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Banish Baseline, Beat Poverty instead

Posted by. Pam Jarvis
Posted on 14 December 2017


​Starting school can be a stressful time for children and their parents. Dr Pam Jarvis, Reader in Childhood, Youth and Education at Leeds Trinity University, argues that a baseline test will only add to this stress, particularly for families who live in socio-economically deprived conditions. The focus instead should be on beating poverty.

The effects of stress upon young children have most recently been highlighted in the 'Adverse Childhood Experiences' research initiated by Felitti et al (1998). When placed in stressful environments, young children are likely to exhibit abnormally raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol (e.g., Dettling et al 1999; Dettling et al 2000; Watamura et al., 2003; Watamura et al, 2009, Watamura et al 2010).

The action of cortisol in the body mobilises the 'fight or flight' response, during which the body's glucose stores are made available to the creature's muscles to either fight or flee, hence cortisol disturbances in young children can consequently lead to suppressed growth, anxiety, depression and less memory capacity available for intellectual development (Guilfoyle and Sims 2010).

It is useful to imagine stressful experiences as a cumulative 'load'. Where some amount of stress is a normal feature of human life and can prevent boredom and inertia. But constant stress, particularly rooted in insoluable problems and paired with low levels of physical activity, can severely impact upon human beings' internal resources, causing them to become chronically anxious. Long term anxiety can in turn become a contributing factor to physical and mental illness.

What then does this have to do with the prospect of a baseline test? The transition to school is a stressful period for any four year old. Parents, too, feel some amount of stress, hoping that their child will settle in, make friends and be able to engage with the challenges of his/her first classroom. They will naturally see a test that is applied in the first half term of schooling as a test on their parenting, which adds to this load (see Jarvis 2017, online). This is particularly so for families who live in socio-economically deprived conditions, in which ongoing poverty and its associated insecurity frequently triggers a complex, interrelated and circular set of stressors within the household (Steele et al 2016).

This is currently the case for nearly a third of children in the UK; 30% of all children are officially categorised as poor, with higher concentrations inner city areas; for example 47% in Birmingham (End Child Poverty 2017). In such cases, the instigation of a baseline test on entry to school adds yet another stressor to the existing load, not least because children who come from poor households, in which adults are typically depressed and anxious, tend to have less developed linguistic skills (Perkins et al 2013, online). This will greatly impact on their ability to 'perform' in a one-trial, summative assessment (DFE 2017 online).

The baseline test is intended primarily to create a statistical point on a graph from which children's future progress will be measured and analysed. One major reason for this is to ensure teacher and school 'accountability' for children's progress. This will inevitably raise the already considerable assessment-fuelled stress load on teachers (TES 2017a online) as 'baselined' children move up into subsequent year groups, taking their 'baseline' statistic with them to be applied to successive teachers' performance management. Progression for children who live in poverty is also not a level playing field. Not only do they typically start from a lower base at school entry; due to the ongoing pressures upon them, they tend to develop more slowly.

Children raised in poverty... are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance - Jensen 2009, online.

Jensen refers to this process as 'cognitive lag', and it is clear that adding baseline testing into the situation will make it even more difficult than it is at present for teachers to view socio-economically deprived children as 'more than a score.' Not only will this impact upon how children already made vulnerable by poverty are treated in the classroom; the impetus to accelerate their intellectual development, or at least their performance in standard assessment tasks will make it impossible for teachers to effectively provide a respite for them from the stress that poverty heaps upon them at home.

Social media, assessment and poverty pressures have already become a toxic trio that have spawned a population of young people who are far more likely to present with mental health problems than previous generations. These include depression and eating disorders (Patalay and Fitzsimmons 2017) and self-harm for which hospital admissions have increased 42% over the past decade (The Guardian 2016, online).

In conclusion, the baseline test and its associated effects upon both adults and children is not only methodologically flawed in terms of validity and reliability; it is likely to wreak additional and ongoing damage upon the social and emotional environment within schools, disproportionately impacting upon children already experiencing a range of stressors within their home environment. It will cost £10m to instigate (TES 2017b) and many millions more to maintain. It would be far more logical and humane to mobilise public funds to address the ravages that poverty heaps upon such a high proportion of the nation's children, more effectively optimising their academic achievements and lifetime physical and mental health.


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