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Baseline assessment and the commodification of 4-year-olds' knowledge

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 May 2016

Guy Roberts-Holmes
Last month, the Government withdrew its requirement for schools to use officially endorsed Baseline assessment in Reception classes. This regime, I would contest, was not simply about children and their learning, nor assessment or accountability. Rather, baseline was as an attempt to further regulate early education for edu-business. What baseline assessment did was to datafy and commodify four-year-olds’ knowledge and learning for profit. Although baseline is no longer mandatory, the DfE is still urging schools to buy the commercially produced assessments. Baseline has become a part of the growing educational digital data economy in which new forms of educational data knowledge are generated, commodified and sold for profit. It is claimed that datasets such as baseline have the potential to offer unprecented digital data governance. So, for example, baseline data on four year olds can be ‘scaled up’ and agreggated into big datasets of commercial interest and governance.
Around 12,000 primary schools adopted one of the three edu-businesses who were selected by the DfE to run the baseline assessments at an estimated cost of £3.5-£4.5 million (excluding the costs to schools employing supply cover whilst the Reception teacher carried out the tests). Of the three companies, Early Excellence achieved the highest market share at more than 70% of schools, which might be attributed to its niche branding as a child-centred company. Despite purporting to be child-centred, Early Excellence had to abide by the DfE’s requirement for reductionist ‘yes’ or ‘no’ assessments on 47 observational items. Less popular edu-businesses were the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), both of which used computer testing.
Baseline attempted to reduce children’s learning to a single numerical score – in effect generating a ‘data shadow’ to govern the child. This number was to be tracked across their primary school career and the number had to rise to show progress by the time the child was 11 in 2022. In this way the DfE claimed that the school’s value added could be tracked and measured. Baseline ignored the messy and inaccurate production of such a score with four-year-olds in their first six weeks of school. Such a reductionst score also negated the fact that many primary school children experience significant changes and challenges in their lives affecting any simplistic linear rising profile.
Baseline reduced teachers’ professionalism to that of a data gatherer. The data the teachers collected was sent to the edu-businesses for algorithmic processing. This analysed data was then sent back to the school as numbers with implications for pupil profiling, ‘dataveillance’ and ability grouping. Here the construction of the young child was as raw data to be mined to meet the school’s performance targets. Baseline was thus the antithesis of Malaguzzi’s ‘rich’ child and teacher written about in Peter Moss’s earlier blog. Baseline was based upon a deficit model of what children could not do and was disrespectful of young children’s (and teachers’) competencies, abilities and expertise.
As a policy skirmish into early years territory, baseline was partially successful in demonstrating the market potential of digital governance for four-year-olds. The DfE claims that baseline assessment was scrapped because the results from the three competing edu-businesses were incomparable. This suggests that the Government’s primary concern was with data comparability and its associated commodification, rather than child development and well-being. The nearly 3,000 schools which refused to take part in the baseline ‘trial’ have been proved right in their principled decision not to commodify four-year-olds’ learning.
‘The Introduction of Reception Baseline Assessment: They are Children… Not Robots, Not Machines’ by Bradbury, A. and Roberts-Holmes, G. (2016), National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (NUT/ATL).
photo: Cambridge parents and teachers celebrating the withdrawal of baseline

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