by Dr Pam Jarvis, Leeds Trinity University
At the beginning of April 2016, the Government finally accepted the overwhelming evidence against ‘baseline’ testing young children. The inadvisability of this measure was obvious to me, not only because baseline testing had been previously trialled and abandoned in 2002 by the New Labour Government, or because many other professionals and academics had spoken out against it, but from my own findings in my PhD research carried out fifteen years ago.
My investigations had focused upon the outdoor play of four to six year olds. I observed these children collaborating with each other to construct complex narratives that made ‘human sense’ of their activities. There were football games where children constructed a rudimentary offside rule, and fantasy games where they constructed fast-moving narratives involving superheroes, witches, monsters and princesses. What I found was not simply a forum in which children expended excess energy, but where they engaged in some of the richest learning of all, becoming creative, independent and collaborative.
While the Government have now removed the prospect of Baseline Testing for four year olds, their recently released White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere indicates that they continue in their over-simplified view of the ways in which young children learn. In particular, they demonstrate a lack of understanding of the process of human development. On the one hand, in Educational Excellence Everywhere, the Minister comments that ‘attempts to teach skills without knowledge fail because they run counter to the way our brains work’ (p.89); however in another part of the report she claims that because there have been rises in ‘performance’ on the government’s phonics check for Year 1 children (aged between 5 and 6) that she is convinced that there are ‘more children on track to become excellent readers’ (p.38).
Veteran reading researcher Margaret Clark OBE points out that no empirical evidence can be produced to support this assertion and questions the statistics the ministry use to make various claims relating to ‘improvement’. In the US, Dr Stephen Camarata explains that reading is not simply learning to associate printed letters with sounds, but also ‘learning the real-life meanings that the words represent’ (2015, p.14). In this he echoes the theories of veteran US developmental neurologist, Martha Bridge Denckla, who expressed concern that modern education policy makers do not understand the aspect of individual neuronal readiness that is clear from myriad studies on the physical brain. The Cambridge Primary Review (2009, p.24) also argues that the government espouses a ‘simple view of reading in official discourse that appears to decouple decoding from comprehension.’
Many nations that eclipse British performance in international comparisons at 15 have higher school starting ages than England, and much slower trajectories into formal teaching and testing. As PISA point out in the title of their report, it is not simply what children ‘know’ that leads to success in later life, but what they can do with what they know. As I discovered many years ago in my own research, much of the ability to convert ‘what you know’ into ‘what you can do’ is underpinned by early experience in independent, social, play-based learning; understanding in young children involves embedding ideas in concepts that make ‘human sense’ to them. And it is not just cognitive outcomes that are at stake here.
Following a review of the literature in which I collaborated with colleagues from the UK and US, we suggested that the contemporary process of schooling might be a major contributing factor to rising mental health problems identified in children and young people. This point was recently reiterated by a poll conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The article that we produced from this research became one of the most downloaded from the journal website. If children’s first experiences of education are of failure in tests for which they are not yet neuronally ready, what will follow is low self-esteem and hopelessness, giving rise to poor attention, poor behaviour and eventually, poor attendance. We agree with the Minister that ‘poor behaviour may arise from an unmet mental health need’ (p.37), but suggest that she urgently considers the pressures to which the education practices she oversees subject very young children.
In Educational Excellence Everywhere the Minister lays out an ambitious vision for the later stages of schooling; to set out a ‘knowledge based, ambitious academically rigorous education’ (p.90) and to support children to develop ‘character and resilience’ through engaging in such activities as ‘debating’ (p.20). These are of course very worthy goals with which few would disagree. However, all these good intentions will crumble to dust if children’s wonder and enjoyment in learning is summarily crushed when they are placed, as early as the nursery years, on a ‘transmit and test’ treadmill in an attempt to skip the ‘learning to learn’ stage. In fact, what we most urgently need to create “Educational Excellence Everywhere” is an excellent play-based learning framework for children between three and seven which acts to support wonder and enjoyment, nurturing their development as independent, creative, self motivated learners. It is hoped that, following the failure of the Baseline Testing concept for the second time, the Government may take expert advice on such an initiative.