By Marian Sainsbury, assessment expert and NFER research associate
This kind of assessment gives a score that represents a child’s development and achievements as they start school, at the age of four or five. It can then function as a baseline measure against which later assessments examine the child’s progress.
This is the latest step in recent policy changes that have brought baseline assessment back into prominence in the national education landscape. Its previous appearance was not so long ago, in 1998, when there was also a system of accredited schemes developed by different suppliers, offering different assessment approaches for schools to choose between.
The 1998 arrangements did not last long, however, and a great deal has happened since then in early years education. There is now an Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) covering the whole period from birth to five. It has a developed philosophy involving playing and exploring, active learning and creative thinking. It applies to children in nurseries, playgroups, childminders and other settings as well as those in schools. The early years practitioners staffing these settings are trained to observe key points of children’s development as well as providing a stimulating environment for learning.
The EYFS has its own assessment, the EYFS Profile, which takes place when children reach the end of the stage at age five. Assessing very young children is not a matter of applying a test, but of making expert observations of what they can do, as they play and explore. The EYFS Profile combines these observations into a series of judgements about whether children meet the expected goals for their age.
So why baseline? The EYFS Profile is completed at the end of the school year in which children reach five, but baseline assessment takes place at the beginning of that year. The DfE says unambiguously that ‘the purpose of the reception baseline is to support the accountability framework’, giving a score to be used in assessing progress at ages seven, 11 and on to GCSE and A-level.
But it is also possible to make an educational case for baseline. Starting in a Reception class is an important step in a child’s educational career. It is the beginning of school education which will continue throughout the primary and secondary phases. Wherever children have been in their pre-school years, a positive start in Reception is a crucial springboard for later learning. Correspondingly, the Reception teacher needs to get to know each young learner quickly upon arrival in school, to plan the right learning experiences and address any difficulties. It is this natural process of finding out about each child’s personality, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses that, when formalised, becomes a Reception baseline assessment.
NFER has been involved in these developments since trialling the ‘QCA scales’ in 1996 and publishing our own National Foundation Baseline Scheme in 1998. We were commissioned to develop the original Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, in consortium with Birmingham LEA, at the turn of the century.
With this history, it is not surprising that we have also developed a Reception baseline assessment for the current context.