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.
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.
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?
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 www.morethanascore.co.uk. 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.