The latest controversy to hit early years education is baseline assessment. This is the Government's name for a new, official assessment for when children start school. Leaving aside the unfortunate name, it's purpose is hardly an innovation. During their first few weeks at school, reception class children are already assessed using tests or teacher observation. This means that the improvement in a child's ability in the coming years can be compared to their starting point to see how much progress has been made. Judgements can then be made about the effectiveness of the school.
Assessment forms an important part of our education system, allowing teachers to identify and work on a child's weakness and to let parents know how their child is performing and how they can help their child progress. However, questions are currently being raised by teachers and parents about how this new system will work.
The Government has made the decision to allow schools to pick their own assessment, which is making achieving a degree of standardisation of the tests - the very thing that would make the data worthwhile - extremely difficult. Some schools are opting for testing where children are asked to complete a selection of tasks. Others, the majority, have decided to skip the formal tests and allow teachers to assess their young pupils through their own observations. Some have decided their newest and youngest pupils can get on better without being tested at this stage and have decided to pass on the whole enterprise. Their pupils will be assessed at the end of Key Stage 1 instead.
Without a doubt, assessing children and tracking their progress is important, yet this government has a record of causing chaos in our assessment and testing system. The constant chop and change we have seen includes swapping grades for numbers, withdrawing the levels assessment system without any regard to what would replace them and even reviewing the Government's own new primary tests and assessments that ministers have previously promoted. In this context, baseline tests are yet more evidence of the piecemeal approach this Government has to assessment, with no joined-up approach to accurately assessing the progress children make through school.
It's no wonder parents are scratching their heads, wondering where their children are up to and teachers are tearing their hair out.
A sensitively conducted observation of a child carried out by a well trained professional reception teacher will help identify needs earlier for some children. Any assessment that measures performance in early years could raise the status of this all too often neglected phase of education. If performance is measured, performance improves.
But to realise these benefits we need valid assessment tools, the confidence of the professionals administering them and a clear sense of the purpose of the test. A far better approach from the Government would have been to pilot baseline testing, examine its usefulness in assessing pupil progress and work with teachers to determine how and when it can most helpfully be done. Instead, and as ever with this government, we have a poorly designed system that does not hold the confidence of parents and teachers.
We need a system that tracks progress through a child's education, and has the confidence of parents and teachers and delivers for children. The government's lack of a joined-up approach to assessment throughout school life and a clear vision for what assessment should achieve means that the government are setting themselves up to fail.
The priority for assessment should always be to support children to learn, rather than simply as a stick to beat schools with. We need an approach that enables parents and teachers to each play their role in our education system effectively, and that clears up the chaos and confusion in the system that is holding progress back.
Jenny Chapman MP is Labour's Shadow Minister for Childcare and Early Years