While the new curriculum undoubtedly presents both challenges and opportunities, as a parent, one of the changes that most interests me is the abandonment of the old NC levels and the new baseline assessment for Reception children.
When I was pregnant with my son I remember being utterly astonished by the number of people who commiserated with me that I was having a summer-born baby – and a boy to boot (gasp!). Having never before thought about family planning in terms of school-readiness, it was news to me that my unborn child was already at a disadvantage. In any case, I was naively confident that I would be able to provide sufficient learning support at home for him never to feel the drag effect of being younger than his peers.
Fast forward a couple of years, however, and suddenly we’re facing the reality of our son’s position as baby of the class. Thankfully, he had many of the soft-skills in place to make starting school a non-traumatic experience for him. Socially, he is excellent. He has great confidence, an easy manner, is kind and sharing and has not a shred of malice in him. Ready for formal learning though? Not quite.
In a vain attempt to mitigate his summer-baby disadvantage I had intended to ensure he was able to recite and recognise the alphabet and numbers 1-20 before he started school. Yet however much I tried, he wasn’t interested. For an illustration of the phrase ‘blood out of a stone’ see my son, age 3 and 11 months, obstinately refusing to engage with his silly, pushy mother. He simply didn’t have the ability to focus for any length of time on something he was not particularly bothered about.
I’m hugely grateful to his teachers for the incredible progress he has made in only two terms. It is testament both to their skills and patience. He is able to decode a little, is starting to show real interest in reading and has good number recognition. Even so, it became clear over the course of his parent-teacher consultation a couple of weeks ago that while his progress is reasonable relative to his starting point, it is underwhelming in the context of the class as a whole. His (lack of) concentration is the biggest issue, and while this should resolve as he matures, it does mean that he is not making the huge learning strides forward that he would need to have done in order for him to make comfortable transition into Year 1.
My son’s teacher is very experienced and in no way worried about him from an educational needs point of view. However, she was at pains to point out that from Year 1, when assessment ceases to be linked to age in months, and instead becomes linked to a set standard of criteria by school year, he will appear – if only on paper – to be falling behind. She was also quick to reassure me that he will level out with the rest of the class eventually, but nevertheless I can’t help fretting a little about what effect ‘falling behind’ would have on his morale, or on the teacher’s perception of him, or on the way he is treated in class. Will he be aware that he isn’t on a par with others? Will he be pigeon-holed as ‘slow’ or worse, disruptive? Does falling behind at this stage mean he’ll always be on the back-foot – right up to his A-levels? (OK, mummy-anxiety may be going a little overboard here).
Hence, while I disagree heartily with ‘testing’ 4 year olds in any format that would be intrusive or stressful, my son’s situation has highlighted to me the potential benefit of a baseline assessment. His teacher spent the first month or so of the Autumn term evaluating each of her pupils’ skills in reading, writing and maths anyway. Wouldn’t a more formal, DfE-supported baseline check mean that this kind of information could be used to evaluate his progress throughout Primary rather than just until the end of his Reception year? And that therefore his progress over the coming year and beyond can be judged relative to his own starting point rather than seen as still failing to reach a bar that is set too high for his age and maturity? It seems arbitrary to expect all children to reach the exact same level within the exact same timeframe each year in the way that the NC levelling imposed. A child-centred approach to progress allows the system to absorb the peaks and troughs of each individual’s learning, so that children are not penalised for failing to reach the finishing line en masse.
I do hope that I am not being characteristically naïve, and that the baseline check won’t simply become another administrative and costly burden for schools, or a new stick to beat teachers with. I fervently hope that this isn’t a covert means of bringing formal education even further forward, forcing Early Years providers to school four-year olds to pass a test at the end of the EYFS rather than easing them gradually into learning in a play-based environment.
However, if done in the spirit in which I hope it is intended, it seems to me that a baseline assessment could also be a positive for teachers, relieving some of the pressure on them to squeeze all their pupils into little progress boxes. As the new curriculum talks often about helping all children to achieve higher standards, it is logical to have a system in place that allows teachers to be rewarded for their impact on each individual child, rather than one that belittles that impact on children who are starting from further back, whether that’s a product of their age, social environment, not having English as their first language, or simply not having a natural ability or inclination for a particular subject.
Teachers work miracles – even with excitable dreamers like my son – and I hope this new system will help this to be recognised by the inspectors. And of course, with my mummy heart, I hope it will also mean that my son can be recognised for the bright little man I know he is.