Thursday, 20 July 2017

Making the cut

Assessment. It should be simple really: just checking what pupils do and don't know. But assessment appears to have turned into some kind of war, with the legions of accountability amassed on one side, and the special forces of teaching and learning besieged upon a slippery slope with nowhere to go. We become so focussed on outcomes - on floor standards, and coasting thresholds, and league tables - that we risk losing sight of what's important: the here and now. But it is focussing on the here and now that makes all the difference. The irony is that concentrating on accountability - on those distant and unpredictable performance measures - can jeopardise the very results you are striving for. In short, focus on teaching and learning, and the results take care of themselves.

This is, of course, easier said than done but something has to change. In too many schools assessment has become a burden: a top down directive disconnected from learning; an interminable, box-ticking, data-collecting, drain on teachers' time. The risks are clear: morale nose dives and pupils' learning is put at risk. We therefore need to ditch some of our assessment baggage - aim to do more with less - and this requires some serious rationalisation of our processes. It all comes down to one simple question:

Does this have a positive impact on learning?

We need to go through everything we do in the name of assessment and school improvement and ask that question, and we need to be ruthless and honest. What is the benefit and what is the cost? How long does this take? Does it tell us anything we don't already know? Is it having a negative impact? Is it taking teachers' time away from teaching? Ultimately, the only way to improve a school is to teach children well, and anything that distracts from that purpose is a risk.

So let's deconstruct our entire approach to assessment and lay it all out on the hall floor: the various tests you use, your marking policy, target setting (both for pupils and performance management), those lists of learning objectives stapled into pupils' books, and the component parts of your tracking system (yes! every single measure, category, grid, table, graph, chart and report). We now separate these into two piles: those that have a demonstrable, positive impact on teaching and learning, and those that are purely done for the purposes of accountability.

We keep the first pile and ditch the rest.

We now have a stripped down system that is fit for purpose, that is focussed on the right things. From now on, the information we provide to governors and external agencies is a byproduct of our assessment system, which exists to serve teaching and learning alone. If it works, it's right, no matter what others may say. Many will try to convince you that you're mad but deep down they probably just wish they could do the same. If you think this is all too radical, it's really not. There are many schools with extremely minimalist approaches to assessment that have had very successful inspections. Just as long as your approach is informative and has impact, then it's fine. If anything, the simpler the better. And Ofsted are not asking you to generate data purely for their benefit anyway. The Handbook states:

Ofsted does not expect performance- and pupil-tracking information to be presented in a particular format. Such information should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to track and monitor the progress of pupils in that school

And the workload review group report on data management had this to say:

Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. Always ask why the data is needed.

In alpine climbing there are two popular adages: 'if in doubt, leave it out', and 'if you haven't got it, you can't use it'. The first one is obvious, and it's what I'm trying to get schools to think about when they go about rationalising what they do. The second one links to it and recognises that if we do decide to carry something we'll most likely try to use it, in which case it becomes a potential distraction that can slow us down. It is common to hear headteachers and senior leaders say "we don't use all those bits of our system, we just use this grid". But the problem is that whilst all those other bits exist there is a temptation to use them, to waste your evenings and weekends wading through various reports and charts, and for governors to ask for them. Even worse, there is the potential for a 'visitor' to say "Oh, you use that system! Can you run this report for me please?"

Ditch it. If you haven't got it, you can't use it, and so it ceases to be an issue.

And when inevitably you do come up against someone asking for something they shouldn't be asking for, this should be your response:

"We don't do that in this school. It has no impact on learning"

Have a great summer.


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