Why testing at four and five can never be justified

Pocklington Pre-Prep boy playing inside smiling with friendsAs the Department for Education launches a new baseline assessment for reception children, Sarah Cobb, Head of Pre-Prep at Pocklington School, explains why pupils will not be taking part in the scheme.

Our youngest children are our country’s greatest asset; our treasure trove of great thinkers, engineers and medics, shop keepers, mechanics, artists and musicians. We have a responsibility to nurture and cherish these fledgling learners who hold the key to our future and there is no doubt that with this great responsibility comes accountability.

The Department for Education has invited primary schools to sign up for a pilot scheme to assess the abilities of four- and five-year old children in their first weeks of full-time schooling. The new assessments, set to be fully-introduced from Autumn 2020, come just two years since the DfE last failed to find a test to measure the progress primary school children make between Reception and Year 6. This time round, the DfE has said “we do not intend this to be an observational assessment which is carried out over time.” This time round, it’s a snapshot test. Schools will be obliged to carry out the 20-minute assessment measuring children’s ability in language, communication, literacy and mathematics within six weeks of them starting school.

While accountability in education has its merits, we at Pocklington Pre-Prep believe it is not appropriate to give a test to a four-year old who is still finding their feet in what for many is a very new environment. It is educationally questionable to test our youngest children to prove the value of our school’s system when the DfE admits that this test “is not intended to provide on-going formative information for practitioners.” So there is no pretence that this data will be useful for teachers or the children who are being tested. Education commentators have also pointed out that it could cause tension between parents and early years settings who want the child to do well, and schools who, if a child does badly, can go on to demonstrate maximum progress with them by Year 6.  

Furthermore, this costly initiative will be inaccurate and unreliable. There is almost a year between an autumn-born child and their summer-born counterpart - that’s a huge gap in terms of early development. And at this age, children’s mood can change in an instant. How representative can a 20-minute test be when it’s carried out one September afternoon on a child who’s tired and has had their play with new friends interrupted?

At Pocklington School we strive to provide the very best education which ensures every child surpasses all expectations. This education is built on solid foundations of wellbeing and high levels of self-esteem. As the first school in the country to be awarded the Boarding School Mental Health Award for our outstanding mental health and wellbeing provision, it is a commitment we take very seriously. The House of Commons Education Committee found that a high-stakes system of testing in primary schools “can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing.” For some children, starting school can be a very anxious time and the focus must be on building self-esteem, fostering trust between a child and their teachers and ensuring they feel secure and happy. Forcing children through a test at this time can only be counterproductive. So just as we have stood firm on our decision not to put our children through KS1 and KS2 SATs, we will not be submitting them to this new test.

We do have rigorous tracking systems to monitor the progress of all children from 3 to 18 across Pocklington School – but as passionate educationalists, our Pre-Prep staff know that only observation-based assessments are appropriate for our very youngest children. Our highly-trained teachers use a careful balance of observation of free and teacher-directed play, along with one-to-one time with each child, to constantly evaluate their development, make certain their learning is personalised, and to ensure success.

The broad research which goes in to creating our curriculum has included the work of our Finnish counterparts, who have topped Europe’s rankings for the past 16 years. Schools in Finland ultimately deliver academic success - but pupils do not receive formal instruction in maths, reading or writing until they are seven.  Instead, Early Years’ education promotes health and wellbeing and the development of good social habits. Play is a serious business and, as in our Pre-Prep, great care is taken to plan and assess how children play.

So, at Pocklington Pre-Prep, we will not allow our children to become guinea pigs for a test that holds no value for them. We do not need arbitrary measures as our robust observation-based systems tell us everything we need to know about the impact that our play-based curriculum, personalised learning, focus on children’s wellbeing and commitment to enriching children’s educational development have on outcomes for our children.