Today we found out who would be on the new Assessment Commission to support schools, and I’ll confess to being slightly disappointed. Not just because I wanted to be on it (any opportunity to make people listen to me!), but because having been promised a teacher-led commission, there isn’t a single practising teacher on the commission. Headteachers are all well and good, but the reality is that very few headteachers have direct responsibility for assessment; I’m not suggesting for a second that they don’t have a place on the commission, but someone who has actual daily responsibility for working with the ins-and-outs of assessment in the classroom seems to me a glaring omission.
I’m also disappointed that despite the primary sector making up 2/3rds of the relevant year groups for which assessment without levels, and the fact that levels was the basis of our statutory end-of-school assessment, the sector seems rather poorly represented.
That said, I do not suppose that the commission will be a bad one. I have a lot of time for many of its members, and know that representatives such as Dame Alison Peacock will serve the primary sector well. I am sure that they will all treat the role with the importance it deserves and attempt to do their best to support and enable schools. And it is with that mind that I offer unto them my thoughts on what they should and should not do as part of the commission
The biggest issue
I’ve done lots of work up and down the country this year looking at assessment without levels. In every case I’ve pointed out to schools, family groups, local authorities and others that the capacity already exists within the system for high quality assessment systems. Schools are already filled with qualified and experienced teachers who well know how to assess learning.
Yet there is still a sense of paralysis. School leaders are not yet taking the bull by the horns either to buy in or create assessment approaches. In almost every case, that paralysis is caused by the fear of accountability. Not because school leaders are fearful of being held accountable, but because they fear making educationally-sound decisions which then don’t marry up with the statistical demands of local authorities, the department and Ofsted. But at local authority level, the fear is the same: they daren’t advise schools about models or approaches, because they too are in the dark about what Ofsted will expect.
The issue that comes up time and again is measuring progress. Schools largely feel confident about assessing children’s learning. By and large they are happy about making judgements about attainment -although the changing goal posts of the Performance Descriptors haven’t helped that. What worries schools is the need to demonstrate progress between and within year groups across primary schools.
Note, the issue is not about children making progress, but about demonstrating it to outside agencies. We are so caught up in the APS model, and so used to being held to account on the basis of the tiniest blip in tiny samples of data, that everyone fears what might come next. It is all well and good for the DfE to say that schools should have free reign, and for Ofsted to say that they’ll work with what schools have, but until the days of the first inspection reports, school leaders feel paralysed.
Of course, the reality is that part of the reason for removing levels was exactly the crazy system of trying to measure progress through steps and bands. But schools did not impose that system upon themselves; that was driven by Ofsted and the department. The most pressing and urgent matter for the commission to turn its attention to is clarity from both overseers about what will be expected from schools.
School leaders are still fully expecting to be asked for half-termly data, showing steps of progress. They know that this is not how learning works – they always have – but the system has been in place so long that they cannot believe that it won’t be demanded again.
The commission should be honest about this. We know from publications from the new Education data lab this week that progress is simply not linear. If that is true over the long scale of several key stages, then it is undoubtedly more so over short periods such as a single term or half-term. The idea that progress can be measured in step every 6 weeks should quickly be debunked, and more rounded approaches put in place. That certainly makes things harder for schools in categories to show rapid improvement, and for external agencies to spot potential weaknesses… but the old system allowed those judgements to be made on the basis of very poor evidence.
Once that’s sorted…
If the issue of what will be expected in terms of demonstrating progress cannot be dealt with, then little else that the commission achieves will be worthwhile. The power of Ofsted to dictate practice – however unwittingly – cannot be underestimated.
So let’s presume that we get some clarity on this front. What else needs to be addressed?
Firstly, I’d like to see a set of meaningful principles set out that will help to guide school leaders. Naturally, I offer my own 7 questions as good starting point, but would welcome any improvement and addition to them that supported schools. Suffice it to say, I also think the DfE’s own effort could be improved upon considerably.
Importantly, the commission needs to recognise the weakness it suffers from in not having in practising teachers on board. We know only too well how work done in isolation can lead to a well-intentioned method becoming an unmanageable nightmare in practice. This could not be truer than with assessment. There are already plenty of good examples around of unwieldy systems that claim to be based on best practice, but which give little consideration to the workload of a typical teacher.
One of the mercies of the existing system was that – with experience – a teacher could bypass all the admin and simply use their professional knowledge to estimate a reasonable sub-level assessment. If some of the systems that provide endless ticklist items and minuscule ‘steps of progress’ are encouraged, then doubtless the nightmare of APP that Liz Truss was so happy to condemn will soon become a fond memory for teachers.
Dylan Wiliam explains this very well in his excellent article in Teach Primary magazine:
A school’s assessment system could assess everything students are learning, but then teachers would spend more time assessing than teaching. The important point here is that any assessment system needs to be selective about what gets assessed and what does not
This principle is particularly important because of the haphazard way in which the National Curriculum has been constructed. There is repetition in the English curriculum, and a lack of clarity between statutory and non-statutory content in the Maths. These two central elements of the primary curriculum are too jumbled in their statutory form to simply form the basis of all assessment.
The ‘Don’t do’ list
The commission must not recommend solutions. Guiding principles are great for supporting schools. However, if a DfE-commissioned group is seen to endorse a particular product, or group of products, then these will become the de facto expectations in schools. Schools which have good systems in place will feel compelled to throw out valuable work to conform to the recommendations. Good examples may well illustrate effective approaches, but the commissions reports must be careful to emphasise where these are examples, not exemplars.
Furthermore, the commission must not flinch from criticising approaches and methods which are unsound. I say this knowing that I have made my own suggested approach widely known, and yet recognise that it is flawed. The commission must not let its support be tempered by kindness to effort or concern for commerce. If a system is bad in some way, then it must be pointed out. If an approach has flaws, then we must be honest about them. The reality is that probably all assessment systems are flawed; it is only in recognising these flaws that we come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of what we’re working with.
The commission must not act as the DfE’s agent, or be fearful of encroaching on the work of Ofsted. If advice needs to be given to schools – or directly to the department or its agencies – then the commission must do so, and do so clearly. It will not have escaped the attention of the teaching community that many of the members of the commission are already well-known for working with the government and/or sharing its aims. The commission – if not teacher-led – must at least be seen to have the interests of the profession and its students as its first priority.
Finally, it is important that the commission is clear about the role of assessment. I have repeatedly revisited the mantra that Tracking is not the same as Assessment. The difference here is particularly significant given the role of headteachers on the commission. School leaders understandably have a desire and need for tracking data: their careers rest on the next set of results, and being able to predict them is important. However, the bread-and-butter of good teaching and learning is based much more on assessment – knowing what a child can and can’t do. The commission should primarily concern itself with assessment, before identifying how such assessments can be used to support tracking.
Is that it?
One final disappointment of today’s announcement is that we still don’t have sight of the terms of reference of the commission. This is significant, because the areas in which they could work are expansive. I hope that terms will be published imminently.
Doubtless that once they are, I may find new things that need raising, and similarly as any reports emerge from the commission, I am sure there will be more to say.
Of course, one advantage of not being on the commission is the ability to say these things with impunity, and to pronounce publicly on the outcomes of any reports. I wish the commissioners good luck with this mammoth task – and look forward to challenging them thoroughly and constantly to ensure that their work brings benefits for the education of children in our schools – and hopefully their teachers!