22 September 2017
The Government has announced plans for a new strategy to assess children’s educational progress in the early years and primary school. From 2020, a new baseline assessment will be introduced for children at the beginning of reception class at age four, and SATs at age seven will be phased out from 2023.
The plans recognise the importance of the early years for children’s development and reducing stress for children and easing the pressure on teachers. But, only close scrutiny of the full proposals before they are implemented will tell us if they will actually benefit children and teachers.
Measuring children’s development is important because it can help teachers identify the need for additional support and allows them to intervene early. It also alerts us to trends among groups of children so we can see if certain groups are falling behind and need more support. Measuring over time means schools can be held accountable for the level of support they give to children.
We do not yet know what the proposed measure at reception will include or how it will be carried out. It needs to take into account the broad range of aspects of children’s development, incorporating their ability to manage their emotions and behaviour as well as literacy and numeracy skills. It should also avoid burdening teachers but most importantly, it must not cause any stress for young children.
Currently, children are first assessed when they are five years old, often in year one. This assessment is called the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) and is based on observations by their teacher over time. The aim of the EYFSP is to determine whether each child is at the ‘expected’ level of development or not. While it is very useful as a guide to children’s general level of development, the EYFSP cannot be used alongside other assessments to compare or measure children’s ability over time.
The current SATs are formal ‘pencil and paper’ tests in two key learning areas, English and mathematics. While gathering such information may be useful, there are concerns about undue pressure on schools to get good results at the expense of supporting children’s wider development and increasing their levels of stress.
There are good arguments for assessing children earlier than they are currently. Schools can be held accountable for the level of improvement children in their care achieve over time, beginning from when they start school. This may allow us to identify the schools and teaching practices that are most effective at supporting children’s development. Combining elements of more formal types of assessments, such as assessing pupils’ ability to carry out identical tasks, with teachers’ observations of normal classroom capabilities could avoid placing too much pressure on children.
The Government’s proposal to replace the SATs for seven year olds with a new teacher-mediated assessment in the reception year is welcome. We look forward to examining detailed proposals. If implemented well, a new assessment approach could reduce the anxiety experienced by children, reduce workloads for teachers and provide better data for identifying opportunities to support children’s development and evaluating teaching practices.