They are children not robots: baseline research


Earlier blog posts on baseline assessment have focused heavily on the damage done by false predictions of children’s potential. This post looks at another consequence – how testing is changing children, education and teachers.

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In a book called ‘Seeing like a State’ James Scott demonstrates how measuring can actually change the world by creating what it sets out to measure. One example he uses is when the Prussian state decided to survey how much timber it had, for military and taxation purposes. It quickly turned into a project of replacing mixed forests with evenly spaced, regular plantations of pine and spruce trees. This removed many of the free resources country people depended on.


There is no better example of how measurement reshapes what it measures than early testing. Many examples can be found in the recent report They are children… not robots, not machines jointly commissioned by the NUT and ATL (researchers Alice Bradbury, Guy Roberts-Holmes and Emma Jones).

Disrupting care

Firstly, the report shows that the majority of teachers are concerned that Baseline Assessment has disrupted the start to school for reception pupils. Even the observation-based version (Early Excellence) meant that teachers had to set up situations that displayed what they needed to assess.

“There is no time given to these poor little children to settle in before they are assessed.” (page 14)

“Teachers are madly trying to collect evidence, rather than concentrating on the welfare of their new pupils and helping to create a calm and relaxing environment.”

“The Baseline Assessment took me away from getting to actually know the class.”

“A supply teacher had to be drafted in so that the tests could be carried out.”

Disadvantaging children

Secondly, as we pointed out in earlier posts, the tests create the illusion that judgements about ability and potential are scientific, accurate and appropriate.

“In our school they are put into ability groups based on these results!”

“It helps us group the children in differentiated maths and phonics groups.”

Changing how children are seen, and see themselves

There is a sense of inadequacy and failure for children struggling with these premature assessments.

“Some children looked at me and said ‘I can’t read’. It was heartbreaking to see their reaction to it.”

“For EAL children it was disadvantaging because it had to be in English.”

“I feel it just excluded children who have SEN and does not give you a clear idea as to where any child actually is!”

“I did have children that were crying and I just couldn’t get anything out of them at all because they were too upset to do anything.”

Teachers start to see children in a simplistic way, rather than their richness as human beings.

“As professionals we know there may be more about a child than yes/no.”

Baseline Assessment replaces diversity, complexity and contingency with the solidity of ‘facts’ and numbers to demonstrate progress. (page 35)

The impact on what teachers do

Baseline assessment washes back onto what nursery staff and parents do with children.

“If parents pick up on the fact that is happening every year, some parents will be spending the whole summer holidays teaching, looking at the criteria. Because there is this natural need for your child to pass tests you will be coaching them to pass the test.”

Young children often engage successfully in activities when they are collaborating with adults – ‘scaffolding’. These assessments disrupt such good practice by focusing on what the children can do unaided.

“Baseline does not support our knowledge of children, as it merely states whether or not they can independently do specific things; this does not provide information as to where the children ARE, simply where they are not.”

Because the tests focus narrowly on literacy and numeracy, unlike the foundation stage profile, this will influence teaching and activities in nurseries and the reception year.

There will be increasing impact on teachers’ self-perception as they spend the first month of every year doing Baseline Assessment. There is a risk that early years professionals are reduced to ‘grey technicians’ through the adoption of crude quantitative approaches.

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