In today’s Schools Week, Michael Tidd argues that the current state of assessment, particularly the approach from the Government, is, at best unhelpful, at worst simply a “dog’s breakfast”. Michael has spent the past few years unpicking, in fine detail, every pronouncement on the subject; this time rightly considering the impact on teacher workload.
Below is a diagram that outlines the range of activities regularly undertaken by a teacher. In addition there is a need to understand all the changes being wrought on the system, sometimes multiple "tweaks".
The introduction of sub-levels and APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) as an extended version of progress descriptors led to practices that were almost self-defeating; it can be hard enough to determine a difference between a good level 3 and a lower achieving 4, but to differentiate between top 3c and bottom 3b? There was also a narrowing of challenge, as teachers sought to create tasks that moved children a sub-level. All this was losing sight of the bigger picture. In the attempt to create what passed as “rigour” at the time, there was a self-limiting of outcomes. The impact of this was to see the need for greater emphasis on “Literacy”, not English and “Numeracy”, not maths, to the growing detriment of other curriculum subjects, which, to my mind diminished the knowledge base available to children to enhance their vocabulary, spoken, read and written. That was a significant factor in keeping a broad, balanced and relevant, experience and language rich curriculum until I stopped being a head in 2006. As a result, children achieved well across all areas, and, from parent reports, have gone on to high level achievements later.
Apparently, teachers and parents didn’t understand levels, so that was a key reason why they disappeared. There is no doubt in my mind that they became badly used in some areas and were usually ignored at transfer to Secondary education. As they were “best fit”, there was always the potential for gaps to proceed with children, which was why, in my school, we established the “flip out target sheet” that highlighted the ongoing learning need, even if a “level” had been achieved, on the premise that all 3b children will not be the same.
The current curriculum, especially for Primary schools, where assessment has been effectively written in as “achieve everything in the year expectation to be at the “right” standard” and written out as “create your own system”. Visiting trainee teachers in a range of schools across two counties, it can appear as if the range of approaches is likely to create a new set of issues. Some schools have systems that are akin to levelness, with associated APP style tracking documents. Some are guided by the LA to see children as “emerging” as they will not have completed the year programme. There are variations in interpretation within LA schools. Others are still trying to wade their way between systems, or are focused purely on outcomes, with little in the way of judgement; completing the activity is the important aspect.
Issues that could arise: -
- The curriculum is not “covered”, so, by definition, the children cannot be deemed to have fully “emerged”. Even if the curriculum is covered, there is no guarantee that all the information “delivered” will be firmly embedded in every child’s head.
- “Challenge” is often offered after a basic, “expected” task is tackled, so time may not be available to tackle the challenge, which, for some might be the more realistic start point. In many ways, the style can be seen to be moving back to a traditional, whole class, three-part lesson, with minor variations.
- The danger is of a delivery model that superficially ensures that all children will achieve. It could, in due course, result in “dumbing down” rather than creating a learning dynamic.
- The curriculum is very literacy and numeracy heavy, with less time available to do quality work in other curriculum subjects. This limits the knowledge and experience base that can contribute to a rich language environment.
- Being “top down” the controls on teachers’ ability to innovate can sometimes seem restrictive. Breaking away from the control might push some institutions and individual teachers into anxiety territory. Fear restricts the ability to think.
- Some institutions interpret models into a second layer of expectation, further restricting the teacher ability to think for themselves. This, in turn, can restrict the children’s ability to think for themselves.
- At significant points, children will be judged through external tests and given a number of “labels”, based on their numeric standardised score, or in words, such as at, or not at standard. This is supposed to be better than the previous level system. Levelness has become de facto “yearness”, with a possible “pass/fail” normative mentality overriding achievement.
- At transition/ in year transfer, children entering a new school, with a different system will potentially face some kind of overview assessment or test to determine their ability compared with their new peers.
- There will not be a common language between schools.
- Judgement on a broader scale could become more difficult, especially for vulnerable learners, whose descriptor of “emerging” may not be sufficiently clear for accurate judgements to be made about personal capability. It will be, is becoming easy for some teachers to articulate that a child “can’t/shouldn’t be in their class”. Where they “should be” is another level of issue.
Teachers are paid to think about education, yet the top down system demanding compliance (or else) may actively be working against quality thinking, as teachers seek to second guess what “they” (LA, Academy chain, Ofsted, Government) actually want. Schemes are being created and bought that impose potentially further restrictions on thinking, as teachers seek to embed them in practice effectively. The curriculum is becoming more of a delivery mechanism. Why should that worry me?
- Largely because standards 6 and 5 are the key to getting closer to individual, group and class needs. The judgemental aspects of standard 6, between and within lessons, are effected through adaptations between lessons or within a lesson. That nuance can be lost in a delivery model. It is often evident in ITE trainees, who are focused on getting through the lesson more than the actual learning and getting to know the needs of individuals.
- Assessment, to my mind, has always meant knowing your children. It also means knowing the generic progression in each of the subjects that make up the Primary curriculum. Marrying the two together is the essence of good planning that embeds appropriate challenge for different needs.
- Planning is, at heart, a(n) hypothesis, a general descriptor of what will happen if all your prior judgements have been accurate.
- All plans should be subject to adjustment within the lesson, if, on the balance of evidence and the teacher judgement, individuals, groups or the whole class seem to be finding aspects harder or easier than expected. In-lesson interactions and oral and written feedback are likely to be influenced by these judgements. 6&5 effectively mean spot and deal with learning issues in a lesson.
- Reflection after the lesson, or period of lessons allows for future plans to be adjusted to outcomes. This could be in the form of “interleaving”, or adjusting future demands to cater for known needs.
The agenda for school improvement, while laudable at one level, is also possibly deeply flawed. It is based on the premise that, “properly” delivered, the curriculum as written will result in a larger number of children achieving higher outcomes. Where there were approximately 75% of children achieving a level 4c+, there was an aspiration for 85% to achieve at what was described as 4b+, supposedly to better achieve at Secondary.
My feeling is that, in order to achieve at this level, curricular sacrifices will be made that impact negatively on the English outcomes, as children work with a reduced diet. In many ways, despite being adherents to the philosophy of E D Hirsch, the current direction of curriculum interpretations could actually be running counter to the aspiration of cultural literacy. I fully expect an HMI report in the next few years that says that Primary children are not getting a good deal in history, geography, proper Primary science, design technology and art.
If it was indeed the case that level 4b+ was the “grail”, all that was needed were a few minor tweaks, learning from those who had already achieved at this level, despite contextual difficulty, eg the London Challenge, rather than the several years of change, which have not yet ceased, as the first tests are no due until this summer, with inevitable changes for the 2016-17 academic year.
That nothing is yet secured in education is worrying. While navigating stormy seas is part and parcel of school life, never to reach land and to be able to map clear directions leaves the system as a whole adrift.
Every teacher is adrift with a boat load of children. They deserve good maps and the ability to captain their own ships with certainty. They carry a valuable cargo, who should be enjoying time to look around and take in the experiences as they pass, rather than being kept too busy to look, or only allowed to see the world through a small port hole. The teacher, as a good captain, should also be looking out for the well-being of her team.
It needs leadership, direction and permission to address evident need, not dictat, exhortation and whip-cracking, with potential “punishment” (academisation) for not achieving.