There are few steeper learning curves in teaching, particularly for those only familiar with the tail end of a primary school, than spending time in a Reception class. Often in close proximity to Year One, along a corridor or down some stairs, they may as well be on different planets. Year One has more in common with Year Six than it does with a Reception class – the ordered timetable, the sitting at desks, the ‘going to big assembly’. Reception class is different and fascinating.
There’s something precious about a child’s time in the early years. It’s the gentle, skilled bridge-building from home to school, and from play into learning that marks out this unique year. To the untrained eye, a Reception class can appear chaotic and free-flowing in a way that can baffle a teacher of older children; the laughing, the painting, the singing, the dressing up, the running around, the squidging, the squashing, the mixing, the pouring. And all of it happening at once.
But this is the very essence of learning and development and it doesn’t happen by accident. Activities are carefully and meticulously planned, children are observed closely and listened to with care, enthusiasm and interest is harnessed. The bridges to the more formal learning are built and tested. Early years teachers, my cap has been doffed, my head is respectfully bowed.
So, upon this hallowed, glitter-strewn turf stomps the clumsy, ill-informed plan to introduce a baseline test for children in Reception. Note the word ‘test’. This is not an informed baseline measure but a ‘test’. This is objectionable for a number of reasons.
Firstly, a test of what exactly? At this age children are limited more by their experience not by their cognitive ability. If they have seen a boat they are likely to recognise the picture of a boat in a book. If they have been to a farm they will know what a cow looks like. Not knowing what a boat or a cow is tells us nothing about a child’s cognitive ability. What exactly will the test tell us? More to the point, what test is so sophisticated that it will tell you all that you need to know about a child so they can be reliably tracked for the next six years of their lives?
Second, the age of a child matters more when they are younger. There may be as much as 11 months difference between the youngest and oldest in the class. As a proportion of their lives this difference is massive. Excuse the crude maths, but let’s say the age of the oldest could be about a quarter more than the youngest child. Would it make sense to compare a 10 year old with a 12 or 13 year old, or a 15 year old with a 19 year old? Nope, of course not.
Third, this ignores the incredibly detailed assessments already undertaken in Reception class. Anyone who has seen the amount of data generated by early years teachers, spanning everything from physical and emotional development to literacy and mathematics, would be hard pushed to say schools are ignorant of a five-year old child’s understanding and abilities. The difference is that these assessments are drawn from skilful observations and carried out over time. It’s not a test which relies on jumping through a hoop on a particular day. It seems that underpinning the proposals for a test lies a distrust of teachers and their judgements.
Fourth, this disregards the real and very fixable problem which is the clumsy and muddled transition from early years assessments to the assessments in Year One and up. Schools have long struggled with how to translate early years assessments into National Curriculum Levels. They are two separate systems established without regard to the other. The subtle observations in the early years are folded and crammed to fit it into the broad levels of a 1c or a 1b or more. Spend a year tending a precious orchid then stuff the stem into a vase so small that the delicate petals are crushed.
There has long been a need here, not to abolish levels as the Government is doing, but to reform them and, critically, to make the assessments made in Reception flow more clearly and more thoughtfully into Year One. Such changes would mean progress could be gauged, without the unnecessary sledgehammer of a test.
And last but not least, they’re too young for a test. Back off. Trust the teachers. Leave the kids alone.