Sophia is four and shy, especially around strangers. In September she starts school and Hayley Phillips, her mother, already worried about how her daughter will settle in, has found out she will have to sit a test.
In the first six weeks of the new school year, four- and five-year-olds in nearly 10,000 schools, about half of the primary schools in England, will be taken out of class and asked questions for the new reception baseline assessment (RBA).
Phillips knew to ask about the assessments because she is a teacher at another school, but most parents will be unaware they are happening. Parents have no legal right to know – according to the Department for Education (DfE), it is up to the discretion of the individual schools whether to inform them.
Nancy Stewart, of the campaign group More Than a Score, argues that parents have a right to know if the government is testing their child and holding the results. “We think parents should know that the first few weeks of their child’s time in reception class could be disrupted by these unnecessary tests. We urge parents to ask their child’s teacher and headteacher if they are going to take place,” she says.
According to the government, the controversial test is a “20-minute check of language and ability to count” that will provide a snapshot of children’s development when they start school “just like checking their teeth or eyesight”. The results will be used to measure progress by the time the child sits key stage 2 tests at age 11. Many teachers and child development experts are fiercely opposed to the test, arguing it will lead to more formalised teaching and less play.
Phillips, from Sevenoaks, Kent, wants to withdraw her daughter, but parents have no right to do so.
Tomorrow, families opposed to the tests are going to the high court in London to try to stop them, claiming they will cause distress and damage children’s future learning. They are asking the judge to allow a judicial review of the government’s decision to pilot the tests in September before introducing them across England in 2020.
Lisa Richardson, solicitor for Irwin Mitchell, representing the families, says they fear their children could face harm: “They are worried about the immediate distress experienced by some children in the assessment process itself, and the longer-term impact on their education because of schools potentially using the feedback from the assessment to label or stream children at such a young age.”
Phillips says: “I know about the tests only because I am a teacher and I asked. Her school said every child will be sitting the test. I said, well, not my daughter because it is a pilot and not statutory. I was told I would have to discuss it at the home visit in the first week of term in September.”
She adds: “I’ve nothing against the school. I’m sure the assessment will be done in the nicest possible way, but I want Sophia to be able to play and bond with her reception teacher and teaching assistants. I’m not sure that if she is taken out of class on her own she would be able to respond to the questions, even if she knew the answers. I don’t think it would be a fair representation of what she can do and it is of no benefit to the children.”
The DfE says the test is not a measure of individual children and will not be kept on their school records. “The pilot is an opportunity for schools to familiarise themselves with the format and help us make sure it works – that’s why it’s so significant that almost 10,000 schools have registered. It is up to schools whether or not to tell parents that they are taking part. This is the case with all assessment pilots,” says a spokesman. “The assessment will be stress-free for children as it will reflect normal classroom activities.”
But many parents and teachers are not convinced. Sharon Vince, another parent, from London, who is also a teacher, is planning to make a stand. “My daughter starts school in September and I have written to her headteacher asking them to reconsider taking part in the pilot,” she says. “I found out my daughter’s school will be piloting them at a meeting with other teachers. I would have expected the school to tell parents,” she says.
“We teachers do assessment all the time, observing children as they play and talking to them in natural situations, which is quite different from taking them out of class for 20 to 30 minutes and asking them questions with right and wrong answers.
“And what about those with English as an additional language? Children could get a label assigned to them and that can be difficult to shake off.”