Early Years Foundation Stage (Miscellaneous Amendments) and Childcare Fees (Amendment) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Regret

– in the House of Lords at 5:57 pm on 13th July 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

Lord Watson of Invergowrie:

Moved by Lord Watson of Invergowrie

That this House regrets that the Early Years Foundation Stage (Miscellaneous Amendments) and Childcare Fees (Amendment) Regulations 2021 introduces the Reception Baseline Assessment that takes effect in September 2021, when the workload of teachers will be significant, schools will be focused on re-opening, and special attention will need to be paid to those children who were unable to develop their language skills because of social isolation during the pandemic; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to provide schools with the flexibility to defer implementation of the Reception Baseline Assessment for the cohort of children starting Reception this year until January 2022.

Relevant document: 53rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Session 2019-21 (special attention drawn to the instrument)

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I make no apology for the wording of this regret Motion being based on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report, which very clearly set out the concerns felt by committee members after they had considered these regulations and their effect.

I want to make it clear that in tabling this regret Motion we are not anti-assessment. Assessment in schools is integral to measuring a child’s progress, which at this time is more important than ever. However, the reception baseline assessment that is the subject of these regulations does not assess, nor is it intended to, the progress of children—at least, not within a timeframe that would enable any improvements to be made. It is not a diagnostic assessment; it is designed as a data-collection exercise, with the data collected used to measure the progress of a child from reception to the end of key stage 2. The information will be locked away for a period of seven years, then used to measure school performance. The results will not be given to parents or teachers, other than a “narrative statement” with comments such as “the child recognised fewer than 10 numbers”.

The purpose of the baseline assessment is to produce a score by which the Government claim it will be possible to measure the quality of education. That ignores the views of experts such as the British Educational Research Association, which has said it is not possible to test four year-olds and get reliable data.

The Government say that the aims of the changes are

“to improve outcomes for all children at age 5, especially disadvantaged children and to reduce teacher and practitioner workload so that more time can be spent interacting with children in their care.”

There is nothing to disagree with there, but the baseline assessment was designed prior to the pandemic—an event that has disrupted children’s education and development in ways that could not have been foreseen and which will increase the extent to which children from disadvantaged families arrive at school less well-prepared than their more affluent counterparts. If the Government had said that the intention was to identify those children and provide them with specific, targeted help, that would have been welcome, because none of the paltry recovery funding that caused Sir Kevan Collins to resign is to be spent on under-fives.

The baseline assessment cannot be properly evaluated until 2028, when the first cohort tested at reception has taken their key stage 2 SATs. Perhaps the Minister can provide her understanding of how a 20-minute snapshot test taken at the age of four can be compared with the results of three days of tests taken under exam conditions at the age of 11, particularly when school cohorts can change markedly from reception to year 6. Children move schools, as do teachers and school leaders. The child’s unique pupil number will follow them, but if they begin at one school and move to another, perhaps even to a third, how can the school at either end of that process be measured?

Reception teachers will still carry out their own observation-based assessments over a period of weeks to gain a comprehensive and holistic picture of what each pupil can do. This will provide better information than anything gained from a snapshot 20-minute test. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised questions as to the various stages of development at which children present on their first day at school. For instance, a difference in age has been shown to produce pronounced developmental differences. Autumn-born children have demonstrated a strong advantage in attainment over their younger, summer-born peers in assessments similar to the one proposed.

I hope that the Minister can tell us what recognition will be given to contextual factors in the interpretation of the data. It is generally recognised that the only proper way to make comparisons between schools is to make adjustments for the prior attainments of their pupils when they enter those schools, and to control for other relevant characteristics of pupil intakes such as parents’ educational levels, family income and having English as an additional language. Such adjustments lead to what are known as value-added comparisons, a term that the Government have used in relation to the baseline assessment.

We are told that the assessment will be

“covering material that many pupils will already be familiar with.”

No doubt some will be familiar with that material, depending on what they have previously been taught, but what about those children who have not had the same experiences at home or in an early years setting? Children whose background experiences have not prepared them to answer the maths and English questions may have high levels of curiosity, motivation, and persistence, which will help them to make rapid progress in school, but the test cannot measure such things, nor can it measure motor skills.

When Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP began to experience pushback against the baseline assessment he wrote to all Conservative MPs to explain why it was happening and attached a factsheet in response to criticisms. The burden of administering the test was written off as being carried out “in normal teaching time”, but it is far from normal for teachers to spend many classroom hours in the crucial first weeks of reception taking children aside one-to-one to ask them structured questions. What will be the experience of the other 29 children during that time? That is why a delay is necessary.

Just last month, the Department for Education published a thematic report from the international early learning study, Young Children’s Development and Deprivation in England. It confirms that both family and school deprivation are related to lower development in emergent literacy, emergent numeracy and mental flexibility. It provides clear evidence that by measuring children’s numeracy and literacy outcomes, the baseline assessment is actually providing a proxy for measures of deprivation. That is particularly the case in the light of the pandemic, which should have occasioned a review of the baseline assessment on the grounds that the basis for the baseline has shifted, and certainly not in a positive way, for so many four year-olds. There is no shortage of evidence as to the significant impact on early years children, particularly those from disadvantaged families.

Teachers are currently planning for reception intakes of pupils who in many cases will not be school-ready. Teachers are having to modify their approaches and will be making continuous assessments, using their professional judgment, of the children in front of them. Requiring pupils to complete a baseline assessment at this time could be enormously challenging. A delay would give teachers time to prepare and enable them to focus on supporting children who faced a pared-down early years education. In preparation for these regulations, an equality assessment was conducted in January 2020. That is now hopelessly out of date. What steps have Ministers taken to satisfy themselves that the baseline assessment is now a fair measure, given the new set of challenges and the increased inequalities created in early years as a result of the pandemic?

If the baseline assessment is being used as a form of measurement with which to judge progress made during primary school, would it not make more sense to delay the process to help avoid a situation whereby pupils are producing results that are not reflective of their abilities due to education lost to the pandemic? Is it realistic to expect that a baseline assessment conducted in autumn 2021 is going to be useful or reflective of anything normal, let alone as a measure of progress in 2028? A delay would help support recovery in a way that is manageable for teachers and meaningful for children. With the reception baseline assessments set to be introduced in less than two months, those are all questions that parents are entitled to hear the Minister answer. I look forward to her response. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 6:06 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, the more that I have thought about the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who did a pretty good job in assessing what is happening, the more I cannot see why we are approving these regulations at all, to be perfectly honest. Unless we are going to use the information more quickly than after seven years, or whatever the period is, it will not make much difference to the pupils. Anything that does not make any difference for them but takes up teaching time is counterproductive, I should have thought.

If you are making an assessment in order to have a lovely idea of where pupils are and how a school is changing, seven years is a hell of a long time. How many head teachers will still be in place at the end of that period? How many teachers will have changed? That is relevant. What have we learned in the past 18 months or two years? What has been confirmed? Parents usually decide the start a child gets in life and the way in which that continues. If a child has had a disrupted school experience but has parents who will read to them, who have books in the house and who make sure that that child is not spending their entire time watching TV but watching even slightly better programmes, reading a book or listening to something on tape, that child will do better than children who do not get that. Therefore, affluence, aspiration and so on are the dominant factors.

These proposals are not going to tell us much. They will be introduced at a time when schools are going to have one of the weirdest ever and most varied intakes of pupils. All the normal conditions will have a multiplier on them. That is what we are saying. If the Government are hell-bent on bringing in these regulations for whatever reason, I suggest that some delay, even by a year, would make sense because you will still get the data and a more normal response. Bringing in the regulations now, rather than in a few months’ time, does not make any sense, to be honest.

There is some suggestion that areas such as language skills and special educational needs can be assessed. I cannot let that go without saying that there is a variety of categories of special educational needs, some of which are neurological and some are not. The assessments will not really help because people will be struggling in the dark again. We know that those from less affluent backgrounds are not spotted because of all the issues upon which I have already commented. If a child does not have good verbal reasoning and therefore cannot express themselves, the difference between what that child can achieve on paper or verbally cannot be assessed. That may be down to the environment, which has, I say once again, been disrupted.

There seems to be no good reason for these proposals, other than for assessing the general development of a school over a period. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, is right in calling for a delay but he might have been a little timorous on the amount of delay required.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 6:10 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I remind you of my interests in respect of education, in particular that I am chair-elect of E-ACT academy group, which has a number of primary schools.

My understanding of the tests is that classroom teachers in reception will spend 20 to 30 minutes one to one with a child, who may be aged four years and a day, or four years and 364 days—which is a huge age range in relative terms, if you have been alive only that long—recording the answers to questions in respect of literacy and maths and so on that have been devised by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Teachers will record them as faithfully as they can, and the questions are adaptable, so they will change according to the answers given. If my understanding is incorrect, I would welcome the Minister letting me know.

I can see the temptation for Ministers to put a baseline at the beginning of primary in order to be able to measure the success of primary schools. Ministers in the past have been tempted; the Labour Government that I was a member of had a go at this, and it was withdrawn, and there was a pilot of this relatively recently, which was also withdrawn. In the end it is always withdrawn because it does not really work, so I am hugely sympathetic to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and very supportive of my noble friend Lord Watson and his Motion.

If this was about child development, I could support the regulations because, like my noble friend, I believe in the importance of assessment as a fundamental part of teaching, but it must be assessment for learning. The problems always come when you redouble the use of that assessment for accountability. In this case, it is not being used for learning and child development at all. We are not measuring any of the physical, social and emotional aspects of a child; we are just measuring some of the cognitive ones as best we can, given the huge range of capability that children of that age have.

The results will not be shared with parents, nor really with teachers, and I do not really understand how that will work in data protection terms. Indeed, I think the Information Commissioner is still waiting to hear how withholding the results from parents will work in data protection terms. It is not at all about child development; it is solely about accountability. Can it work on that basis? Can it work with the variety of results that children of that age will be able to produce?

Given the very different experiences of preschool learning—especially in this coming year—and a decline in the numbers able to attend nursery education during Covid, I see huge variability in what we will get. You get children moving schools during the primary phase, because it is a long phase, and the more churn you have in the school environment the more the results and the accountability measure for the school will get skewed. I foresee that a head teacher who is cynical or anxious about accountability will want to pull in as many summer-born children as possible because they will come in low on the scores, so that they can maximise progress. I foresee that same anxious head teacher looking at children who want to come in after the baseline assessment has taken place and looking anxiously at whether they are likely to be under or over the baseline average for the school because that, in the end, will affect accountability.

Those issues are all really problematic. Then there are the issues of the data itself. The data will be recorded and will be relatively secret but, as I understand it, it will then link to the national pupil database. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how that and the fair processing regulations around data will work. I am afraid that the Department for Education does not have a very good record with the Information Commissioner on the handling of personal data. Quite a significant amount of personal data about children will be held. Can the Minister reassure those listening that that data will never be made available to commercial interests, about which there have been some questions asked of the Department for Education in the past? I am concerned about reliability.

I offer an alternative to the Minister, if she wants this sort of accountability school by school. You can use samples of tests; you can choose to sample a number of children in a school, which is cheaper and quicker. You are not taking teachers out of class for quite as long. If it takes 20 minutes—I cannot remember the maths—it becomes something like 10 hours of lost teacher time, right at the beginning of the school year, when it is most important to spend time getting a child socialised and used to being in school. You would lose less time if you did sampling. It would be cheaper and you would still have reasonable results, which would be just as reliable as the slightly dodgy, unreliable things that this test would produce.

As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, there are issues around SEND, special educational needs and disabilities, and whether they will properly be accounted for in the adaptive questioning that will be carried out, because you need quite high levels of adaptive questioning in the system as it is being designed.

From my point of view, I do not think this will work. If the Minister really believes that it can work, she or her department need to take time to look at this and answer some of the questions before bringing it in. September is definitely not a safe and reliable time to bring it in, so I urge her to listen to the Motion and, if it is pressed, I will support it.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench 6:16 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, once again the issue of monitoring and evaluation is upon us, this time to measure a child’s progress throughout his or her primary school years. But, as we know, there are flaws in all measuring systems, and in the reception baseline assessment more than most. It is based on the mistaken and unproven assumption that all four to five year-olds can be tested as a reasonably uniform group. We know this not to be true: very young children do not display their true abilities in a context outside familiar relationships and practical experience. For this reason alone, the reception baseline assessment arises from a false premise—that variation between children is a negligible factor and that difference between schools overrides socioeconomic background influences.

I am therefore led to believe that the decision to implement the baseline assessment in the new school year, in September, is purely political or has that context. The conclusion must be that the baseline assessment has been created to compare schools and their performances, not the individual achievements of children. As such, it is clearly a political and somewhat arbitrary decision, not one based on relevant and recent research.

The British Educational Research Association concludes that

“too much reliance is being given to test data that cannot bear the weight of interpretation placed upon them”.

Many noble Lords have made and will continue to make these points, but it seems extraordinary that, in times of such concern about our children and the severe difficulties that the pandemic has posed for many of them—increased poverty and all that implies, catch-up and mental health issues—this effectively takes teachers away from their primary task of building relationships with four to five year-olds. That the Government plan to expend £9.8 million on a baseline assessment programme is, to my mind, not a good use of money and somewhat extraordinary.

Would that sum not be better spent on appointing an overall senior figure, preferably at Cabinet level, to co-ordinate the many excellent projects from expert organisations, including the Education Select Committee; and to ensure that the DfE spends its scarce resources wisely and, most importantly, effectively to support the education of children from early years, and does not waste precious time and money on assessments that will prove nothing of value? At the very least, in view of the criticisms that have already been made, and no doubt will be made, in this debate, will the Government not agree to delay the implementation of this faulty plan for a few years to come?

Photo of Baroness Blower Baroness Blower Labour 6:20 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, it is pleasure to speak in the debate alongside my noble friend Lord Knight and the noble Lord, Lord Addington. As a former teacher, I can say categorically and without fear of contradiction that I am not anti- assessment, which is a central part of the teaching and learning process, but reception baseline assessment has very few friends and supporters. A teacher who engaged in an earlier iteration of this process described baseline assessment in no uncertain terms. She said it was unreliable, unethical, immoral and expensive, and that it should go once and for all. That is not the proposal before your Lordships’ House today, but it is worth considering why any early years professional should feel like this and how widespread that feeling is.

Is it unreliable? The British Educational Research Association, a highly regarded body, points out that assessing very young children—we are talking here about four year-olds, who have been locked down during this pandemic—is inherently unreliable. As the BERA report points out, any results would have

“little predictive power and dubious validity”.

Is it unethical? The reception baseline assessment is an accountability measure whose sole purpose is to judge the performance of schools. It is not to assist any child in any way at all. What is provided by the test is explicitly of no diagnostic value. They are to be used only as a cohort measure and the data will be used only at the end of year 6, as other noble Lords have said, to measure school-level progress. Yet, as other noble Lords have also said, over seven years a school cohort could change by up to 50%. Trying to reflect all the various changes accurately in any kind of algorithm could never really do so properly. Previous experience of the ill-fated and discredited algorithm for GCSEs demonstrates this. The current legislation also provides no information on the precise use to which the data will be put, other than that it will be entered on the national pupil database. Can the Minister expand beyond saying that it will be black-boxed?

Is it immoral? I am sure we all know that the first few days and weeks in a reception class are important for establishing, supporting, encouraging and nurturing relationships between children and their families and the team of early years professionals. But 69% of teachers involved in a 2019 pilot believed that the tests had had a negative impact on the settling-in period, which is not surprising when one realises that the teacher has to leave the classroom for 20 to 30 minutes at a time to conduct these tests with each child. For a class of 30, that could represent up to 15 hours of teaching time lost in those first important days of term.

However hard the teacher tries, though, according to University College London research, children know that they are being tested. This leads to some becoming anxious and feeling stressed, and to some possibly even feeling a sense of failure. That is a pretty inauspicious start to an education for any child.

Finally, is it expensive? My noble friend Lord Knight has already referred to the fact that if this were needed, we could do it much more cheaply by simply sampling. There is plenty of academic research on that being a suitable way of recording what cohorts can do. In my view, however, teacher time ought to be more highly valued than it is at present. I am sure it will be argued that the reception baseline assessment will reduce teacher workload, particularly in comparison with the early years foundation stage profile.

It is true that the early years foundation stage profile takes a lot of teacher time, but it is valuable teacher time productively spent. Frankly, any money spent on this reception baseline assessment system, which has attracted an open letter from 700 experts, educationists and parent groups describing the government plans as “pointless and damaging”, alongside an expert panel from BERA describing the assessment as

“flawed, unjustified and totally unfit for purpose”, looks like a significant waste of resources, however much it is.

Research from University College London in 2020 showed that 86% of head teachers have negative opinions about reception baseline assessment, and research from More Than a Score, a campaigning organisation with which I have worked, found that 65% of parents are opposed to the testing of four year-olds as they start school. This should not be how children start the important lifelong learning journey on which they should engage. It is simply not appropriate.

Photo of Viscount Hanworth Viscount Hanworth Labour 6:26 pm, 13th July 2021

This Motion expresses regret at many aspects of the Government’s approach to education and I wish to express my regret over an issue that does not fall directly under the rubric of the Motion but which is nevertheless a matter of prime importance. It is a matter that I have already raised with the Minister, to whom I have sent a substantial dossier, and with whom I have requested a meeting, although as yet with no response.

On 22 February, I asked the Government what estimate they have made of the proportion of teacher posts in London and elsewhere in England that are currently filled by supply teacher agencies. I was told that the department does not hold data, but that nevertheless it is recognised that supply teachers perform a valuable role by covering temporary staff absences. What the Department for Education seems to have failed to recognise is that in England, many—if not the majority of—young teachers who are beginning their careers work as supply teachers, who are paid for the hours that they work. The fees charged by their agencies reduce their wages significantly. Schools have an incentive to employ supply teachers because this relieves them of the need to provide holiday or sickness pay, a consideration when budgets are tight. It also facilitates financial retrenchment, since they can more easily reduce staffing costs by releasing the supply teachers.

These circumstances have arisen at a time when local authorities have been losing control of the governance of the profession, through the rise of independent schools and academies. Hitherto, local authorities were the agents that supplied teachers to schools. Nowadays in England teachers are supplied by commercial agencies which have incentives that are not always well aligned with the best interests of education.

By coincidence, the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member, has received notice of a statutory instrument that proposes a 10% reduction in the hours to be worked by early-career teachers. This is intended as a means of reducing the wastage whereby a large proportion of young teachers leave the profession within a few years. This allowance is confined to those who have obtained permanent posts, who are in the minority, and it does not take much thought to understand that it poses a disincentive to appoint teachers to permanent posts. I marvel at the obtuseness of the officials at the Department for Education who have proposed this policy. I regret that I did not take the opportunity to pour scorn and derision on it in a Grand Committee, when it could have been called into question.

In response to an inquiry from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee relating to the statutory instrument, the Department for Education stated:

“Supply agencies … are private companies and as such have discretion over individual pay—the teacher’s terms and conditions (including pay) will be a matter between the supply teacher and the agency by which they are employed.”

This seems to indicate that in the present circumstances, neither the Government nor the local authorities have any leverage to apply to the problem. They are simply ignoring the problem. I believe that the circumstances that are revealed are undermining the teaching profession and are the principal cause of the wastage whereby a large proportion of young teachers leave the profession within a few years of joining.

There is an urgent need to address this problem and I believe that some steps that could be taken are self-evident. I would welcome an opportunity to acquaint the officials at the Department for Education with the devastating facts that I have learned. I also hope to discuss with them the possible remedies.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 6:29 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, as happens all too often in these debates, I find myself beginning with the regret that the regret Motion is not something stronger. None the less, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, for tabling this Motion and ensuring that the House has the chance to air these issues.

I start from a very different philosophical position from that of the noble Lord, Lord Watson. I believe that tests and exams are a harmful part of our system. They are far too dominant, consuming vast hours wastefully in preparation and cramming, and are a major contributor to mental ill-health. To what purpose? They test how well you do tests and exams and little more. I can say that from personal experience, having over the years got high marks in subjects of which I knew little to nothing, simply by working out what I needed to do for the test, rote learning it and forgetting it as I walked out the door of the exam room. I am not proud of that, but that is what the education system taught me to do.

For many people, we know that tests and exams are a hugely stressful, damaging experience, in which they cannot show their true colours, skills, talents, ability or knowledge. In the modern world, with search engines at your fingertips and the need to think creatively, critically and flexibly, they are particularly poorly equipped as any kind of preparation for life—a life that will require you to co-operate with others rather than compete against them. Preparation for life is what our education system should be, not just exams.

Some of those arguments will not apply to these tests. One would hope that they will not be stressful and that there would not be cramming for them, although, given the panicked competition some parents feel and the pressure on teachers, that cannot by any means be guaranteed. None the less, there are powerful arguments against them and the strongest was made to me some years ago by a school head in North Yorkshire when these tests were first mooted. She said: “I don’t want to start children’s school lives by damaging them with a test”, surprising herself, I think, as she found herself near to tears at the thought. That is a view I have subsequently heard from many caring teachers and expert scholars, and is reflected in the briefings that I and, I am sure, many others have received.

The More Than a Score campaign group—in which I declare an interest as I work with it regularly—notes the utter senselessness of testing four year-olds. You could run the same test three days running and get three utterly different results: it depends on how the child is feeling at the time. I note too that the petition against reception baseline assessment had 112,000 signatures.

For many children standardised tests are utterly unsuitable: those with special educational needs, with English as a second language or, as we all know too well, with the massive, indefensibly ridiculous disadvantage of a summer birthday—a great flaw in our rigidly age-straitjacketed educational system. The settling-in period for primary school is different for different children. For some it is a great adventure, for others it is a terrifying ordeal no matter how much care and compassion they are shown. That is definitely going to show in the test results.

I note that the British Educational Research Association expert panel questioned the accuracy of the data and how it could be used to support children's learning, stating that these tests cannot be “accurate or fair”. Under normal conditions, in the early weeks as children start, schools make assessments of their educational needs. But they do it in a non-intrusive and continuous way, using the teacher’s professional judgement rather than a one-off binary test in which answers are recorded as “yes” or “no”, with no space for comments.

There is also a further risk of damage in reducing the time for play. We know that play is crucial for the development of children’s linguistic and cognitive skills, as well as beneficial for well-being and self-regulation. If you have a class of 30 taking 30 minutes for each test, that is 15 hours of lost teaching time in the first few weeks, not including the time spent preparing for the assessment and recording the results.

I also wish to add my voice to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, noting that we have no guarantee that this data will not be sold to commercial organisations. In the Minister’s answer could we have that guarantee?

It is telling that we are being told that this aims to close the attainment gap, yet there is absolutely no evidence of how it might do that. We do have a huge problem with the attainment gap, reflecting the fact that levels of inequality—and poverty—in our society are extraordinarily wide. Schools can help, of course, but they cannot fix this problem. The only certain way to reduce the attainment gap is to end poverty and reduce inequality.

This test does nothing at all for teachers or pupils. It is designed and intended solely as a system measure. It is, therefore, all about the data and not about the child. I seem to have taken part in a lot of medical debates in your Lordships’ House in the past year. One of the phrases that comes up again and again in those is “First do no harm”. The proposal for these baseline reception assessments does harm and there is no evidence of benefit.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that we should not use Covid as a reason for delaying the introduction of these tests, as strong as that reason is. We should simply abandon the whole misguided idea of reception baseline assessments. They are, like far too many things we see from this Government, a piece of theatre—a simulacrum of action, rather than an effective delivery of change. That would require actual resources, funding and support for schools—action to tackle the poverty and inequality that are the cause of the attainment gap.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 6:36 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I support my noble friend’s regret Motion but, like other noble Lords, I go further and say that never is the right time to introduce these absurd baseline tests for four year-olds. They should be allowed to wither on the vine. But this is all on a par with Michael Gove’s introduction of rigid exam systems, built on by Nick Gibb’s rote learning and testing, rather than the development of skills that would be useful to pupils in later lives and work, and actually stimulating during their school years.

I recall Ed Balls deciding there was too much testing in education and withdrawing the SATs for key stage 3—for 13-year-olds. They were pointless and have not been missed. We are all aware that SATs increase stress for the pupils who undertake them and the staff who run them, and we are aware of the perverse incentives they give to head teachers. In what way does this improve the education of young people? As the More Than a Score campaign group has put it,

“statutory tests have been cancelled for two years now with zero negative impact on pupils’ education or on school performance. Paradoxically, while their absence has barely registered, their presence creates unwarranted stress on young children and schools, narrows the curriculum, and generates a fear of failure within the whole school community”, and, as I said, they lead to perverse behaviour by head teachers under pressure.

Has anyone heard from parents, staff or children a cry of, “Oh no, we didn’t have year 2 or year 6 SATs?” No, because they are pointless. It is interesting that private schools do not have to do SATs. In 2018 it was calculated that only 18% of them do so. Schools that have the choice do not generally use them; state schools do not get that choice. Yet the Government now want to introduce the additional test for children starting school at the age of four—and they seem to think that September, after 18 months of Covid restrictions, which have had a big negative impact on the development of children, is the right time to implement this.

Looking at Covid, we know that childcare settings and support have been closed or limited and that parents are under intense pressure and often less able to devote time to the development of their preschool children because of the pressure to support the education of school-age children. We know that half of parents questioned said that their child was not spending time playing with friends in their home, meaning that they were missing out on vital socialising skills. How on earth could the Government think that this is the right time to introduce such a deeply flawed approach to education? Why would anyone want schools across the country to devote time to these baseline assessments rather than support young children often worse prepared for formal education than their predecessors?

The Government have said that each child will need to be assessed by a teacher for 20 to 30 minutes to collect data for the Minister’s department. This data will not benefit the child in any way. For a class of 30 children, that is a minimum of 10 hours’ learning time in the first weeks of school. It could be 15 hours. The data will not be used to support children. As we have heard, it will be used by the DfE to judge the school. The data will be collected by teachers at just the time when they should be settling young children into the school environment, not wasting their time testing them.

We know that there are serious questions about the reliability of these tests based on pilot testing. My noble friend Lord Knight speaks with great authority on that. We have already heard about the educational experts who have written to the Government about the RBA, saying that it was pointless and damaging. I know that this Government distrust experts, because they want to hear only prejudice. Is it not time, however, that they listened to the evidence and began to trust teachers and head teachers?

Kevin Courtney, joint general-secretary of the NEU said:

“In yet another end-of-term announcement, the government is confronting schools with new, unnecessary and harmful policies.”

What do the Government have against our teachers? I hope the Minister will be able to respond.

One advantage of home education during Covid is that parents have seen what a restricted and tedious curriculum this Government have forced into primary schools. As one parent put it:

“The curriculum is joyless, both to teach and to learn. In some parts it is developmentally inappropriate. For example, too little time is spent on the foundations of maths.”

Another commented:

“I was shocked and dismayed by the content of the English curriculum. It appeared that children were learning how to classify language to satisfy testing requirements and nothing more.”

How damning that is about the wretched education system this Government are putting on to our children.

I hope the Minister will listen to what is said tonight. This baseline testing really goes to the heart of the dreadful education system that the Government are putting on our children, which is having such a negative impact on their development.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 6:42 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about SATs in primary schools, but I gently remind him that it was his Government who brought in a whole raft of testing through SATs in our primary sector. Never mind—a sinner reformed and all the rest.

First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for this regret Motion. It is important to assess four and five year-old children in their first few months in school. Children start school in different ways. Some are excited and eager to start to play and learn. Some are shy and nervous at this big change to their lives, and some are very frightened at this big step. Those first few days and first few months—indeed, the first term—are an enormously important time for them to settle into their classroom environment; a time to gradually learn through play and discovery. The reception class teacher and teaching assistants need to get to know the child, work with the child and play with the child. This time of observation and learning is absolutely crucial to a child’s development and critical in the assessment of a child’s needs and development. It is a time for the early identification of any special needs a child may have.

These early weeks and first term are the time not only to get to know the child but to arrange to meet the parents, grandparents and carers, not just at the classroom door, but through home visits. In this way, the teacher can really understand the whole child—their interests and skills, the things they like doing, the things that make them happy and the things that make them unhappy.

Why do I have concerns about reception baseline assessment? The Department for Education says that by giving each child a baseline assessment when the child first starts primary school, schools will not only have a clearer idea of how much progress pupils are making but should be able to identify which children are likely to need extra help.

Children of just four and five already have to contend with the anxiety of starting school and are often daunted by unfamiliar tasks at this stage. Concentration levels may be an issue, particularly for summer-born pupils almost a year younger than their autumn-born peers. It would be good if the Government took a proper look at these children and brought forward proposals on how to support them.

Checks administered on a one-to-one basis are time consuming for teachers as well. At the very time they should be getting to know the children, they will be spending time—20 to 30 minutes per child—probably out of the classroom. With a class of potentially 30 children, that is several hours when the teacher could have been with the children in the classroom.

The Government have an interesting history on baseline assessment. In September 2016, the DfE was due to introduce a reception baseline check for all children. The Government suggested that the new tests would ensure higher standards and allow all pupils to receive the attention they needed and build on areas of weakness. Schools piloted three different types of assessment. A third of the pilot schools had tests carried out one to one with a reception teacher; these focused on the very basics of learning such as counting and picture, letter and number recognition. The NFER assessment used common reception resources such as counting beads, plastic shapes and number and picture cards, and the children worked through activities while the teacher recorded their progress on a digital device. The other third of schools decided to use an assessment that relied on teachers’ observations of children’s skills within the normal day-to-day school routine. This method of assessment was designed so that the children did not even know they were being tested.

In the summer of 2016, the baseline check was put on hold indefinitely and teachers were told to continue with the early years foundation stage profile pending further decisions. This decision was taken because the Government confided that the three pilots could be taken by the same child and come out with different results. So we see that the data provided by reception baseline assessment is sometimes—indeed, often—unreliable.

Administering tasks and tests, which takes teachers away from the classroom at the very time they want to get to know the children, is not the right way to proceed. Let me give an example. Imagine this: little Elizabeth starts reception. She is nervous and in wonder mode. In her first few days, as she is getting to know the classroom environment and the teacher, she is taken out of the classroom and tested. She then goes back into the classroom. What happens to those results? Do her parents get to know them? Do her next six teachers get to know them? What happens at the end of those seven years? What happens if little Elizabeth has not made the progress she should have made? Will the Government do anything to the teachers or to the school? What is the purpose of those tests and that assessment?

As has been said, now—when schools are still struggling with the problems of Covid—is certainly not the time to experiment with this baseline assessment. As we have also heard, at a time when early years resources are quite limited, now is not the time to spend money on an ambitious scheme when we do not know whether it will be successful.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 6:48 pm, 13th July 2021

In this debate, we have learned that the reception baseline assessment is a short assessment taken in the first six weeks in which a child begins reception. As my noble friend Lord Watson stated at the outset, we are not against assessment.

This debate refers to the Childcare Act 2006 and the Early Years Foundation Stage (Learning and Development Requirements) Order 2007, which underpin the requirement for schools to administer the RBA. The legislation has been amended to ensure that the assessment is included in these requirements on a statutory basis; this statutory basis forms the basis of this regret Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Watson, who argued comprehensively for a flexible delay in the light of the pandemic, allowing teachers to focus on the greatest needs of those in need.

We have learned that the RBA assesses a child in early mathematics, literacy, communication and language and that its purpose is to form the starting point for cohort-level school progress measures. We understand the purpose and need for a baseline assessment of where a young child begins their formal entry into education and that data is used as a benchmark for recognising progress, but many noble Lords have argued powerfully in this debate for the complete abolition of the test, and I understand their views.

However, the basis of this regret Motion is to highlight the fixed position of the statutory basis beginning in September. We are asking for a little more flexibility to be written into the regulations so that schools, which have been through the most incredible and incredulous time since March 2020, have the ability to administer the test according to their particular circumstances throughout the autumn term and do not remain fixed to the window of six weeks, as noted in the administration.

I am pleased to see in the guidance that scores are not shared or published, to prevent labelling or streaming of children or judgment of early years providers, and that teachers receive a series of narrative statements informing them how the child performed on the day but, as my noble friend Lady Blower noted, the current legislation does not make explicit what will happen to that data. Furthermore, she informed us of the unsettling effect that such testing has at the start of a child’s education.

The teachers’ guidance document notes that the RBA assessment should sit alongside the important activity that takes place during the first term of reception. If the Minister agrees to review the timeline so that assessment could take place during the most appropriate time for the school and the early years pupils in the first two terms of reception, it would assist many schools and pupils to concentrate on other important activities that could take place at the optimum time for the school and the pupils after the most disrupted 18 months of learning in our experience.

My noble friend Lord Knight made many apposite points, including about the efficacy of taking up scarce teacher time that could be better used in direct classroom learning. Parents may be concerned about the pressure and disruption that RBA will place on very young children, many of whom have had a very disrupted early years experience due to the pandemic.

Can the Minister assure the families of children undergoing these assessments that every effort will be made to ensure that they are at ease and that the assessments are not disruptive to school integration? How will the impact of catch-up time for lost learning be factored in? Some children starting reception and undergoing these tests will have just turned four, whereas some of their fellow pupils will have already turned or will soon turn five. How will this large age discrepancy be accounted for in the assessment? I support the Motion.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 6:53 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for tabling this Motion and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the regulations. I also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its detailed examination of the regulations. At the start of the debate, I particularly want to welcome and thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight, as chairman-elect of E-ACT, and I look forward to working with him in its delivery of excellent education.

The reforms to the early years foundation stage that form part of this statutory instrument have been several years in the making—with consultation, of course. The aim is to strengthen the early years curriculum, assessment and practice to improve outcomes for all children and to close the disadvantage gap, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned.

There has been considerable research into and evidence about the developmental stage, particularly over the past five to 10 years, which underpin this. The changes were devised with child development experts using the latest evidence on what is most important for supporting the learning and development of our youngest children. The early years foundation stage reforms were consulted on, and more than 3,000 schools have taken part in the early adoption year this year. It is important to note that, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and other noble Lords mentioned, the purpose of those reforms is to free up more pupil and teacher contact time for teachers to get to know their students, which helps to identify many of the special educational needs that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, often speaks about.

Likewise, the reception baseline assessment, or RBA, has been developed over a number of years with the Standards and Testing Agency working closely with teachers and school leaders at every stage. The noble Baronesses, Lady D’Souza and Lady Blower, among others, mentioned the British research project and validity. As I say, this has been piloted in the majority of primary schools and a validity report was published in February 2020 that provides evidence that the RBA satisfies four key requirements: first, that assessment is age appropriate; secondly, that the assessment results provide a fair measure of pupil performance; thirdly, that pupil performance is comparable within and across schools; and fourthly, that the meaning of RBA data is clear to those responsible for assessing the progress measure.

It is important to note at this point, given that many noble Lords raised the issue, including the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, that this is not an attainment measure but a progress measure and it is not unethical. We have the Progress 8 measure at secondary schools, and it is akin to that. We have had no challenges, saying that that is an unethical way to handle data. It is a short, interactive and practical assessment and will use age-appropriate resources that are easy for pupils to handle. Pupils do not have to prepare for this, either in school or at home. It will be very similar to other on-entry assessments currently carried out in reception classes in most of our schools. Most noble Lords mentioned teacher workload, and the good news is that once fully established, it will form the baseline for primary progress measurements, in place of key stage 1 assessments. Most noble Lords would, I hope, welcome the reduction in workload.

Noble Lords have rightly highlighted specific concerns about the RBA and the timing of its introduction, but the Government are confident that we are taking the right approach. It is important that we hold schools to account for the progress they make with their pupils, ensuring that all pupils are being supported to achieve, regardless of their background, prior attainment or additional needs. The RBA will enable us to do this in a fairer way. The noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, mentioned the different cohorts and summer-born and autumn-born pupils. This is a measure of a cohort in those schools, so summer and autumn-born pupils will be spread across the country. A school will not be disadvantaged because the summer and autumn born, while not spread equally across the population, are spread across our schools generally, so this will not be detrimental.

On the value we place on teachers, particularly in the earliest foundation stage, we do value them and that is why £153 million has been allocated for professional development for early years. The RBA means that primary progress measures will in future include the crucial first three years of primary school, which, of course, key stage 1 currently does not. We know that not all pupils start school at the same point in their development, and the RBA will enable us to understand the progress pupils make throughout their time in that school. That is one of the reasons why, when we consulted in 2017, a clear majority agreed with moving the baseline assessment point away from key stage 1 to reception.

The RBA will give parents better information with which to make informed decisions about schooling and, once fully established it will, as I say, end the key stage 1 assessments. It is not a measure of attainment; it is just an assessment at all entry points. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that if we give more flexibility than six weeks or delay until January 2022, it will not be a meaningful comparison for the children who enter in September, once you move that baseline point. It is for students when they enter school, within that six weeks. That is the validity of this report, so delaying until January 2022, when most students will have started in September, would undermine the validity of the data.

A number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Knight, raised the issue of data protection. We have regularly consulted with the Information Commissioner’s Office when developing the data aspects of the RBA, and we are confident we are taking the right approach. The data will be stored on the national pupil database in a way that means it cannot be accessed by anyone other than the analysts who will, in X years’ time, be using it to measure progress. It will not be available to commercial organisations because of data control—I think that is the technical name. In order to be valid, this needs to be delivered as close as possible to the start of reception, so, unfortunately for noble Lords, we cannot delay until January.

I know that noble Lords are concerned about teacher workloads, and we are enormously grateful for the work that teachers have done during the pandemic. We have been taking decisive action to make improvements and reduce teacher workload.

I would like to reassure noble Lords that preparation time for teachers is limited and the RBA should take no longer than 20 minutes per child, with the average assessment taking 14 minutes. In addition, one of the principal aims of the changes to the early years foundation stage was to reduce the workload. Schools—and, if they wish, parents—will also receive a series of short narrative statements about the child’s performance in the assessment, which can help inform classroom practice, including understanding where children’s language skills may need further attention, so that children are given the right support at this critical time. Because it is a progress measure, and even though we have had the pandemic and we know the effect, schools will be given credit for this. Obviously, it is based on where the child has started: it is not an attainment measure but a progress measure, so overall, schools will be given credit for all the catch-up that we know they have been working hard on recently.

In relation to children with special educational needs, measures have been specifically developed with a SEND reviewer. We are confident that the test can be adapted, and the feedback from the 3,000 early adopter schools which, even during Covid, chose voluntarily to do this, is that, actually, many children enjoy it. It is more like a quiz kind of assessment; it is age-appropriate to them. Some wanted it to carry on because they were so enjoying what they were doing in the classroom, so it is not a traditional form of exam.

The RBA is about fairness for schools, parents and pupils. It will provide a baseline for a fairer progress measure for schools, and ultimately reduce the overall assessment burden and provide parents with better information. Along with the reforms to the early years foundation stage that these regulations introduce, RBA will improve provision in early years and reception. Covid-19 makes that improvement all the more urgent.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, mentioned a matter that in fact relates to a different statutory instrument, so I will write to him.

I hope I have reassured noble Lords that this will have a positive impact and will enable schools to be given credit overall for the catch-up they will be doing with our pupils, because this is a progress measure, not an attainment measure, and we will be introducing it as of September this year. Schools have had the information about the tests since March 2021, so there has been sufficient advance notice to the workforce.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 7:03 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. I also thank all noble Lords who have spoken. It is not often that I am accused of being timorous, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, but I am sure he meant it as a compliment. The Back-Bench speakers were all opposed to reception baseline assessment; only the strength of their rhetoric varied. The Minister must have felt that she was very much swimming against the tide, although I suspect that is not a position that she is entirely unfamiliar with.

I thank the Minister for her valiant attempt to respond to noble Lords, but ultimately she merely reinforced the Government’s position that the reception baseline assessment will have a start date of September. For that reason, I wish to test the opinion of your Lordships’ House.

Ayes 216, Noes 232.

Division number 3 Early Years Foundation Stage (Miscellaneous Amendments) and Childcare Fees (Amendment) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Regret

Aye: 216 Members of the House of Lords

No: 232 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Lord Watson of Invergowrie’s Motion

Motion disagreed.