test ready. “The simple fact is that no test-condition assessment can be designed well enough to reflect the complexities and variation of a child in reception,” said Leitch.
“A baseline test – conducted on a tablet and before a teacher has had a chance to develop a relationship with the child – won’t tell teachers anything about the children they work with and won’t be of any use to parents.
“Instead, what it will do is pile pressure on to our very youngest children: from those forced to sit an exam at the tender age of four to those in settings under pressure to get preschoolers test ready.”
The government attempted to introduce baseline assessments for reception classes in 2015, but they had to be scrapped because the DfE insisted on using several private providers. Research showed the different assessments were incomparable.
Earlier this month the National Education Union (NEU) called for a boycott of the latest version of the new test. Its joint general secretary, Mary Bousted, said: “We are deeply concerned that a baseline test will lead to four-year-olds with SEND [special educational needs and disabilities] or who are very young being labelled as low ability. Our own research … demonstrates that this limits children’s educational opportunities through their entire school life.”
Madeleine Holt of More Than a Score – an alliance of parents, teachers and educational experts who oppose the current system of primary assessment – said: “There is no research evidence that four-year-olds can be reliably tested. The government has certainly not produced any.
“The score that the baseline test produces will not be a true picture of what children can do – yet it will be used to judge schools seven years later to assess whether they have enabled children to make enough progress.”
There was conditional support from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). Its deputy general secretary, Nick Brook, said: “Developing a reliable and workable baseline assessment that does not hinder teachers and children in those important first few months of school is fraught with difficulty.
“Get it right, however, with the associated removal of SATs at the end of year two, and we should finally start to see the reduction in the volume of high-stakes testing in primary that NAHT has long called for.”