Cover story - April 16, 2018

20-minute baseline test sparks more disagreement

 The Department for Education (DfE) announcement that it has awarded the contract for a 20-minute national baseline test for Reception age children has reignited disagreement within the teaching profession and among Early Years sector professionals.

The new assessment, awarded to the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), is the latest attempt at a national baseline test. The last was abandoned in 2016 when it was discovered that the outcomes of the three approved tests were not mutually compatible.

The NFER, which provided one of the abandoned tests, was awarded the £9.8 million contract after the developers of the other abandoned tests announced they were not intending to bid, citing doubts about the practicality and desirability of the methodology of the test proposed.

The test will be a single 20-minute test to be conducted with the child by their teacher or a teaching assistant using a tablet or similar device.

School leaders’ unions ASCL and NAHT have given the test a broad welcome because they consider this will provide a better context for the high stakes assessment in Year Six and because implementation is to be followed by the removal of the statutory requirement for SATS in Year 2. NAHT deputy general secretary Nick Brook said: ‘NAHT support the concept of a Reception baseline. It makes little sense to take a baseline measure for progress midway through the primary years, as is the case now, effectively ignoring the incredible work and progress made in those critical first few years of school.

‘Get it right … and we should finally start to see the reduction in the volume of high stakes testing in primary that NAHT has long called for. The ongoing support of school leaders for roll-out of the baseline will be dependent upon [the] STA [Standards and Testing Agency] and the DfE addressing our remaining concerns.’

Organisations that consider the proposals unworkable or undesirable include the National Education Union (NEU), the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), and the Pre School Learning Alliance, whose chief executive Neil Leitch said: ‘The simple fact is that no test-condition assessment can be designed well enough to reflect the complexities and variation of a child in Reception. A baseline test, conducted on a tablet, and before a teacher has had a chance to develop a relationship with the child, won’t tell teachers anything about the children they work with and won’t be of any use to parents. Instead, what it will do is pile pressure on to our very youngest children.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said the most important question remains unanswered. Is a 20-minute test of four-year-olds a reliable way to measure how well primary schools are doing seven years later?

She said: ‘We know that four-year-olds aren’t consistent in what they say or are able to do from one day to the next, and a test won’t capture that. A test will definitely not reflect that children born in the summer, who are almost a year younger than their autumn born friends, are likely to perform worse in these tests.’


Cover story -  March 26, 2018

Unauthorised holidays see absence rate hit record high

 The rate of unauthorised pupil absence is now the highest since records began, according to newly-released statistics from the Department for Education (DfE). They show that in the 2016/17 academic year the unauthorised absence rate stood at 1.3 per cent, up from 1.1 per cent in 2015/16. This is the highest rate since figures were first recorded by the DfE in 2006/07. It compares to an overall absence rate (combining both unauthorised and authorised absences) across state-funded primary, secondary and special schools of 4.7 per cent. This is also a slight increase on the previous year, up from 4.6 per cent. Absence rates are calculated as the total percentage of sessions which pupils have missed, with one session being equal to half a school day.

In their statistical release the DfE attribute the rise in unauthorised absences to an increase in levels of unauthorised holidays. They also said this increase in unauthorised absences had driven the slight increase in the overall absence rate. The percentage of pupils who missed at least one session due to a family holiday, either authorised or unauthorised, in 2016/17 was 16.9 per cent, compared with 14.7 per cent in 2015/16. One influence on these statistics may have been a High Court case in May 2016 when a father from the Isle of Wight, Jon Platt, won a ruling overturning a fine that had been issued to him for taking his daughter on an unauthorised family holiday to Florida. However, in April 2017 the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s decision. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some parents interpreted the initial High Court ruling as a relaxing of the rules around unauthorised holidays, leading to an increase in absences. 

Councils have the power to fine parents for authorised absences by their children. Despite the increase in the number of unauthorised holiday absences, the number of fines issued by councils to parents actually decreased in 2016/17, standing at 149,321 – down from 157,879 the year before. Again, there is anecdotal evidence that in the wake of the initial court ruling in the Platt case, councils issued fewer fines as a reaction to the judgment. However, the Supreme Court judgement reaffirmed that parents have a duty to attend school regularly, and clarified that ‘regularly’ means ‘in accordance with the rules prescribed by the school’.

The DfE statistics also show a rise in the percentage of pupils who are persistent absentees, which is defined as being where a pupil misses 10 per cent or more of their possible school sessions. Across all schools 10.8 per cent of pupils were persistently absent, compared to 10.5 per cent in 2015/16, and persistent absentees accounted for 37.6 per cent of all absences compared to 36.6 per cent the previous year. The persistent absence rate was lowest in primary schools (8.3 per cent), higher in secondary schools (13.5 per cent) and in special schools more than a quarter of pupils (28.5) were persistent absentees. Meanwhile, in pupil referral units (PRUs) 73.9 per cent of pupils were persistently absent. PRUs, which are not included in the statistics for all schools, also have a high rate of overall absence, at 33.9 per cent.

The full DfE figures can be found at: