Assessing Young Children: How Important are the Early Years?

14th April 2016

As per an article currently on the BBC website, there has been research over the last decade into the extent to which children’s’ early education correlates to their level of ability by the end of their time at primary school. This article will look at two specific areas of this debate. Firstly, the controversial question of assessment upon entry to primary school; and, secondly, whether the early years actually have that much of a bearing on the abilities of children later on in their educational careers.

The article mentioned above uses statistics to claim that 23% and 21% of students who struggle with language at the age of five were below the expected standard by age eleven in English and Maths respectively.

The obvious suggestion is that there is a direct link between a child’s early grasp of language and their future abilities. But for me, these statistics raised couple of key questions. Namely: how has the information been collected? And, if there is a correlation, then what is being done to make sure that these children get the best possible support in the intervening years?

Concentrating firstly of the question of where this information is coming from, the answer would seem to lie in Assessments.

Historically, SATs have been taken at the end of each of the Key stages to try and assess students’ ability levels, but there has so far been little in the way of official assessments for children who have only just arrived in school.

The above statistics, therefore, seem likely to have been taken either from a sample, or directly from teachers, who in most cases will have a fair idea of a child’s aptitude and level just through interacting and teaching them for a short while.

The first thing that could be said about both these possible data-collection methods is that they may not be as accurate as one would like. But how could this be resolved? In the eyes of the government, at least, the answer is simple: by routinely assessing children as young as four years old.

Two years ago now, Michael Gove called for four and five year olds, i.e. Reception aged children, to be assessed when they enter primary school in England, as well as at age eleven, when they leave for secondary. He suggested that this was the only way to accurately understand the progress being made by the students throughout their time in primary.

But what perceivable affect would these assessments have on the educational and even emotional well-being of British children?

For example, it has been questioned whether or not assessing children at such a young age is necessary, or even fair on a young child just settling into school life. Arguments for and against the matter vary, but one prescient one is perhaps that assessing the abilities of a child so young could effectively ‘script’ them, giving them the label of ‘under-achiever’ or ‘average’, regardless of the positive spin that school chiefs may try to put on these name tags. Such a thing could, perhaps, be got round by keeping results for teacher’s eyes only. However, how practical is this really? And are there enough benefits to the child to justify the risk?

I suppose the answer to this lies in what exactly happens to these initial assessment results once they have been collected? And how, in practice, they affect the individual care that a child receives throughout primary school? Is the information simply being stored for statistical evidence later on, like the figures above relating to Language and Maths ability by the end of year six? Or is it being used to actively help the students who have had to sit through these assessments, however reasonably or unreasonably, in order that instead of ending up as one of these statistics, they actually end up benefitting from them?

Assuming, for a minute, that the results would be used in a way that had a positive impact on a child’s education, rather than merely gathering dust until the government sees fit to publish them, is it, even then, necessary to assess students that are so young?

At the time of Gove’s statement, the National Union of Teachers vocally opposed the idea of these assessments, saying that this was too young to test our children. But this raises the further question of what age, then, are children old enough to be tested? And if four is too young, then is it not also too young for them to be inaugurated into mainstream education?

This is where the second point I would like to discuss in this article comes in. Namely: are the early years as essential as statistics such as those above would seem to purport?

One argument against this supposition is that, in Finland, which was named as the best country in the world for education on a list where the UK came sixth and the US seventeenth, a child needn’t even start school until the age of seven, two or years after the age that our own children must supposedly be tested in order to have the best chances of meeting their academic potential.

Of course, it could equally be argued that the fact that Britain’s population is around twelve times that of Finland means that here there are simply too many students for them all to get the individual support that they need. But is this, then, not the problem that we should be addressing? I do feel that cases such as Finland show that there is an argument that perhaps we are focussing on the wrong thing. And if we did, in fact, start our children in school two years later than we do at present, would there not be more school places and therefore more individual care for students? And would this not be a preferable way to improve education in this country?


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