Baseline Testing – Should Our Four Year Olds Be Sitting Exams?

The UK government wants to introduce baseline testing; an initiative that requires children to take a formal test at the very start of their school careers, as they join Reception, to establish their academic ability and, in turn, dictate their academic future.

Baseline Testing. Young child writing.

Before Caterpillar started school last September we had a home visit from his teachers. He’d already been attending half days at the nursery class for a year and I was keen to find out how things were going to change and what new, more formal structures would be put in place now he was in “proper school”. As a child of the eighties this is all I’d ever known – desks, blackboards and exercise books from day dot.

But by the end of that home visit I felt excited for Caterpillar but perplexed as it seemed the structure of classes wasn’t really going to change much at all. The children would still be free to choose where and how they wanted to play for large chunks of the school day; nothing like what I was expecting.  One and a half terms in and I’m perplexed no more. In fact, I’m completed thrilled with Caterpillar’s school and the way that they teach there. He is happy, settled and, importantly, he has learnt a huge amount.  I’ve quickly realised that letting go of our ancient ideas about how children should be taught is in the very best interest of our children. And this means more play, more socialising, less rigidity and absolutely no baseline testing.

What is a modern Reception class like?

We all know getting information out of your child about their school day is one of parenting’s biggest challenges but from what I can gather Caterpillar’s day consists of three to four short periods of “carpet time” where they focus a little more formally on phonics, reading, handwriting & maths and then the rest of the day they are free to learn through play, with access to everything from paints and play doh to blocks and small world toys. They also have a large outdoor space where my son spends most of his time and there is currently no restriction on how long children can play outside.

Baseline testing. Close-up of a child's hand on monkey bars.

Despite all this play, or indeed because of it, my son and his classmates are learning vast amounts. Caterpillar’s reading and writing skills continue to surprise me with every week that passes, his maths is coming on beautifully and he is so interested in the world around him; how items work, our country and environment, science and outer space. He’s even learnt several words in French, German and Spanish. Last week he asked me how to say hello in Japanese (I didn’t know what Japan was at aged four).

This is all due to what his teachers call learning through play. He isn’t only learning during carpet time, he is learning all the time. The teachers continually interact with the pupils alongside their play and teach them without them even realising it’s happening. And isn’t that the most enjoyable way to learn? Isn’t this how we tend to learn for the majority of our adult lives; through experience? And it’s working, my son is proof. Not only that but he demonstrates the learning through play mentality all the time at home and when we’re out and about and we’ve adopted the idea ourselves using his two favourite things – board games and crafting – to teach him maths, English and more.

Learning through play under threat?

Caterpillar’s school isn’t unique but it is much nearer the play end of the spectrum than some, mostly due to the passion of his Early Years Leader Elaine Bennett. Mrs Bennett recently invited parents to be involved in a film about baseline testing and it was the first time I’d heard about it.  Given everything I’ve learnt in the last few months about learning through play I can’t think of anything more pointless and more obstructive to our kids’ educations than baseline testing.

When Caterpillar started school last Autumn he could barely write his name and didn’t know all the alphabet. Now he’s reading books and writing sentences. Baseline testing accesses children at the very beginning of their Reception year, so how would my son have fared? His abilities then would have been wildly different from his abilities only a few months in so, frankly, what is the point of it? What is the point of pigeonholing children into particular groups so early on, before teachers even have a feel for their level? And what about the practicalities of the test itself; can we expect children of such a young age to have the required attention capabilities?

Baseline testing. Close up of a child's hand building blocks.

Impact on schools & families

Finally there’s the pressure, not just on the kids but on the teachers and parents too. Starting school is daunting for children and their priority should be helping them to feel safe, happy and confident. Caterpillar loves going to school and, therefore, loves learning. Why do something to scare them and put them off straight away?

Regular readers know that this blog focuses heavily on parental wellbeing and baseline testing is yet another way to make parents feel anxious, judged and inadequate. Having your child start school for the first time is scary and unsettling enough, why add an extra pressure? The government assure us that parents and teachers were consulted about baseline testing but I don’t personally know a single one of either group who would support the idea.

Which brings me to motivation? What is the reason behind the initiative? I can’t see any benefits to teachers, parents or pupils and the idea has already been scrapped once before.

I suppose you could ask what the big deal is.  It’s just a little test, why get so ruffled by it?  But it’s a little test that will cost the taxpayer £10 million and potentially negatively impact a child’s future schooling so why bother at all?  The organisation More Than A Score are currently campaigning against the introduction of baseline testing and you can find out more at  You can watch the video my son and I were involved in below.

If you’re opposed to testing four year olds, please share this post and these links far and wide.  It’s about time the government stopped wasting money and started listening to teachers, parents and the children themselves.

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15 comments on “Baseline Testing – Should Our Four Year Olds Be Sitting Exams?

  1. Wow 4 sounds like a very young age for exams. I agree that it’s good to get their brains thinking and into the habit of exams but do they really need that pressure at such a young age?

  2. I am really against this testing especially in reception year! My daughter really doesn’t cope well with change and so I know it will take her quite some time to adjust from nursery to school so having tests would be an extra stress for all of us. It just seems crazy to add that extra pressure on not only the children but the teachers and the parents too.

  3. Four year olds should not have to sit tests – I agree that reception is all about playing, learning through play and building friendships. All children learn at their own pace and it would be unfair to do an exam at such a young age.

  4. I don’t agree with baseline testing either. I appreciate that the school has to show progress-but that’s done by observation from the teachers and TAs if I recall correctly. They would’ve observed that at the beginning he couldn’t do X, Y and Z and then they would observe that now he can so-progress.

  5. I don’t know why the government is so obsessed with tests. I have a son about to start reception; another son in year one; and a daughter in year three. Last year when she was in year two my daughter had SATs for the first time. She is bright and did very well… but in the run up she was so stressed and upset about them. A seven year old should be be stressed about school! Even less so a four year old just starting school. A lot of schools downplay them but the children know they are national tests and it is completely wrong that. Teachers are well equipped to assess children through normal classroom activities.

  6. There’s no way children that young should be tested! Everyone learns at their own pace, and to think that testing them at this age has any benefit to anyone at all is ridiculous!

  7. As a parent and a teacher, I find it completely disgusting. When we’re training, we see best practice from all of the happiest and most educationally advanced countries of the world – and yet we do none of it. I’m horrified at the speed at which children are forced into testing with the “they don’t know they’re being tested” line, and I’ve seen all of the play taken from my son’s year one class as the school admits that they need to get them “sitting still and writing” as soon as they can. It’s horrifying. They learn best through play – we all know that – so why can’t we as teachers let them play? My oldest is 8 and he’s disengaged already. He says he does a lot of writing and mathematics, but the subjects he loves, such as science, he has to watch happen at the front of class, and then write about it. Urgh, I could rant all day and then some. The government is ruining our children’s love of learning.

  8. I don’t understand why this baseline test has to happen.m I guess it’s all data and stats, not actually on each individual child. The teachers and TA’s are constantly assessing the children. Wha’ts that saying, if it’s not broken then don’t fix it.

  9. As a trained Early Years Teacher I couldn’t think of anything worse to introduce to children so young! The benefits of learning through play are so much higher than making children sit down for tests they won’t be able to understand and the sooner the government realise the better. Ooh it makes me so angry! x #bloggerclubuk

  10. I hate the idea of four year olds being tested. It’s too young to be in full time education, let alone having to sit exams. The money should be spent on funding schools, not introducing an unnecessary exam.

  11. I am not sure of the exact purpose, but I can understand they are perhaps trying to test at the start and then at the end of the school – to measure the teaching, the school performance. If that is what baselines testing is supposed to be, then yes in theory the children themselves should not care about the result, shouldn’t ever be told the results and certainly shouldn’t be able pass or fail. In fact nothing should be done with individual results at all. So from that point of view there should be no pressure, nothing to concern children or parents.

    Except in reality any test is pressure, any test will feel like you are being judged and many children will react badly to testing. And surely no test can fit in to the early years learning through play philosophy. So it will be jarring and needlessly upsetting. And isn’t that what SATs were supposed to be, measuring the schools not the pupils? And there are many examples that kids get extremely upset and concerned about them. And that is older children used to being tested!

    So no, we should not introduce baseline testing, or any formal tests for reception year. Not least because they should be playing.

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