Monthly Archives: July 2013

Whose freedom is it anyway?

As teachers, we are constantly being told by politicians of all colours that we are to be given more autonomy, because we know best, but that in return we must accept more accountability (presumably because the government knows even better?) The latest such wheeze is the “freedom” for teachers to choose for themselves how they assess progress during primary schools. As the department puts it in its recent consultation:

“Imposing a single system for ongoing assessment, in the way that national curriculum levels are built into the current curriculum and prescribe a detailed sequence for what pupils should be taught, is incompatible with this curriculum freedom. “

Presumably we are to be overjoyed at this throwing off of the “imposed” shackles that “prescribes a detailed sequence for what pupils should be taught”. We ought to be delighted at this new “curriculum freedom”.

Of course, this new curriculum freedom comes with 70 pages of statutory year-by-year objectives and requirements for primary English alone, compared to the “detailed sequence” of the current 15 pages! Hardly fighting the good fight for reducing prescription.

But perhaps, instead, we should be thrilled at this new freedom to choose how we assess during the Key Stage. After all, the new rules will only prescribe how assessment is measured, reported and judged at the end of the key stage, rather than the current system of.. well… actually, just the same. Because, of course, there is no legislation, or “imposed single system” for assessing within a key stage. Schools are free to choose how to assess, so long as they can demonstrate its effectiveness to Ofsted. It just happens that almost all choose to use National Curriculum levels more frequently because, well, why wouldn’t you? After all, the competition farmer hoping to win the prize for fattest pig doesn’t estimate his success by monitoring the colour of his sow’s eyes!

So, in fact, is this new-found freedom nothing other than the status quo? If not, what’s different?

Well, the current system provides a clear set of benchmarks against which teachers must use their professional judgement to assess attainment. This system is broad enough to cover the whole primary range; contains fixed, unchanging standards; and is built upon a clear progression throughout primary schooling.

The new system offers no such structure, and a secretive scale arrangement that allows government and its agencies to adjust the scoring as they see fit each year, while providing little or no criterion-referenced framework against which the published scores can honestly be assessed. There is no new freedom, only the concealing of a previously clear system.

Thus, any new freedom which is available is freedom only for the government and testing agencies. Very few schools will want to deviate from the current system in which assessment during the key stage is used to assess progress towards the meeting of the required level at KS2. Indeed, with the removal of the higher level 5 and 6 scores, it could be argued that this will be a further narrowing of focus on the 100 borderline, like the much-criticised C/D borderline issue at KS4.

Furthermore, despite claiming to base their work on the key principles set out in the Bew report into assessment1, some are notable by their absence. For example, the Bew report very clearly stated:

We would like to see a greater emphasis on teacher assessment within statutory assessment, and summative teacher assessment to be given greater weight within the accountability system.” (Original emphasis)

The new system offers no such emphasis on teacher assessment. Indeed, I would very much argue it does the opposite. Under the current system, teacher assessment levels are stated, recorded and published in the same form (i.e. a whole National Curriculum level) as the statutory testing data. However, under the new system the proposal is that test data will be recorded in scale form, and published as such, shared with parents as such, and presented in decile form. Teacher Assessment, on the other hand (which, incidentally, receives 12 mentions in the consultation, compared to 80 mentions of “test”), will presumably only be available as a Yes/No option – either the student has, or has not, met the required level (presumably equivalent to a score of 100 or more).

And what of that second clause? Summative teacher assessment will be given no weight at all within the accountability system. The proposals are for judgements to be made exclusively on the basis of test outcomes, entirely contradicting this key principle of the Bew review. In the absence of any measured criterion-based system of measuring attainment (other than externally-marked, central government-controlled tests), teachers will have little option to give any valuable summative assessment to parents, or for accountability purposes; teacher assessment will become almost instantly meaningless.

The new proposals offer no freedoms for teachers or schools, but once again hand increased power and control to the Secretary of State.


Chris Husbands’ blog on the consultation is well worth a read for linking together the various aspects:

[1] It’s worth noting that the consultation recognises that the Bew report “was widely welcomed” and further claimed that “the government accepted its recommendations in full.” It seems strange, therefore, that they cherry-picked the key principles to stick to!

The real Knowledge debate

If I’m honest, I’m tired of all the arguing and barracking that goes on on Twitter about the supposed knowledge vs skills “debate”. It strikes me that there are very few teachers who suggest even for a second that knowledge is not important, and rather too many who are adamant that there are millions of that ilk.

I’ve mostly been on the sidelines of the whole thing for a few reasons.

Firstly, I don’t buy into the notion that there is anyone at either extreme, despite the fact that many claim it. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t think that part of their job was to impart knowledge, and I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t include some development of skills in their work, despite protestations to the contrary.

Secondly, it took me a while to work out where I stand. Like so many others, it seemed perfectly sensible to me that the shared wisdom that knowledge was easily available, whereas skills needing teaching, was a sensible approach to take. And indeed, I stand by that to some extent. Surely no-one could argue that we don’t need to develop a critical eye in students, for example? I know of many knowledgeable people who are nonetheless persuaded to buy, read, and worse believe, some of the nonsense they see written in the press. Knowledge itself is not a panacea.

Thirdly, I also can’t stand getting involved in silly playground arguments. I don’t tolerate them at school, and I’m certainly not going to encourage or engage in more at home.

However, I have, inevitably, seen much to-ing and fro-ing on Twitter and am beginning to draw my own frame of understanding. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the debate is not about knowledge vs skills at all; or at least, it shouldn’t be. I think it’s more about exposure vs instillation.

I am a huge fan of knowledge. It’s one of the things I love about teaching; it allows  me the opportunity to share knowledge and to gain more. Doubtless some colleagues and friends will happily confirm that I am, sometimes, too willing to impart what knowledge I have – whether or not it is requested. However, the more I look at what I have achieved over years of teaching materials, the more I wonder about the role knowledge played in my work.

For example, over the years of teaching History, despite what Mr Gove might think, I have frequently taught about Churchill, the Battle of Hastings, the myriad causes of the First World War, the signing of the Magna Carta, etc. But I can’t help but wonder how some of my former students might cope on a Premier Inn-style pop quiz of their knowledge.

In too many cases, I may have been guilty not of failing to include knowledge in my teaching, but of placing too much emphasis on the exposure to knowledge, and not enough emphasis on the real absorption and retention of that knowledge.

My recent thinking has unquestionably been shaped by reading Willingham’s fantastically readable analysis of cognitive science in education, but also by my broader awareness of the work of Hirsch and others. Now, let me state immediately, I am not in any way suggesting that I support an centrally-dictated framework knowledge which must be installed into all young minds at all costs. That is not my philosophy in the slightest. And for that reason, I still think it a tragic waste that the new curriculum focuses solely on knowledge, as if there were no progression of skill to be developed in our students.

I am, though, arguing that those of us who find such knowledge-rich,-everything-else-poor suggestions so disturbing, might nonetheless want to look just a little more deeply at how we do make use of knowledge in our classrooms. After all, if I think that the events of 1066 really are worth teaching, then aren’t they maybe also worth learning… even knowing?

The latest draft of the Primary Curriculum

*This blog is about the July draft of the National Curriculum. For the latest version visit this page instead*

National Curriculum layout

Following today’s announcement of changes to the draft National Curriculum (which is now presumably rather less of a draft and more of a last-chance saloon for any urgent amendments), I have updated the overview maps for the primary curriculum.

The documents show each primary year group on one A3 page, with an outline of the content to be covered in each of the National Curriculum subjects. Two versions are available: one shows the current content in straightforward form; the second is coloured showing the main changes since the previous draft that was issued in February.

Two things should be stressed: firstly, that this is just an outline and will not be sufficient for planning the whole curriculum, and that secondly the year-by-year approach is just a combination of suggestions from the DfE and from me. The only statutory requirement is that schools cover the whole key stage’s content by the end of each key stage; how you arrange it over the two years of KS1 or four years of KS2 is entirely up to your school.

Download the jigsaw file from here