I am too busy being a child to be tested

If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee you that.

 Michelle Obama

In 1994, I took my four-year-old daughter on a march against nursery vouchers, the first move to place four-year olds into school. I was dismayed at the idea of putting children into school so early and worried that she would be rushed into learning stuff that she could learn much more easily a little later.  She is 27 now and the debate is still live. It’s not been easy to keep the vice of the four-year-old central to the debate.  As Early Years teachers we have been mocked and ridiculed by Governments, our concerns rebuffed despite the continuing flood of research from across the world showing us that we should be concerned.

Parents have now raised their voices and collected 65,000 signatures to petition against the new baseline tests for children aged four and five due to start in 2020. They don’t like the idea of their children being tested at such a young age. They are worried by the emphasis on maths and literacy in the tests and fear that it will lead to a narrow curriculum. This is good news for a sector that cannot get Government to listen.

In 2015, the Department for Education introduced testing for four-year olds on a voluntary trial basis. Three assessment suppliers offering a mix of approaches were chosen but at the end of the controversial trial the Government found it impossible to compare the approaches and abandoned all three.  So, rather than think about what this failure indicated the Government instigated a new £10m trial, based on a one-off test which starts in September.

It’s not clear what the point of this is?  The DfE won’t share the outcome of the tests with teachers so it can’t be used to plan the right educational environment for children. They argue it’s to measure the schools and the test scores will be held centrally with each child becoming a unique number on a national database.

Baseline assessment poses many challenges and distortions and risks branding children from an early age. It has a horrible competitive edge so that some parents may start to “tutor” their children to pass the test while other children with less engaged parents will get lower scores and be branded problems from an early age; nothing like a self-fulfilling prophesy to guarantee lifelong failure. We also know that, boys don’t do well in these situations, children who are acquiring two languages and those summer born have a challenge but mostly children aged four don’t have a linear development pathway. They learn in fits and starts and do so far more effectively if they are in the right learning environment. So why test?

The research so continuously rejected by Government has that groundhog feel, repeating the same story that small children need time, nurture, play and a broad and balanced curriculum led by engaged capable adults to help them to develop and learn.  Rushing them to count, recite the alphabet and write words by three or four years is unhelpful and unnecessary.  There is simply no evidence that says this hurry will improve their learning.  In fact, it has the opposite effect especially for little boys.

I am pleased to see parents begin to understand the implications of testing their children and I hope that they get the Government to stop this testing obsession but more importantly for us to articulate what kind of education small children need to thrive.