Primary Assessment: Assessment Innovation Fund winner reviews

When the DfE first announced its Assessment Innovation Fund, I began to wonder whether any schools would yet be in a position to share an assessment scheme for a new curriculum that had only been in the public domain for a few months. Fortunately enough schools were able to start the process, leading to 9 being chosen to disseminate their work.
Only three of those schemes are intended for use in primary schools, although of course some of the secondary and special schemes are likely to be adaptable.

At this stage, only some elements of each of the schemes have been released, but as Ofsted release their views on how assessment without levels will be tackled in inspection, I thought it timely to offer some sort of review of what is on offer.

Learning Ladders (Hiltingbury Junior)

NB: Since the time of Writing, Hiltingbury have withdrawn from the funded AIF scheme, although the materials are still available via the link below.

This scheme focuses on the core subjects of Reading, Writing and Maths, offering booklets of objectives linked to the new National Curriculum, organised into categories, and then graded by year group. The Reading and Writing booklets are already available, designed to be printed on A4 and covering the whole of KS1 and KS2. I understand that adapted separate booklets for younger and older pupils will be available later.

Writing Ladder exampleAgainst each objective (or “rung”) are three boxes to be signed/dated by the teacher when a child has shown that they have met the objective. The school suggests that once the objective has been signed three times then it can be considered to be ‘achieved’.

The booklets have been professionally produced with robot characters in both colour and black & white versions, allowing schools to conceal the year-group labels (not to mention saving on colour copying costs!)

The school has also entered into the partnership with SchoolExplained to produce an online system both for adapting the booklets, and for recording assessment online. This will be sold to schools from around £700

When considered against the ‘7 questions‘ test it fares very well, particularly in its usefulness for sharing with children. It also does a good job of keeping objectives to a manageable number, although it remains to be seen if they’ve done the same for maths. Perhaps my only concern is the stipulation of seeing things three times. This is a common approach in primary schools with APP and I’ve always found it a touch too formulaic. Sometimes 3 times is not enough, sometimes it’s an excessive demand. I’d prefer to see objectives simply left as un-highlighted until the teacher decides they’re achieved, or perhaps just a two-stage process of working on/achieved?

More information and the free booklets can be found at

Skills Passport (Hillyfield Primary)

The Hillyfield scheme appears to focus on the foundation subjects, which is likely to be a lesser concern for primary schools in the immediate future, although the information released suggests that maths may also be covered.

Skills Passport exampleAs with the Learning ladders, the intention is to provide a single booklet for all students throughout the compulsory primary years to record progress across subjects. In this case, rather than rungs on ladders the skills are set out in a passport style to be stamped by the children once they have been achieved.

The initial drafts of the passports have been made available and are not as attractive as the Hiltingbury Learning ladders. However, they are in editable Word format, and so could be adapted to each school. They include some useful features such as a glossary of vocabulary for subjects. Perhaps because these are intended for foundation subjects, the objectives are only organised by Key Stage rather than year group, although if it has been adapted for core subjects then this may be different. It isn’t clear from the fund information provided whether core passports will be created.

As with Hiltingbury, the school has said that it intends to make an online version available in due course. However, as Sam Hunter of Hiltingbury Junior has stated: that’s an expensive operation not easily funded by the £10,000 AIF grant.

When considered against the ‘7 questions‘ test it fares very well, particularly in its usefulness for sharing with children. It also does a good job of keeping objectives to a manageable number. I did notice that the objectives in the current passports are not as clearly linked to the new National Curriculum content, although again in the case of the foundation subjects this is much harder to do.

It would be interesting to see how this model could be adapted using the key objectives documents I have set out for Writing and Maths.

The first sample booklet is available to download from:

Learning Ladders (West Exe College)

Another ladder offer, this time from a secondary school. According to the DfE release the school has collaborated with primary schools to create a cross-phase system. However, at this stage it seems that only Secondary materials have been released.

West Exe Ladder modelThe model is very different from the Hiltingbury ladders, focussing more on a link to Bloom’s taxonomy. It appears that the intention is to provide a common format for ladders for each subject and key stage. This suggests that subjects will each be broken into 6 levels across the key stage, ranging from ‘Remembering’ to ‘Creating’. Criteria for each level are based on existing materials and grade criteria.

The model also shows individual assessment grids, although again these are clearly aimed at KS3/4 at present. It’s not clear how easily this model could be adapted to suit work at primary level, nor how the criteria could link clearly enough to the National Curriculum, particularly for content-heavy subjects such as mathematics.

The documents clearly avoid the meaningless subdivision of content to an extent, although there is a risk that the reliance on Bloom’s taxonomy could lead to a focus on “creating” at the expense of the important skills of “remembering” and “understanding”. It’s also not entirely clear how well this model could work at primary level. These grids have clearly been designed for able readers as would be reasonable to expect of most secondary students – it remains to be seen whether the partnership managing this model manage to produce a useful and effective approach that would work in primary schools.

First release information from the West Exe model is available at

Information about assessment systems is being collated in various places, including the useful website


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8 thoughts on “Primary Assessment: Assessment Innovation Fund winner reviews

  1. C. A. Colmer 3 July 2014 at 7:18 am Reply

    Hi Alison Thought you might be interested in this link from the person I follow. Not looked in detail yet or followed up his extended links.


    Sent from my iPhone

    • Michael Tidd 3 July 2014 at 11:36 am Reply

      I think maybe this is in the wrong place?

  2. heatherfblog 3 July 2014 at 8:37 am Reply

    Thanks so much gor compiling all these models in one place. They make intersting reading but are also really depressing. I genuinely feel I am missing something here with these alternatives because they all seem to suffer from the same problem as levels. One of the most crucial problems with levels was not so much that they didn’t get description of progression right as that to think you could describe progression in a generic way is wrong. Your ability to, for example, ‘organise key points into paragraphs’ is so context dependent. I saw that ‘skill’ somewhere in the middle of a learning ladder for primary and yet many of my GCSE history students repeatedly fail to demonstrate this skill with unfamiliar content.
    The fact is plainly and simply that while you can and should check whether pupils have managed to organise material they have covered into paragraphs, any assessment system that presumes ‘mastery’ can be measured is based on fantasy. The skill is very, very context dependent.
    (This said my impression was that one reason levels were never such a problem at primary level and especially for maths is that there is much more material that is actually genuinely hierarchical.)
    The Blooms model is flawed, not just because it risks focusing on the higher stuff but because it assumes ‘lower’ stuff is easier for students than ‘higher’ level stuff. The difficulty is actually context dependent and it will be markedly easier to analyse some things thatn to describe others. This is not a minor issue it is a fundamental flaw with these approaches. For this reason this model is just as hopelessly flawed as levels.
    It really bothers me that people are sincerely designing alternatives to levels with no clear idea of what the actual flaws with levels were. This article (or similar)
    should be required reading for anyone planning an asssesment system because it clearly explains the problems with the idea of transfer of generic skills. Acknowledgment of these problems has to be built into any assessment system.

    • Michael Tidd 3 July 2014 at 11:36 am Reply

      heatherf – you raise some interesting points, but would I be right to presume that you haven’t taught primary before?
      You’re of course quite correct that there are scales of “skill” in areas such as paragraphing, and we can’t say that it has been ‘mastered’ as easily as we might say that, say, number bond knowledge has. Nevertheless, there is a clear progression of ability in structuring work that the vast majority of children go through that includes developing an understanding of the nature and function of paragraphs. At primary level that is largely in very familiar text forms (which is helpful for preventing overloading capacity), but is a clear marker of progress in children’s understanding of writing.
      That’s not to say that it can be ticked off as “achieved” and not taught again, but it does demonstrate that the child has reached a key threshold of use of the paragraph concept that would allow the progression to adapting that basic skill to suit context, genre, etc. as would be needed for GCSE essays. You would certainly find it far harder, for example, to teach appropriate paragraph building and structure at GCSE if they hadn’t been taught the essential components at primary level.
      For that reason I see no harm in a system which indicates and measures some of those key aspects. My concern tends to be with the statements which are more dependent on the adverb problem that Daisy Christodoulou describes in which we see adverbs used to attempt to differentiate those skills which become entirely dependent on age/ability context. While you could argue that this is true of all objectives, it is far more likely that a consensus is reached in primary schools of what is expected of the example you gave of ‘organising key points into a paragraph’ than is likely for some of the objectives such as “can explore the meaning of words in context”.

      I’d be interested, though… would you propose an alternative approach, or do you simply suggest that any criteria would be inadequate?

  3. heatherfblog 3 July 2014 at 1:24 pm Reply

    It seems we don’t disagree much. As I said in my last comment, much at primary level is more hierarchical and so I van see that levels were never such a significant problem. However, it is seems from my reading of these models that they are built on an implicit assumptions about transferability of generic skills that are just incorrect. The fact that they remain relatively workable despite this, does not solve the problem.
    My basic criticism of the ladder approach still stands as they suggest a three ticks approach.
    I think in some ways commenting on my lack of primary experience is sensible because there will be things I don’t fully appreciate (although I do have a bit of experience teaching my own primary age children.) However, I do think there has a been a tendency at all levels to consider something to be mastered because the child is able to perform within the narrow parameters of the way performance is defined by the assessment. There is no doubt that primary children do learn something transferable with regard to paragraphing at a primary level. However, whether there is such a thing as a ‘key threshold’ for the paragraphing concept is much more debatable. I think that is why it is good for non primary teachers to comment as I do see things very differently as a secondary teacher. That mastery of the ‘paragraphing concept’ falls down so frequently. In the end you can only claim they have mastered the idea within narrow parameters, i.e it is context dependent. What you can say is that in certain defined situations they tend to paragraph effectively. That distinction barely matters in practice for paragraphing but if it pervades the whole assessment system it will create distortions.
    Ultimately you can only really assess whether children have performed in the task they were set. The generic implications of that performance are much more speculative and building an assessment system on the assumption of transferability will make it fatally flawed, even if for some more hierarchical subjects it seems workable.

    • Michael Tidd 3 July 2014 at 3:27 pm Reply

      Thanks – I appreciate your comments, and I agree entirely that it needs both primary and secondary eyes on things to make things work most effectively.
      I agree that defining a ‘threshold concept’ is tricky for things like paragraphing, but I don’t know what the alternative is to a model like the objective-led systems. The reality is that at some point we need to teach children the broad principle of paragraphing, and at first they need to do it in those familiar contexts so that they can later build on that simplistic understanding.
      I think your point about the primary system being more hierarchical is interesting and may well be true. I think perhaps this links to my earlier post about what the primary curriculum should look like ( If we spent more time up to the age of 9/10 focussing on getting those skills secured in a range of contexts, and worried less about pretending to be historians, or scientists, etc. then maybe they’d have a sounder grounding for later adaptation and development to gain a real depth of understanding of the material in context-specific lessons, with subject specialists.
      Unfortunately, the reality is that we’re stuck with a generalist system up to age 11, and need an assessment structure which – for as long as it drives the system, as it clearly currently does – drives it in at least vaguely the right direction!

    • Michael Tidd 5 November 2014 at 10:28 am Reply

      You’re quite right, although it was at the time of writing. They later withdraw from the partnership. I have added a note of clarification to that effect.

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