THE BLOG

Is Testing Four-Year-Olds Really a Bad Thing?

28/03/2014 11:36 GMT | Updated 27/05/2014 10:59 BST

As parents we want the best for our children. For me, I want to know that the school my child attends has his / her interests at heart. I want to know that the school, and my child's teachers, know my child's specific needs and understand how to help them learn. Yesterday the government confirmed it's decision to go ahead with plans to introduce compulsory testing for children who enter Reception, starting from September 2016. The assessments, which will take place during the first four weeks of Reception, will give teachers a clear indication of a child's abilities at the point they enter the education system. It is hoped that this new baselining system will give a better indication of a school's overall performance by tracking the progress of a child's attainment from the moment they enter formal education.

Not surprisingly this announcement has been met by suspicion from parents and teachers who see it as another layer of bureaucracy, as well as being too early for children to be tested. Parents fear it will judge children unfairly, particularly those children born in the summer months, having only just turned four when they enter Reception. But the question is, are these tests something new or do good schools already have a way of measuring aptitude from the start?

Performance Indicators for Primary Schools (PIPS) created by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) are currently used by many schools as a way of measuring a child's attainment from an early age. So are these tests a complicated and daunting process that a child has to go through? Educational Psychologist, and Founder of Homeschool Connect, Dr Sangeeta Silva, doesn't think so. Dr Silva says "done in the right way, assessments for children starting reception can be a good thing. It can give an indication about where a child is and can help track progress." So what are PIPS? Established in 1991, PIPS are a standardised assessment system designed to monitor pupils' educational progress during the Reception year. According to the CEM web site,

"PIPS provides an assessment of attainment in the areas of reading, mathematics and phonological awareness. By assessing children when they enter Reception and then again just before they leave, allows teachers to build a powerful profile of individual progress for every child throughout the Reception year.  Comparisons with national data also enables teachers to highlight gifted and talented/SEN pupils early on in their educational career."

The CEM clearly outline how the assessment takes place on their web site. Children are not expected to know their phonics, or solve mathematical equations - a misconception held by a number of parents. What we need to do is understand where a baseline assessment might take us, and what it could mean for each individual child. Speaking about what impact such assessments might have on children, Dr Silva comments "what the government are proposing is extremely useful, because as we know without basic skills there are huge attainment gaps. For every child that can access the test it is a good measure, schools have an obligation to educate everybody."

The new tests will mean that there will no longer be a hiding place for underperforming schools, and teachers will need to focus their efforts on the children identified as needing the most support. Resistance from parents may be from a lack of understanding, from not knowing what their child will go through - or indeed whether they will be measured against their peers. Dr Silva says, "I don't know how much parents understand about assessments and the different forms of it. I think parents are scared of the pressure. I imagine that it will be a twenty minute assessment, visual, conceptual and verbal reasoning, with children giving their answers orally, backed up with observational information. I think parents might be frightened of the image that they might get. Good schools do both, they might do a one-on-one twenty minute assessments, but then supplement it with observational information."

Some parents have commented that the tests will mean that children will be pressured to work harder from an earlier age. But is this necessarily such a bad thing? Having scored badly on PISA late last year shouldn't we be moving closer to improving educational attainment? Isn't it paramount that we instil a culture of learning from the very beginning? It seems simple enough, but as with any new policy, only time will tell. What parents need to understand is where these tests will eventually take us. Tests, whichever age they are undertaken, are not simply a pressure vault where children are expected to perform, but can over time improve the long-term chances of children, and hopefully, their overall quality of life.