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How care-full is early childhood assessment?

Nathan Archer

The first priority in education – if by education we mean learning to be human – is learning to live in personal relation to other people…I call this the first priority because failure in this is fundamental failure, which cannot be compensated for by success in any other field.

John Macmurray (1961, p.24 and p.211) 

In 2015 the Government implemented a national baseline assessment policy in England for children at the start of their Reception year in school (DfE 2014a). The scheme was predicated on reform for improved school accountability.

The policy was contentious and short-lived. The implementation of the policy coincided with my MA study and my interest in the friction between policy drivers and children’s classroom experiences in the Early Years Foundation Stage. This interest informed my dissertation research into government texts and practitioners’ views on early childhood summative assessment; the tension I perceived between teachers’ relationships with children and the demands of an escalating accountability regime.

The arguments about pre-school and school accountability for public finances are well rehearsed, based on the effective use of finite public resources. In addition, the policy driver for linking accountability and educational effectiveness is explicitly stated:

The purpose of the reception baseline is to support the accountability framework and help assess school effectiveness.(DfE 2014b)

It is the intensification of such accountability (particularly in assessment) which I found, and continue to find, troubling. My research posed the question: to what extent is an ethic of care present or absent in the policy texts and teacher talk on early childhood summative assessment? Through this research I offered the alternative lenses of relational pedagogy (Papatheodorou and Moyles, 2008) and care ethics (Noddings, 2013, 2005, 2003, Goldstein, 1998), through which to view the issues.

Through a Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of baseline policy texts (DfE 2014a, DfE 2014b) I analysed data for policy drivers and levers, warrant, modes of legitimation, evaluation and lexico-grammatical structures (Hyatt 2013).

Focus group discussions with early childhood teachers centred on the themes of accountability, the quantification of children’s development and the perceived impact of baseline assessment. I did not discern obvious reference or allusion to care ethics in this data. However, I considered the possibility that an ethic of care, whilst missing from policy, might be assumed and backgrounded, rather than absent, from participant teachers’ dialogue and classroom life.

Thus, the study sought to re-orientate the current ‘accountability’ discussion to one which foregrounds human relationships in early childhood education assessment.

Beyond baseline, primary assessment policy appears to have shifted from a state of flux to a state of stasis; a pause in the policy trajectory. In this space, exacerbated by a recent Teaching Schools Council Report on Reception year teaching (which received significant criticism from the sector), a movement is emerging in the form of More than a Score and the Hundred Review, which claim a space for practitioners’ voices on pedagogy and assessment. These movements are attempting to reframe the discussion and seek to ensure that the ‘value for money’ accountability narrative does not overshadow future policy development.

Whilst it is heartening to hear of both contestation and change–oriented action at grass roots, there is relatively little research that examines agency, advocacy and policy activism in the early childhood field. These themes are the focus of my doctoral research at the University of Sheffield.


This blog is based on dissertation research undertaken for the MA in Early Childhood Education at the University of Sheffield. Nathan’s dissertation received a ‘highly commended’ in the BERA Masters Dissertation award 2015.



Department for Education (2014a)

Reforming assessment and accountability for primary schools: Government response to consultation on primary school assessment and accountability. London, Department for Education. Available from:

Department for Education (2014b) Reception Baseline Assessment in Schools Tender documents. Available from:

Goldstein, L. (1998) More Than Gentle Smiles and Warm Hugs: Applying the Ethic of Care to Early Childhood Education Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 1998, Vol.12(2), p.244-261

Hyatt, D. (2013) The critical policy discourse analysis frame: helping doctoral students engage with the educational policy analysis. Teaching in Higher Education Vol. 18, No. 8, pp. 833-845.

MacMurray, J. (1961) Persons in Relation. London, Faber and Faber.

Noddings, N. (2003) Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (2005) The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education. New York, Teachers College Press.

Noddings, N. (2013) Education and Democracy in the 21st Century. New York, Teachers College Press.

Papatheodorou, T. & Moyles, J.R (2008) Learning Together in the Early Years: Exploring Relational Pedagogy. Abingdon, Routledge.