You can’t know what you don’t know
By Dr Sue Allingham
So this week we have heard who the provider of the latest incarnation of ‘baseline assessment will be. It was really no surprise as it had been second guessed a long time ago. But somehow seeing it in black and white, with the Minister celebrating it, made it real.
‘Seeing it in black and white’ is an interesting statement. Yes, it makes thoughts and ideas more real and quantifiable, but does it make them the only possible truth? The only way forward? The only interpretation of a young child’s thoughts, knowledge, needs and interests? Will what we record in twenty minutes, in a staged assessment, with a relatively unknown child in an entirely false situation really enable us to see that child in ‘black and white’. Well, it will –
Actually the sounds quite good doesn’t it?
But what the frigglejang does that really mean? Those who remember PIPs from all those years ago will be familiar with that one… Yes, we had (out of the ark) computer based systems more than twenty years ago where many of us were expected to do exactly what is now being piloted again. It was a waste of time then, as it will be now. We succeeded then in persuading central government that these were a waste of time and spent time in working parties to develop the original Foundation Stage Profile. Déjà vu.
So, what is Anisa’s story?
A hundred years ago, when I was a Reception teacher in a school where we had no Nursery provision, we received children from all sorts of backgrounds. Some had preschool or day nursery experience, some had none. We had staggered entry until half term, and we had ‘baseline assessment’. In this particular school, we didn’t use PIPs. We had a paper based assessment from the Local Authority called an ‘on entry profile’. This involved sitting with the individual children for as long as it took, it was very time consuming, to tick off letters, numbers, shapes, colours, words etc. We barely knew these children, or they us, and we were all under pressure. We were told that we had to complete these assessments before the children had ‘learnt anything’ otherwise they wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of their knowledge ‘on entry’. One year I had an epiphany, and it was Anisa that crystallised it for me.
Anisa was quiet, but seemed independent. She didn’t know any of the other children in the class, but settled in quickly. During her first week I sat her down beside me with the ‘on entry profile’ document in front of us and started to go through it with her. She was happy to sit with me, and we even had a little chat. Then I started to point to the letters of the alphabet – she didn’t know any of them. The same with the numbers. I duly recorded this on the document and moved on to the next child. Of course I was pulling children away from their ‘all consuming play’ to do these assessments, but that’s another story.
Later that day I broke away from assessing and we all went outside, we hadn’t yet had our own outside area built, and the children were exploring the whole school playground. It was great to spend quality time with them all and get to know them. Anisa caught my eye. She had discovered the playground markings and was hopping and jumping all over them. I walked over to her and she immediately engaged me in conversation. ‘Mrs Allingham, Mrs Allingham, that one’s my letter, that’s Mummy’s letter, that’s my number!’ as she was jumping on and off letters and numbers. Correctly identifying family initials and her age. A few hours earlier I had recorded that she knew no letters and numbers.
Penny drop moment for me. I knew I had been uncomfortable for years with this type of assessment, but this summed it all up.
Looking back I know that this was probably the pivotal moment for me, and why I am where I am today. You can’t know what you don’t know. And if you go about it the wrong way, you will never find out what you really need to know. A record of a score in black and white does not tell us anything about that child, it certainly does not tell us their ‘baseline’ knowledge. In Anisa’s case, if she had been assessed on a tablet based programme, her result would have pinged off into the ether and been totally inaccurate. Of course, I changed everything I had noted about her.
Often the education of children consists in pouring into their intelligence the intellectual content of school programmes. And often these programmes have been compiled in the official department of education, and their use is imposed by law upon the teacher and the child.
(Montessori 1912, p 28)
(Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori Method. Translated from the Italian by Anne E. George. New York. Frederick A. Stokes Company)
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Keeping Early Years Unique is proud to be a part of the More than a Score coalition making a stand against the Governments plans to test our youngest children in their early days at school.
Back in January I was featured in the Guardian newspaper in an article speaking out against baseline: