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!

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