16 Sep '13

News Why I believe we should test pupils at age four

Assessment as a child enters education would help measure true progress from starting school to leaving for key stage three

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has long fought our obsessive reliance on only what can be measured. We have pointed out the many flaws in our formal tests, and we have even been to the barricades over the issue.

So my following statement ought to at least have some novelty value: I believe we should seriously consider assessing children on entry to primary school.

Every school already assesses children as they enter compulsory education. It is part of effective planning to meet each child's needs. The question is whether it should play a formal role in the education system.

I firmly believe that the performance of schools should be measured in terms of progress; the distance travelled from when a child arrives at the school and when they leave. To use the jargon, this is the "value" that a school adds.

In order to measure progress, you need a baseline. You need to know where a child started from. Today this baseline is set at the age of seven, three years after a child starts school. This means that all the effort and investment that takes place in the early years – a pivotal age – is wasted in measuring a school's performance.

This system makes no sense to me, and the incentives are obviously perverse.

It's hard to see how the results of a baseline on entry could be held against a school. A low set of results merely indicates that the school serves an especially challenging intake. Tests at seven, by contrast, do become a judgment on the school's performance at key stage one.

What of the interests of the child? Early assessment of need and intervention are usually seen as central to their interests, but two possible objections arise – age variability, and the cruelty of testing.

A valid case could be made to allow children to settle in and get used to an institutional setting. However, I would suggest that the fact that a child is unsettled in a school setting is a rather important piece of baseline data.

The issue of age, however, is valid. In reception classes, the age difference between summer born and winter born children can be as much as a quarter of their lifespan. That will make a big difference and any assessments should be age adjusted to take this into account. This is a feasible modification.

So what about the experience of being tested? The mental image of a class full of four and five year olds sitting down in an exam hall and turning over their papers on the clock is clearly ludicrous. One butterfly outside the window and the day is lost.

Any assessment of young children (and my choice of word there is significant) must be administered by teachers. It cannot be a formal exam. It can be quite structured, but a teacher will need to manage a child's attention and concentration, picking the right moment. A teacher can also handle this sensitively and build the child's confidence.

I think we should take advantage of the government's consultation on primary assessment to think very carefully about baseline assessment.

There is one proviso. The government has devalued testing through a succession of poorly conceived and poorly designed tests which distract teachers, punish schools and pigeon-hole children.

If a decent baseline matters, we should clear the decks for it. The early years profile, the phonics screening check and the key stage one SATs must all be made non-statutory. Although assessment is certainly a key part of education, we want to spend as much time teaching and as little time testing as possible.

Russell Hobby is the general secretary of NAHT, the National Association of Head Teachers

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