I’m not known for my generosity towards the department, but let me state straight off that I’m impressed that it has had the courage to do what’s right in respect of the Performance Descriptors.
After a lacklustre start, eventually 880 responses to the consultation were received, and the message was overwhelming. At least three-quarters of responses said they were unclear or confusing, inappropriately spaced and difficult to understand. Even the free-text response box – the one likely to be left empty – led to around 300 people complaining that they were not fit for purpose.
But we feared the worst. As Warwick Mansell reported in the Guardian last month, we knew that there were doubts about the descriptors, but the worry was that they might be pushed through anyway. So it should be cautiously welcomed that the descriptors will not be rolled out in their current form – at least, not now.
Of course, the matter remains of what is to be done. And there I still have doubts.
We had the announcement yesterday of a commission to support schools with assessment after levels. There are a few questions here. Firstly, it isn’t clear whether the commission is intended to look at primary assessment, or both primary and secondary. The press release title suggests the former, other comments the latter.
Secondly, who is to be on this commission? Nick Gibb described it as a teacher-led commission, but the only appointment so far publicised is a former secondary headteacher, and one who’s been retired for 8 years at that! I don’t hold with the view that headteachers are not teachers, but it’s certainly fair to say that very few headteachers deal with the day-to-day business of assessment in the classroom. If the commission is made up of apparent cronies – or worse, remains secretive as so often in the past, it will be hard to persuade teachers that sensible decisions are being made.
Thirdly, how does the commission’s work fit in with the “assessment experts” who will advise the department on how to move forward with teacher assessment at the end of each primary Key Stage? And who are those experts to be? Will they be the same ones who wrote the flawed descriptors in the first place?
Alongside this, the government response appears to suggest in places that the problems with Performance Descriptors are due not to the failings in the descriptors themselves, but in teachers’ understanding of them. That is unequivocally not the case. The descriptors were confused, unhelpful and a genuine obstruction to good assessment and teaching – going some way to contradict the government’s intention to avoid excessive pace in schools. I would like to see confirmation that the performance descriptors in their current form will definitely not be implemented.
Another issue was raised today by @GiftedPhoenix, relating to the fairly recent proposal from the Workload Challenge project to ensure longer lead-in times for major changes:[tweet https://twitter.com/GiftedPhoenix/status/570907293908393984 hide_thread=true]
So, the department is not off the hook yet.
But let me say again: they ought to be congratulated for at least having the courage to take a foot off the pedal. Few things guarantee error and difficulty more than haste. We need something sorted as soon as possible – but no sooner!