On Thursday next week Kay Tart, from Hitchin in Hertfordshire, will help her daughter Isla dress in the uniform she will wear when she starts school in September. She will make sure the four-year-old’s favourite book and soft toy are in her backpack, but they won’t be heading to school. They will be joining other parents and children on the “march of the four-year-olds” to 10 Downing Street, where Isla will get her first taste of democracy.
The children will hand in a 65,000- signature petition against the new “baseline” tests the government plans for children aged four and five. They will be piloted at hundr of schools in September ready for their introduction England-wide at the start of the new school year in 2020.
The parents fear the tests in the first six weeks of their children starting school in reception class will disrupt the important settling-in period. The results will be unreliable, they say, and the emphasis on maths and literacy in the reception baseline assessment (RBA), rather than overall child development, will push schools towards a narrower curriculum. The Department for Education has refused to publish sample questions, which are on maths and literacy and likely to involve counting, recognising letters and vocabulary.
Meanwhile, a group of parents is taking advice on whether they can mount a legal challenge to the government’s plans. Lisa Richardson, a solicitor with Irwin Mitchell, says many teachers and education experts have raised concerns. She says: “My clients’ parents are particularly concerned about potential harm it may cause to their children’s health, wellbeing and education, and whether it unfairly disadvantages some children, including younger, summer-born children.
“We are therefore investigating whether the DfE has properly recognised this, assessed it and taken it into account in the design of the RBA process.”
The tests of maths and literacy, which are costing £9.8m over two years to develop, are meant to provide a “baseline” so that children’s progress can be measured seven years later at the age of 11 in order to judge schools’ effectiveness and hold them to account. Children will be taken out of class one by one to sit the 20-minute test on a tablet operated by the teacher, who will mark questions “Yes” or “No”. An algorithm will make the questions easier or harder until it reaches the level at which the children get more wrong than right.
The parents say their children are too young to be tested on numeracy and literacy. “I’ve got a four-year-old, and you can ask them what’s one plus one and they might say two, or they might say bananas,” says Vicky Trainer from Brighton.
There are also concerns about children being branded by a score so early in their lives, before their brains have fully developed, and about the length of time the children will be taught by people they do not know while their teacher is out testing each pupil individually.
The march is being organised by the campaign group More Than a Score, a coalition of parents and educationists. Tart, who is a member of the group, has five children aged two to nine and says she knows how important the first weeks of reception class are for building a child’s confidence and relationships with the teacher and other pupils.
“It horrifies me they are testing and labelling children from such a young age. It’s ludicrous, not least because the tests won’t achieve any reliable results even if they can get four-year-olds to maintain focus for that long,” says Tart, who worked for a social enterprise helping people into work before starting her family.
Colin, her husband, head of creative design at a retail manufacturer, says he wants his daughter to enjoy her time in reception, especially when she is settling in. “I don’t think that putting children through formal testing at such a young age is a good idea,” he says, “especially when early-years education is supposed to be about learning through play. It goes against everything we tell our children about starting school and could affect her feelings about education right from the start. It’s completely wrong.”
The test scores will not be given to the teachers to help children make progress, but will be held centrally with each child becoming a unique number on a national database. And that worries early childhood education expert Guy Roberts-Holmes of University College London’s Institute of Education. He says: “The government is testing parents and carers, not schools and teachers, because the children will have just started school. They are formalising school learning as soon as possible. By focusing solely on formal national standardised prescribed numeracy and literacy outcomes, the tests are telling parents that this is what really counts from day one and it is your responsibility as a parent to make sure your child is successful.
“If your child is summer-born or a late developer or has some special educational need or speaks English as an additional language and gets, ‘No, no, no’ answers, then the programme will push the child down to lower-level questions and they will potentially be labelled as having problems. Unfortunately all the evidence suggests that low expectations early on can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies later on.”
Gemma Haley, from Brighton, who is a prospect development manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, will be on the march with her son Alex, five, who started school last September. “Aside from the question of whether it is morally right to test four-year-olds, there is the question of whether the results will have any reliability,” she says. “I am not against assessment but it should be appropriate and we should be trusting the teachers to assess the things that matter because that is what they are trained to do.”
Experts in assessment claim the questions – designed by the National Foundation for Educational Research – are measuring the wrong things. “They are assessing maths and literacy when we know from research that these are poor indicators and not what matters for children of this age,” says Jan Dubiel, the national director of Early Excellence, the organisation specialising in early years teaching. “We should be looking at language skills, how they interact with other children, how they negotiate and share, how they make friendships and resolve disputes.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “The RBA will help to provide a starting point to measure how well the school supports children to succeed. There is no pass mark, it is a short, interactive assessment that will help teachers understand how best to support children. Many schools already carry out assessments like this. The data will be used only to form the progress measure. No numerical score will be shared and the RBA will not be used to label or track individual children or to hold early-years providers to account.”