A Yorkshire education consultancy that employs fewer than 50 people has trained staff from around 12,000 primary schools to assess the ability of four and five-year-old children for the Government’s controversial new reception baseline assessment.
Calderdale-based Early Excellence, which was started in the late 1990s by former headteacher Liz Marsden, is now at the forefront of the new system after its bid to run the assessments for the Department for Education was successful and has proved hugely popular with schools. It is one of three bidders chosen by the DfE to offer baseline assessments to schools. Around two-thirds of primary schools nationally have chosen Early Excellence’s system.
It does not involve any formal test but does require teachers to make 47 judgements about each pupil. However, schools are left to decide how to make these assessments themselves.
From next year primary schools will be expected to test or assess reception pupils to provide the Government with a profile of each year group in order to measure the progress schools make with them. Schools can start doing the baseline reception testing this year.
The DfE said figures had not been produced showing how many schools were doing the assessments this year but Mrs Marsden said all 12,000 schools that had signed up to Early Excellence’s system were starting this academic year.
The idea of a new formal test for four-year-olds starting primary school had attracted opposition including from the National Union of Teachers and the Better Without Baseline campaign, which organised a petition to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan against the move signed by 7,350 people.
Critics say the new system will be “unreliable, statistically invalid, damaging for children, misleading for parents and stressful for teachers.”
However Liz Marsden believes Early Excellence’s approach has appealed to schools because it does not actually involve a formal test. She said: “There is the assessment community who believe that teachers’ observations cannot be relied upon to produce reliable data for results and the early years community who do not believe you cannot get accurate results from formal tests of four-year-olds.”
She said the company had tried to develop an approach which did not change the way schools operate but which provided the Government with the baseline data it wanted.
“Schools will continue to assess children as they would do normally but we have created a set of assessment criteria with teachers asked to make a series of statements for each pupil,” Mrs Marsden added.
She said the assessments included language, literacy and maths as required by the DfE as well as other areas such as a personal and social development.
However, Pam Jarvis, a senior lecturer at Leeds Trinity University’s Institute of Childhood and Education, said the overall system is flawed.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “The reception baseline has not been introduced to track the progress of individual pupils, but to capture the starting point for a cohort of children, as this is the most reliable measure.
“Most schools already do some form of assessment when children start in reception.”