Published on: 20 Apr 2015

To other schools, I would say: go for it. We’ll definitely be using Baseline for next year’s cohort.

Developing children’s natural abilities

By Brian McAlea, the principal of St Kieran’s Primary School, Belfast, for Special Children magazine


From September 2016, primary schools will be required to conduct a baseline assessment for all children entering Reception.

Our school in Belfast was one of the schools that took part in nationwide trials of software designed for this purpose by GL Assessments. This enabled us to measure children’s literacy, language and mathematics levels on entry into P1 (Reception in England). I was very impressed by it. Called Baseline, it has now been approved by the Department for Education for use in schools from September 2015.

Conducted one to one by a teacher using a tablet for themselves and another for the child, the assessment takes about 25 minutes to administer, although each section can be completed separately depending on the pupil. There is also an optional assessment at the end of P1, delivered in two short sessions – one for literacy and one for maths – which we have yet to try out.

The language and communication section provides a range of questions testing grammar, vocabulary and understanding. The phoneme awareness section requires pupils to remove an initial or final sound from a word and identify initial or final sounds from a pseudo-word. In maths, they are assessed on their ability to count and do simple arithmetic, as well as their grasp of basic mathematical vocabulary and concepts (e.g. larger, smaller).

Children answer some questions orally and others by touching the tablet screen. For example, when asked to find five big fish, our pupils simply touched five big ones in a picture that contained several of different sizes.

The children found the process engaging and the colour graphics very appealing. The bonus for the teacher administering the test was that the scoring is automatic.

All the training is online and the teacher completed it in three or four short sessions. Once she got used to the software, she found the process far less daunting and time-consuming than she had feared. Meanwhile other staff found it invaluable to have detailed data on children so early in their school life, as it allowed them to home in on areas for development as well as strengths, so they could put interventions in place and start stretching our more gifted pupils at the very earliest opportunity.

A secondary outcome of the assessments is proving equally valuable. Many of our pupils struggle from day one and many have parents who are disengaged from the education system. However, after we had assessed the new pupils, we invited parents in to discuss the findings. Some fruitful conversations followed, with quite a few parents even asking what they could do at home to accelerate progress.

When we sent children home with some worksheets to complete over the weekend, quite a few parents came back and asked for more – something we normally never get. For many parents, this was perhaps the first realisation that their child’s development was behind that of their peers, and they were very motivated to work with the school to resolve this.

The school works with a lot of outside agencies, such as speech and language therapists. Having a baseline for each child has allowed us to get expert input much earlier than before. We are then able to relay this information back to parents, demonstrating very positively how the school is helping their children overcome any early difficulties.

Just a couple of months after putting interventions in place, we are already beginning to see the impact: this year’s cohort has more self-esteem, more self-assurance and a greater willingness to learn, which is an eye-opener for us – in the past, many of our pupils have been very hard to engage.

To other schools, I would say: go for it. We’ll definitely be using Baseline for next year’s cohort.

Baseline from GL Assessments is £3.95 +VAT per pupil, and includes reports, training and support. Schools can assess each pupil twice a year at no extra charge. The DfE will cover the costs of Baseline for government funded schools.

Brian McAlea is principal of St Kieran’s Primary School in Belfast

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