Many of the Government’s statements about assessment under the National Curriculum 2014 have stressed that, with the exception of the national, statutory arrangements (e.g. tests and teacher assessment at the end of Key Stages 1 and 2 and the Phonics Screening Check) each school should determine its own assessment policy and practice. Here’s a typical example:
‘We will not prescribe a national system for schools’ ongoing assessment. Schools should decide how they assess each subject as they develop their curriculum.’
Primary assessment and accountability under the new National Curriculum – DfE, July 2013
Of course, it’s true that every school’s curriculum will be unique and, since assessment must relate to how far pupils have learnt what they have been taught, it will differ from one school to another. However, the new curriculum comes along with higher national expectations and tougher school accountability measures which, for most schools, make the progress of pupils more significant than their attainment. And what counts is progress in relation to the expectations of the National Curriculum, so any approach to tracking pupil progress has to at least align with these new expectations. Whether they are Local Authority maintained, academies or free schools, primary schools will all be held to account on the outcomes of assessments which are based entirely on the Programmes of Study for reading, writing and mathematics.
Many senior leaders in primary have felt exposed and isolated as they tried to come to terms with ‘assessment beyond levels’ after living for twenty-five years with a system which was underpinned by a continuous scale of attainment from Year 1 to Year 9. Until the last few months, many aspects of the new national system were unclear and yet, apart from Year 2 and Year 6, teachers in Local Authority schools had to teach the new Programmes of Study from September 2014. Quite a lot of schools, particularly those who expected a phone call from Ofsted, felt obliged to buy in a commercial assessment and data-management system which promised to give them the kind of analysis of attainment and progress they were used to. After all, the same Government document quoted above also said:
‘Ofsted will expect to see evidence of pupils’ progress, with inspections informed by the school’s chosen pupil tracking data’.
As the dust settles and everyone prepares for the new national arrangements in summer 2016, schools are beginning to recognise more clearly not only the challenges of assessment in the new context, but also the real opportunity they have to rethink their school-based practices to ensure that they are helping every pupil make as much progress as possible. That involves good ongoing assessment which is used to make continuous improvements to teaching and learning.
So how can schools – both primary and secondary – work together to build up confidence in their assessment policy and practice, and how can they help pupils and parents make sense of what teachers will say about attainment and progress in the future?
Working horizontally and vertically
It makes sense for schools to work both horizontally (across the same year groups) and vertically (from one year group to the next) as they become more familiar with the new curriculum. Groups of primary schools can work together, giving colleagues who teach the same year group opportunities to build shared interpretations of new National Curriculum expectations, i.e. standardisation. It’s not difficult; each teacher brings along the recent work of one of their pupils whom they expect to be on track to meet age-related expectations by the end of the school year. Generally, this activity will reassure teachers that their interpretation of the new national expectations is in line with colleagues in other schools, but it’s also an invaluable professional development opportunity. It can illustrate how the best schools and teachers exploit natural contexts across the wider curriculum to provide opportunities for depth, application and security in learning. It also inevitably leads to discussion about marking and feedback, about how far pupils can exercise independence and choice and how next steps in learning will vary for the different pupils whose work has been sampled. It’s also an ideal opportunity for senior leaders, particularly those who are not classroom-based, to engage with the curriculum and learning in their school.
Within schools, the same approach could be used in a training day or after-school session where teachers in each year group bring along evidence from one or two representative pupils considered to be working at age-related expectations. This activity highlights how learning develops and is built upon as pupils move through school and it’s particularly important now that the National Curriculum sets out year-by-year objectives in the core subjects. It also reduces the risk that class teachers will become very familiar with the objectives for the year group they’re teaching but less aware of what they’re building on and what lies ahead.
Both these activities involve teachers identifying and describing pupils’ progress in relation to real evidence of their learning; progress is visible without the use of numbers or grades. They encourage teachers to recognise significant steps in learning and this, of course, is exactly what pupils and their parents want to know – how and where have I improved and what do I need to concentrate on in order to improve further?
Extending the vertical viewpoint to include the early secondary years will be particularly critical this year. Year 7 teachers need to adjust to the new expectations for the end of Year 6 and new ways of reporting attainment. The Secretary of State recently confirmed plans to ‘retest’ pupils in Year 7 who failed to reach the national expectation at the end of Key Stage 2 (although you don’t need too long a memory to recall that this has been tried – and abandoned – before). Secondaries will also be under additional scrutiny from Ofsted whose recent report, ‘Key Stage 3: the wasted years?’ highlighted the urgent need to improve academic transition, focusing on ensuring that students maintain momentum and build on previous learning. The report promised that inspection teams will:
‘focus even more sharply on the progress made by Key Stage 3 pupils…’
‘…report more robustly on how schools ensure that all pupils make the best possible start to their secondary education’
Transition from primary to secondary has long been a weakness in the school system and primary colleagues often express frustration when they see former pupils failing to sustain progress in the early years of secondary. With school accountability now focused on progress, it’s the ideal opportunity for primary and secondary colleagues to find more effective ways of working together. Simple, consistent and manageable systems for transferring key information could help many more students hit the ground running as they move into Year 7.
Stephen Anwyll has almost 40 years’ experience in education, starting as a primary teacher and then moving into advisory work. He was appointed as a regional director for the National Literacy Strategy and later became its national director. He worked on improving teacher assessment with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for several years and at the end of 2010 was appointed Head of the National Assessment team at Ofqual, leading the work on reviewing statutory assessment arrangements. He now works as an independent consultant.