Under Pressure

Under Pressure

I came across this post from a worried mum on Mumsnet recently.  She believed that her child (5.2 years old) was the least able writer in her class and wanted advice as to what to do about it?

mumsnet writing post

Thankfully teachers, along with other parents who responded, put the mum at ease and explained that her child was at the expected level of development, for writing, at the end of reception. Fortunately the responses to the post were all very supportive and the mum was reassured.

To my mind, this post highlights how government policy is increasingly affecting the stress levels of us all – teachers, parents and children.   Early years practitioners in schools are under pressure, through targets and performance related pay, to ensure that attainment rises year on year, despite the needs of differing cohorts, funding and staffing issues.   In some schools this pressure reduces the time spent learning through play and increases the likelihood of a formalised curriculum where reading, writing and maths take precedence over everything else.  With the reception baseline assessment now looming in the distance, concerns are being raised that this pressure will be filtered down to nursery practitioners and children.

Unfortunately, once testing measures are put in place in any year group, the pressure to achieve better scores starts earlier and earlier – the year one, Phonics Screening Check is a good example of this. What was originally intended as a light touch assessment has instead taken us down the same high stakes assessment path as the SATs.

The review of the phonics screening check in 2015 discussed some of the issues facing schools, such as the top-down pressure felt by teachers. It stated that  ‘…accountability has moved down the school, with Reception teachers more mindful of their role in phonics teaching since the introduction of the check in Year 1; one school also referred to an increased focus on phase 1 phonics in Nursery.’

It appears that there were no lessons learnt from this as another, more recent report on the phonics screening check (Newman University 2012-2017) shines a light on just how purposeless the screening is.   180 headteachers, 1,108 teachers and approximately 300 parents were interviewed and their responses analysed.  Preliminary findings have shown that, despite all the preparation and focus on the check, it provides schools with no additional information other than that already gleaned from their own assessments, has no bearing on attainment or progress on the wider literacy curriculum, has increased anxiety levels in children taking the test and has negatively affected teaching and learning, as time is spent training children to decode pseudo (nonsense) words!

The current debate around the introduction of baseline assessment in reception could lead to pressure being brought to bear by headteachers (belonging to the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL),  as they are in favour of the test, whilst teachers are not.

During her defence of the baseline assessment, ASCL’s interim director of policy, Julie McCulloch said: “…. we therefore support a light-touch assessment near the beginning of Reception which will provide an earlier starting point for measuring progress.”  This is exactly how the phonics screening test was introduced, several years ago, and look where we are with it now!

It doesn’t stop there however, as there is yet another new test  being piloted in 2018, this one aimed at 5 year olds! How much more pressure can the government bring to bear on such young children and for what purpose?  Particularly given the fact that the tests wont tell teachers any more than they already know about the children they teach!

It was heartening to read A Baseline Without Basis  particularly as the panel of experts agreed with the consensus of those within the early years sector, finding it not fit for purpose and inherently unreliable. The report stated that  ‘the proposed baseline assessment will not lead to accurate comparisons being made between schools, as policymakers assume. Perhaps most importantly, they will not work in the best interests of children and their parents.’ 

The introduction of yet more tests just increases the pressure on school leadership to show progress and may lead to some schools ensuring their baseline is low.   After all, it is not unheard of for heads to succumb to pressure and doctor their KS2 data –  I should know as this happened at my granddaughters school!

The following comment, from the Mumsnet discussion, caught my eye.

My youngest is 5 years and 2 months….  He can write his name and ‘mum’, that’s it. I’m an English teacher. I’m not bothered in the slightest. Your daughter’s writing looks perfectly acceptable.

This was written by an English teacher, in Scotland, whose child is due to start P1 shortly, which is equivalent to a reception class in England.  This parent/teacher recognises that there are many more important things than being able to write a sentence at just turned 5 years old.

We need to hold onto this and remember that in many countries around the world children start school later, attain better but more importantly have better mental health and wellbeing than our children, as they are allowed to learn in the way that children have learnt for thousands of year, through play.

The government would do well to look carefully at the findings of the recent reports and really listen to early years practitioners, experts and academics in order for policy to be underpinned by child development and good early years practice.  The estimated £10 million spent on the reception baseline assessment could then be re-invested and put  into early years funding, training, recruitment and retention of early years staff.