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Too much, too soon?

The Government wish to introduce formal Baseline testing for children prior to their fifth birthday. Dr Pam Jarvis argues that there is no credible evidence to support such a policy, and that in fact, it may negatively impact on children and families.

She suggests it’s time for the DfE to trust the professionalism of Early Years teachers and practitioners and their informal observation-based assessments of children.

Formal schooling, too young?

In 2010, the Guardian published an article entitled ‘Finland’s Schools Flourish in Freedom and Flexibility’.

 In Finland, children don’t start formal schooling until they’re 7. It’s reported that within the culture of the Finnish primary school there is a substantial amount of time for free play, free school meals for all, no league tables and no inspections; in other words, Finland trusts its teachers.

So do we find Finland at the bottom of international comparisons? In fact, far from this, in the 2013 PISA comparisons of literacy performance in the mid-teenage years, Finland came third out of sixty five nations, while the UK ranked at twenty-third.

All the nations in the top ten have school starting ages of six or seven.

Additionally, studies in New Zealand [1] comparing children who began formal literacy instruction at age 5 or age 7 have shown that by the age of 11 there was no difference in reading competence between the two groups.

Children who started at 5 had less positive attitudes to reading, and poorer text comprehension skills than those who started later. It’s likely that heavy reliance on rote learning of phonics, as recommended by the DfE, is at least partly responsible for this.

So what’s the DfE’s response to this evidence?

In England children start school on average at four-and-a-half (summer birthdays being only just four) and formal assessments punctuate the early years of life.

The government propose to bring in yet another test of children’s early literacy and numeracy skills: a formal baseline test at the start of the Reception year. These academic tests include:

  • A baseline test on entry to Reception
  • A phonics check at the end of Year 1
  • A range of externally-set tests at the end of Year 2

Added to this is the so-called ‘Progress Check’ at just two years of age, carried out by health visitors, where ‘failure’ strikes fear in the hearts of young mothers. For example, consider this posting on ‘Netmums’ in 2011:

My 2 year old failed his assessment today completely. She wanted him to build a tower of 5 blocks and draw a circle and match up shapes. None of which he would do. He just ate everything including taking a chunk out of the crayon and eating that.... his older brother is autistic.... what if he is autistic too? I’m really worried now I don’t think I could cope with 2 of them on a bad day.

As an academic who specialises in the psychology of early years development and history of childhood, I just don’t understand this increasingly strict policy for the nation’s infants.

Children’s development typically occurs in uneven bursts during the early years; some children, particularly boys, are slightly slower to develop language and literacy skills.

This would not be seen as remarkable in Finland, where children would not be expected to begin formal education until after their seventh birthday.

Children whose language and literacy development is more rapid are also catered for within Finnish early years settings.

The result is less children labelled too early as ‘Special Needs’ or labouring under the self-fulfilling prophecy that such a diagnosis can create. In the English education system, summer born children are more likely to be diagnosed with special needs.

For many years, skilled early years teachers and practitioners have undertaken informal assessments based on detailed observation, and raised the alarm when they diagnosed that ‘something was wrong’.

Accountability system

The DfE document relating to baseline testing refers to an ‘accountability system.’ It’s a worrying indication of a nation where politicians increasingly discount the findings of academic research and advice from experienced professionals.

Since the first statutory framework for children between birth and five in 2007, successive governments have imposed more and more formal testing on children under seven.

Despite international comparison evidence which suggests that England’s ‘too much, too soon’ approach does not ultimately raise educational standards.

This ‘accountability’ agenda would seem to point to a distrust in early years academics, teachers and practitioners.

Please visit the ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ website to find out more information about how we as a profession can respond to these ongoing, deeply worrying developments. You can also sign the petition against baseline testing for 4-year-olds here.

[1] Suggate, S.P., Schaughency, E.A. & Reese, E. (2012) Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier.  Early Childhood Research Quarterly,http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.04.004

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