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Bold beginnings or black holes? The encroachment of summative assessment into the reception curriculum

Yinka Olusoga Mandy Pierlejewski

Black holes themselves are invisible against the backdrop of space. We only become aware of their presence as they begin to drag in objects around them, warping the very fabric of the universe. Though this is a truly terrifying process to comprehend and to witness, black holes do not do this out of malice. Black holes are not sentient. They have no malignant purpose. They just ‘are’. We notice them only via their inexorable, destructive progress as they eat up the light and substance around them.

Increasingly, black holes appear to be a sadly apt metaphor for the overlooked but destructive emptiness at the heart of our education system: statutory summative assessment.

‘Assessment – particularly summative assessment – is the black hole hiding in plain sight in the neoliberal education system, drawing all aspects of the curriculum towards serving its requirements.’

Assessment in the neoliberal education system is the black hole hiding in plain sight – particularly summative assessment, linked to notions of accountability. It is overlooked in the popular media, and the underpinning assumptions that justify it go unquestioned. Assessment just is. Instead, what scant popular attention there is remains fixed on the visible features of our system: the curriculum, pedagogy, teacher supply. Each is, of course, worthy of study, debate and exploration. However, each is under the implacable influence of the black hole of summative assessment. What began as a slight pull towards teaching to the test has become an inescapable, magnetic drawing-in of the delivered curriculum to serve, and to be seen to serve, the requirements of it.

The most recent object to be pulled into the black hole is the reception curriculum. This can be seen in a report published in late November last year: Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools (Ofsted, 2017). A Foucauldian discourse analysis of this report reveals a discourse of children as a homogenised group: children are all the same, no matter how old; they can all make the same progress on the same steady, upward trajectory (ibid: 13). Like products on a factory production line, they are measurable at the beginning of the process of primary education, and again at the end. The need for summative assessment for accountability purposes demands that children are seen as empty vessels that can be filled with knowledge: knowledge which is quantifiable and fixed. A chaotic, meaning-making, active child will not do. This kind of child does not fit the model as it cannot be measured and converted into data. Play is sucked into the black hole too. It is distorted into something only useful for teaching PSE (ibid: 4). Its power to transform children, to stimulate deep, meaningful and long-lasting learning is removed (Brock et al, 2014). Learning through play does not fit the model as it cannot be quantified and measured. It has too many outcomes which are slow to emerge and is therefore not useful for data collection. The emphasis is on increasing speed, on maximum efficiency, and on the need for data demands direct teaching rather than play (Bradbury and Roberts-Holmes, 2017).

But it does not have to be this way, because statutory assessment is not an act of nature, it is a reversible, political decision. Recent changes to assessment policy in New Zealand demonstrate the power of educators to influence policy. Rejecting the false idea that children’s academic progression is linear and predictable, the government recognised that setting rigid national standards that focus on a core curriculum had negative impacts on the quality and breadth of children’s educational experiences as it placed emphasis on preparing children to demonstrate achievement of those national standards in decontextualised assessments. The current New Zealand Labour-led government is axeing the national standards and their resulting league tables. The focus will be on reporting to parents and on formative assessment (Ministry of Education, 2017).

Here in England, statutory summative assessment seems like a black hole, drawing everything around it into its inky darkness. However, the difference is that it can change. The early years community in England has reacted powerfully, drawing themselves together and displaying solidarity. Their personal affront at the deprofessionalising nature of the report has fuelled the response. They can see the black hole for what it is, and know that it can change.

Bradbury A and Roberts-Holmes G (2017) The Datafication of Primary and Early Years Education : Playing with Numbers, Abingdon: Routledge

Brock A, Jarvis P and Olusoga Y (2014) Perspectives on Play: Learning for Life, second edition, Abingdon: Routledge

Ministry of Education (2017) ‘National Standards Removed’, press release, 12 December 2017, [accessed 22 January 2018].

Ofsted (2017) Bold beginnings: The Reception Curriculum in a Sample of Good and Outstanding Primary Schools, Manchester.