There is a great deal of interest in tracking the development of the growing (learning) child, to such an extent where that interest might, in itself become a barrier to their development. It is fast becoming the apocryphal weighing of the pig issue.
A child is born, in exactly the same way as they have been for millennia, unless there is surgical intervention before, during, at the point of birth and afterwards. Children are born with their genetic makeup determined by the parental genes, unless they have had the need of some kind of supportive intervention. Some children, as a result of maternal health or some other difficulty, be born with congenital health issues.
Children are not born equal.
Further inequality can be embedded in the home circumstances; income, housing, parental education, available time, interests and again parental health. It can be affected by the availability of, and relationships within, extended families.
Children’s early experiences can be significantly different, to such a degree that a more able child in a poor household will be overtaken in educational terms by a less able child from a well-off background. The availability of and exposure to wider world experience, quality play and activities, holidays, interaction with literature and culture, pays off in vocabulary and concept building, which in turn supports self-confidence and the ability to interact with the world at a higher level.
Childhood is not the same for every child.
The children at the school where I am a Governor in one of the poorer parts of my home area, are, as a group, behind the children who arrived at my school as a HT in developmental terms, on average, by at least a year. There is an imperative to ensure that this position is addressed, so that they are enabled to enter KS1 at least at a reasonable start point that assures continuity of progress. The staff have to add significant value to all experiences and be exceptionally aware of individual needs.
Children start school in unequal places.
At some point in the near future, all children will be subject to a formal Baseline Assessment. There has been, in Hampshire, for many years, a baseline assessment, from which progress to the end of KS1 was measured. There are a number of available, prescribed tests available. The choice will be nuanced. Where the baseline tests have been in place to date, these have been exploratory, seeking to identify the individual strengths and areas that might be of concern, through very detailed observations within activities. It is not yet clear whether this practice will continue, or if there will be an individualised 15 minute “test” of specific skills.
Children have different abilities; some are more “learning-ready” than others.
The outcome of the baseline assessment will demonstrate that there is a range of abilities within the group of children; some will be significantly better than others. Some, because they are almost a year younger than their peers, may perform less well. That is no surprise. Talking with a child, watching a child manipulate a pencil, joining a group of children playing or exploring and listening to the ensuing talk would provide the same evidence. My hope is that schools will use the outcomes as a diagnosis of need and put in place appropriate activities that encourage those in need to make the best of the available experiences.
Children are then measured at 7 and 11 and probably at all points in between. Assessment is king.
I regularly visit schools. It is not a rare occurrence that the school is undergoing an “assessment week”, especially if it is a borderline school which might oscillate between Good and RI, depending on cohorts, or some other reason. They are trying to ensure that they “have the data”, in order to demonstrate that they are on the case and that they know where their children are. I worry that for some children, five or six weeks of every year are spent being assessed. Every piece of work, when marked, has been assessed in some form. Does it really add significantly to that sum of accumulated formative assessment, to have a week of tests?
All we are doing is embedding the early inequality, by seemingly measuring it.
I can see, in the developing climate, children having end of year tests, every year, to see if they are “on track to be at, or better than, national standard”. Some will be deemed to be not quite there and some will definitely not be there. Then what? More pressure on learners who find learning difficult. More homework, extra school removal from all subjects bar Maths and English, as they are the ones to be assessed?
If the analysis is correct that richer, low ability children outperform poorer, higher ability children, it suggests to me that they are growing up in an information, culture and language rich environment, where dialogue is likely to be of a high quality and embeds challenge, encouragement and discussion of outcomes, coaching areas where misconception and error have been seen.
This then suggests to me that, rather than a focus on constant measurement, there is a need to ensure that school provides, for every child, an information, culture and language rich environment, where dialogue is likely to be of a high quality and embeds challenge, encouragement and discussion of outcomes, coaching areas where misconception and error have been seen.
This to me, is equality of opportunity.
Assessment has become exceptionally high profile over the relatively recent past, as technology and the potential profit from assessment tools pushes ever harder. It is just possible that even the most sophisticated testing regime that could be imagined might not be able to fully describe a child’s abilities and talents. If the measurement suggests that the child falls below a certain level of their peers, the resulting loss of confidence could affect a child for much of their lives. Many 11 plus failures tell of the loss of face and their own attitude to learning.
If, at the age of 4, 5,6,7 etc, a parent is told that their child is not up with their peers, there is no guarantee that this will be sensitively handled in the home. Such an assessment and reporting might make a vulnerable child even more so.
As it is already self-evident to many commentators, that children currently described as having special educational needs will fall into the potential categories of “not at national standard”, or “not yet at national standard”, especially with an 85% expectation of achievement. The 15% who might not achieve are likely to be those in the special needs category, for some reason. Aspiration, exhortation and measurement will not necessarily guarantee their success.
Ever more sophisticated assessment does not ensure sophisticated outcomes.
The simple answer, to me is, and always has been, get to know the children, well. Give them educational experiences of great worth, challenge, think, talk, explore and just maybe you’ll find the key to unlocking that spark that might make a difference.
Children should not inhabit pre-determined, or even assessment described boxes.
As an aside. If the process of change is not to be seen in its fruition until around 2022, if it doesn’t work, can we have our money and our children’s lives back please?
The impact of austerity on schools and children’s education and well-being. http://infed.org/mobi/the-impact-of-austerity-on-schools-and-childrens-education-and-well-being/
Lupton, R. et. al. (2015a). The Coalition’s Social Policy Record: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015. Social Policy in a Cold Climate Report 4. Manchester: University of Manchester, London School of Economics and the University of York. [http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/rr04.pdf. Retrieved January 27, 2015].