Back To Baseline

20/09/2017 15:12 BST | Updated 20/09/2017 15:12 BST

The government has announced for the third time in 15 years that they intend to impose a baseline test on four-year-old children on entry to the Reception class in primary school. The first attempt at baseline between 1997 and 2002 was abandoned because it did not support individual children's learning and development, and did not give a measure of school effectiveness. The second attempt, in 2015, was abandoned because the tests showed 'showed wide variations in outcomes' in the pilot year. Nursery World claims that the 2015 'attempt to introduce baseline cost taxpayers up to £7m, and that... it was a waste of time and money'.

So what is the enduring attraction of 'baseline' for the government; why do they see it as so important that they have attempted, across subsequent Parliaments which have included both Labour and Conservative administrations, to introduce it again and again? For this, we have to look to the neoliberal culture that has underpinned UK governance since its introduction by the Thatcher government of the 1980s, with its roots in the relentless measurement of individuals, which has resulted in the 'new managerialism... the organisational arm of neoliberalism'. It is within this culture that the concept of 'baselining' four year olds was conceived.

The aim of the baseline test is to allocate a single statistic to each child on the basis of his/her 'school readiness'. How the school readiness concept will be constructed for the baseline exercise is not yet entirely clear; however following the announcement of the revival of baseline plans, the TES published an article which claimed that it boiled down to testing whether four year olds were 'able to read to a high enough level by the time they begin school'. In comparison, UNICEF's definition based upon a review of the international developmental literature, defined school readiness as 'a combination of three domains: learned behaviours such as knowing colours and shapes, counting numbers and saying letters of the alphabet; attitude and emotional competence, as in listening to directions, being interested in learning and behaving in a socially acceptable manner; and developmental maturation, including fine and gross motor development and sitting still for an appropriate period of time'. Of course, it is very difficult to devise a test which results in a single numerical score for this latter definition, hence the previous abandoned attempts to instigate baseline testing. It remains to be seen whether or not the DFE intends to utilise the former definition of 'school readiness' advocated by the TES in the new attempt at 'baseline'.

The key idea behind baseline is that the statistic generated from an individual child will be plotted on a graph that will allegedly accurately predict the child's future progress, and collations of such predictions for cohorts of children will then be used as an 'accountability' measure to apply to individual teachers and schools, as 'baselined' children progress through the system. Therefore, beyond the problem of transforming a four year old to a single number on a statistical chart, there is the issue of how such a practice will unfold over time across an increasingly 'datafied' state schools sector.

We are already beginning to see that current, less parsimonious statistical evaluation of teachers and schools has had the result of reconstructing children as 'abilities machines' within the school environment. This creates the danger that surreptitious measures will be taken to remove those who might depress the teacher's performance management spreadsheet or the school's position in the league tables; for example asking sixth formers scoring below the A/B level to leave school before sitting their final exams. This comes down particularly hard on children with Special Educational Needs, who, the TES reports, are already being stealthily 'offloaded', added to The Independent's report that children with autism spectrum disorder are at especial risk of exclusion. The TES quotes figures that indicate school exclusion rates overall have 'skyrocketed' by as much as 300% over the past year, while accomplished ex-head Colin Harris reflects 'we have reached the stage where our pupils are now just numbers in a giant machine'. Baselining four year olds on school entry will only act to intensify this process, which will no doubt be of great concern to teachers, head teachers and parents from Reception to Year 13.

As a chartered psychologist, I understand the value of data in educational research and innovation as I have previously explained on this blog; what I am questioning here is the data collection method indicated within the current baseline proposals and the ways in which the government subsequently intend to use the statistics generated, particularly given this administration's past record on the use of statistical data. There is also the element of experimentation in the initiation of such an as yet unpiloted 'high stakes' assessment for four year olds, that standard ethical practice would indicate necessitates a formal request to parents for their explicit consent to their child's participation, which does not yet appear to have been considered. In conclusion, there are several issues currently surrounding the proposed Baseline policy that call for urgent national discussion amongst parents and teachers across the entire state education system, early years, primary and secondary.