The looming Baseline test disaster



The Government are intent on introducing baseline tests of 4-year-old children. This could have dire consequences by putting a cap on many children’s learning.
 The tests will give teachers the impression that each child’s future potential can be calculated.

This is not even possible 3 years later. A new analysis of KS1 tests by Education Datalab shows the dangers of a belief in fixed ability.

The data shows that a third of the children scoring only Level 1 in Reading and Writing at age 7 went on to get a C or higher in English. In fact, 16% of seven-year-olds who were below Level 1 achieved B or C grades for GCSE English, and 1% achieved an A or A*.

The dangers of early prediction are even higher for children with English as an Additional Language. Nearly half of children in this category scoring Level 1 in reading and writing went on to get a C or higher in English.

The new Baseline tests will create the impression of scientific accuracy. This will increase the tendency of schools to segregate children into different “ability groups”. They will affect the way teachers – and parents – think about children.

The children with the lowest scores could receive a more restricted curriculum, with less interest and challenge. Low scores at Baseline will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some groups are more at risk than others:

  • children speaking little English at home
  • children growing up in poverty
  • summer-born children who are barely 4 when tested
  • children with various forms of special needs
  • children affected by family breakdown
  • children who have suffered ill health
  • children who are slow to settle at school.

However, the Baseline tests are a danger for every child. They will encourage a curriculum with limited play or learning from direct experience, which will be inappropriate for young children.


Posted in Accountability | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Grammar schools do not overcome disadvantage

New research has further undermined the Government’s case for expanding grammar schools. Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui (Durham University) have taken a closer look at the Department for Education’s data, revealing some neglected factors.

It was already beyond doubt that children from poorer families stand less chance of getting into grammar school. In fact,  grammar schools take in very few children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods even if they are very successful in primary school (research by Cribb, Sibieta and Vignoles 2013).

This new research confirms that only 2.4% of grammar school pupils are currently eligible for free school meals, compared with 14% of all pupils across England. But it also looks at how long they have been on free meals.

This is important because, on average, attainment is lower for every extra year someone is on free meals. These researchers show that

“grammar schools not only take very few FSM pupils, they also only take the less chronically poor even among those few.”

4% of pupils nationally are on free meals throughout their school lives, but only 0.4% of grammar school pupils. Only 86 chronically disadvantaged pupils attend grammar schools across the whole of England.

The researchers conclude that, once you take all factors into account, pupils affected by poverty do no better at grammar school than elsewhere. FSM-eligible pupils at grammar schools appear to do quite well because, on the whole, their families are on a low income for only a short period of time. For example, one of their parents might be without a job for three or four months. Most FSM-eligible pupils attending grammar schools are atypical.

The researchers also argue that there are hidden factors for which we have little data. Pupils gaining a grammar school place may make more progress because they “may already be more motivated to succeed or have parents who are more engaged in their education“.

Such factors are almost impossible to measure. One clue from the data is that grammar school pupils had already made unusually fast progress between KS1 and KS2. This suggests that their rapid progress from age 11 to 16 isn’t due to attending a grammar school but because of other factors (determination, curiosity, confidence, parental support etc).

There are obvious educational benefits from having graduate parents in professional occupations, and who can pay for private tuition if your results aren’t great. The vast majority of pupils at grammar school enjoy such advantages. None of this is captured by statistics which merely contrast pupils eligible and not eligible for free school meals. Advocates of grammar school selection are simply not comparing like with like.

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Protecting children from primary school tests

The damage caused by primary school testing to children’s education and wellbeing is now very clear. Among other effects, it has helped to create a crisis in children’s mental health.

As we know, large numbers of children are now suffering serious levels of anxiety because of test pressures, or for other reasons such as family poverty or family breakdown. The Child Law advice page reminds heads that:

Every school teacher owes a pupil a duty of care.

The school has to do what is reasonably practical to ensure they care for their pupils, as any reasonable parent would do.

It lists among possible danger signs:

  • anxiety
  • low mood
  • panic attacks
  • phobias
  • eating disorders
  • some self-harming behaviour.

A recent survey shows an increase in mental health issues around the time of the SATs and children’s increasing fear of failure.

In April last year the House of Commons Select Committee on Primary Assessment  reached very critical conclusions about SATs and other primary school tests. They declared that

“The high stakes system can negatively impact teaching and learning, leading to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing.”

The Government has ignored these conclusions. It set up a phoney survey with questions limited to peripheral issues. The new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, has now blocked any reduction in testing. His statement that there would be no more changes means no hope of any reduction, and in fact he is continuing to implement three extra tests: multiplication tables, Baseline for four year olds, and what has been called ‘Baby PISA’ for children in nurseries.

This puts the ball back in the court of schools and parents to protect children’s interests and wellbeing. But what can they do?

Reclaiming Schools researchers have been asked by parents to look at official documents to find an answer. These are the implications for heads and for parents.  Continue reading

Posted in Accountability, Curriculum, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Progress 8 and the North East

Schools in North East England are under attack again. According to Progress 8 scores, its schools are the least effective in the country, with the highest percentage coming ‘below the floor’.

But Progress 8 is a flawed and misleading measure. It assumes that social factors make no difference. Once again, the Government are in denial about poverty and the economy. It’s so much easier to attack teachers again.

According to official data, 21% of schools are ‘below the floor’, compared with 12% nationally. Consequently, 31 secondary schools will be targeted for urgent Ofsted inspections. They are likely to receive negative judgements, however good the teaching is: that is how the system works. They will be forced to become academies … those that aren’t already!

Researchers have pointed out the  flaws in Progress 8 very clearly, but the Government has ignored the warnings. Actually it isn’t difficult to show why the North East is scoring particularly low, and the reasons are beyond schools’ control.

i) The new scoring system has resulted in a third more schools being classed as ‘below the floor’. This is true across England, but affects some schools more than others.

ii) Poverty has a big impact on pupils’ progress: on average, students on free school meals score -0.5 on Progress 8. (-0.5 is also the threshold for ‘below the floor’.) Schools with large numbers of FSM students are far more likely to score below. In the North East, 17% of students are FSM (13% nationally). In some places it’s worse:

  • 24% Middlesbrough
  • 23% Newcastle
  • 20% Sunderland
  • 19% South Tyneside
  • 19% Hartlepool.

Not surprisingly, all these areas have large numbers of schools ‘below the floor’. Continue reading

Posted in Accountability | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book launches

Beyond the exam factory
Alternatives to high-stakes testing

Events are being held around England to present and discuss this new book from More Than A Score – a broad coalition of the largest teacher union NEU, parents groups, researchers, and specialist organisations for primary education, school subjects and early education.

What are the issues?
Assessment in English schools is not designed to help children learn. Its main purpose is to police schools and teachers, and it does untold damage in the process.

Primary school tests are causing stress to children, demoralising teachers, and providing little useful information to parents. They narrow the curriculum and penalise schools in the most disadvantaged areas.

This stimulating new book presents strong arguments against the present system and opens up real alternatives. It draws on a wealth of experience over many decades, in England and internationally. It presents examples of assessment methods which have been eclipsed in English schools due to the pressures of ‘accountability’.

Lambeth 22 Jan at 5.30pm  Karibu Education Centre, Gresham Road. Speakers include Mike Rosen

Liverpool 30 Jan at 6pm  The Liner Hotel, Lord Nelson St. Speakers include Alan Gibbons

Leeds 3 Feb at 1pm  Seven arts centre, Chapel Allerton. Speakers include Terry Wrigley, Pam Jarvis and Jill Wood.

Manchester 28 Feb at 6.30pm  Greater Manchester Police Sports Club, Chorlton (M21 7SX). Speakers include Louise Reagan and Terry Wrigley

More events to be announced soon.


The book can be viewed here. Please email for information on how to order. (Multiple copies from £2, dependent on quantity.)


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Time to bin the Phonics Check

The phonics check was supposedly set up as a ‘light-touch’ diagnostic tool. It is neither light nor diagnostic. It is another high-stakes test, used by Ofsted to judge schools, and it diagnoses nothing.

It is not diagnostic because it cannot identify any specific reasons why a child is having difficulties. It doesn’t judge reading in any meaningful sense, i.e. reading with understanding. All it does is identify whether children can read aloud a limited set of regularly spelt words or pseudowords.

It does not check whether children can recognise non-phonic words – words which are very common in English, such as the, is, was, though, any, said, come. You can hardly form a sentence in English without such words.

It carefully avoids graphemes which can be pronounced various ways, eg ou in soup, out, could and soul.

Even among regular correspondences of spelling to sound, this is a flawed test. There are 85 ‘grapheme-phoneme correspondences’ but just 15 very basic ones make up two thirds of the phonics test:

(Consonants) b, c (in cat), d, f, k, l, m, n, p, r, s (in sat), t
(Vowels) a (in at), e (in egg), i (in hit)

27 of the 85 didn’t appear at all in the test’s first three years, including these very common examples:

soft c (in face), wh (in when), a (in father), ay (in say), e (in she), i (in mind), o (in cold), ou (in out). (See research by Darnell, Solity and Wall)

Passing a phonics test doesn’t mean you can read… and vice versa Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Phonics and the PIRLS test: time to end Government interference

Schools Minister Nick Gibb has hardly stopped crowing because England has risen from 10th to 8th place in the international PIRLS reading test. He claims personal credit, accrediting this result everything to the Phonics Check and his insistence on synthetic phonics.

The improved score is a great credit to England’s teachers, given what they have suffered at the hands of this government… but Nick Gibb is wrong to claim the credit.

The improvement is not as dramatic as he pretends, nor is it the result of Government policy. It was actually half as much as in the previous five years (2006-2011).

Ireland and Australia made twice that gain.This is doubly ironic.

i) Gibb has just returned from a trip to Australia in the attempt to convince politicians there to introduce the phonics check.

ii) Ireland, now the highest achieving country in Europe according to PIRLS, uses a very broad approach to teaching reading.

It is clear from Ireland’s Literacy and Numeracy Strategy and its National Curriculum that the aim is to empower teachers not control them. The Strategy document mentions phonics only four times, twice for English and twice for Irish. It says teacher education should enable teachers “to be familiar with the various strategies, approaches, methodologies and interventions that can be used to teach literacy and numeracy as discrete areas and across the curriculum.”

  • The approach to reading is child-friendly and developmental.
  • Phonics is embedded in real uses of literacy.
  • Teachers are encouraged to combine analytic and synthetic phonics, sight recognition, rhymes and initial letters (onset-rime), pictorial cues, and a growing sense of texts.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment