What makes a good early years assessment?

Featured Image

By Dr Pat Preedy

In the 1990s, I was invited to be part of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), the team that developed the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) baseline assessment for Reception-age children.

Despite criticism that such assessments would be unreliable, invalid and possibly harmful, many of us who were headteachers and early years teachers were convinced by the strong arguments put forward by the late Carol Fitz-Gibbon and Professor Peter Tymms. They presented strong research evidence that assessments in early reading and mathematics could be effective predictors of future performance combining reliable objective measures with teacher assessments.

These assessments were important to us as teachers because they were designed to be diagnostic, enabling the identification of strengths and weaknesses which could be used for planning learning experiences and interventions.

Building upon this vast experience, CEM went on to develop BASE, their baseline assessment for the reception year.

However, the case against baseline assessment continues to rage thirty years later with the introduction from September 2021 of the compulsory Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) in state schools - although state schools are required to do the RBA, independent and international schools may continue to use the assessments of their choice in the EYFS and beyond.

Differences in independent and state schools

Since 1995 the state and independent sectors in the EYFS have worked closely together. Sadly, a gap between state and independent schools and settings has now appeared with the state schools going off in a different direction.

Independent schools can apply for exemption from the EYFS which means that they do not have to do the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) and submit profile data to their local authorities. They also have the opportunity to supplement teacher assessment and indeed the EYFSP if they do it, with the CEM Baseline Assessment.  

Realistically, maintained schools have no choice but to do the EYFSP and the Reception Baseline Assessment.

What does BASE do that RBA doesn’t?

There are several important differences between CEM’s BASE and the statutory RBA.

The RBA covers early mathematics, literacy, communication and language. These are definitely key areas of learning that appear in both baselines. However, right from the start CEM have acknowledged the importance of including personal, social and emotional development into the baseline. Although these assessments are less reliable than those for early reading and mathematics, they add to the picture of the child particularly when combined with teacher assessment and information that has been provided by parents.  

CEM also takes note of current research and feedback from teachers. For example, the importance of physical development, including my own Movement for Learning Research (Preedy et al, 2019). Going forward CEM is considering the inclusion of physical development assessments similar to those in the ASPECTS assessment used in nurseries.

Most importantly, CEM has always emphasised that their assessments sit alongside teacher assessment. This openness to supplement the CEM assessments based upon research and feedback from teachers is a great strength of CEM.


A key criticism of the RBA is the unreliability of using the baseline data to measure progress over seven years of primary schooling with no intention of providing data that can be used for diagnostic purposes.

We know from the analysis of baseline data over thirty years, that the reception year is a time when children frequently make the most progress. The absence of an assessment at the end of Reception/Start of Year One is a lost opportunity to show this progress as well as providing valuable information for Year One teachers.

Literacy and numeracy

Although both baselines include literacy and numeracy assessments, the CEM baseline is intended to sit alongside teacher assessment, the wider curriculum, and a pedagogy suitable for young children that is primarily based upon play. The RBA sits in isolation linking literacy and numeracy to the national curriculum which may exert further pressure to narrow the curriculum.

Teacher support

Although both baselines highlight the importance of using staff familiar to the children to administer the tests, feedback from the RBA pilot phase indicated that supply staff had been used to complete the RBA's due to time pressures. Fear about not meeting a deadline could mean that supply staff are used again to administer the RBA, potentially impacting the establishment of secure attachments with children’s key persons.

Training and quality assurance for the RBA is limited to administration of the test. Whereas CEM training is directed towards staff understanding quantitative and qualitative measures and how to interpret data to plan to meet the needs of all children. There is always a clear strong message that teachers know their children and that although these data are valid, reliable, and significant they are supplementary.

Considerable funding has been allocated to producing the RBA with the impossible goal of achieving a meaningful progress measure at the end of Key Stage Two. If independent and international schools continue with assessments focused on impacting outcomes for children, I am hopeful that by providing robust evidence the wheel will turn once more, so that state schools will be able to once again use a baseline that supports teacher assessment and young children’s learning and development.


About the author


Dr Pat Preedy has had a long and distinguished career in education including being a global Chief Academic Officer for early childhood education, Executive Principal of a school catering for pupils from 3 months to 18 years with boarding, Head Teacher of one of the first Beacon Schools in the UK. 

She completed her Masters degree in Educational Management particularly investigating how schools can work in partnership with parents and a doctorate in Education. 

Her school improvement work stretches across many countries including UAE, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia, China, India, USA, UK and Europe.

Pat jointly led the Parents and Carers as Play Partners Project through Middlesex University (Dubai) supporting parents in providing their children with play experiences that enhance their development and learning. She has conducted extensive research into meeting the educational needs of multiple birth children and was also part of the team that developed the performance indicators in primary schools’ value-added baseline assessments (Cambridge CEM).

Having led the Movement for Learning project (Loughborough University) which highlighted how daily movements based on children’s developmental stages can address developmental delay particularly with regard to balance, fine and gross motor skills, Pat developed Motor Movers for babies, toddlers and children.

Pat is a co-editor of Redefining Early Childhood Education (2019) in which she puts forward a new framework for Early Childhood Education that provides coherent provision from birth to eight years of age.


Find out more about how BASE can support teaching and learning in your school

Find out more