December 2015


  • Influential focus
    Six months after the General Election, we have a much clearer understanding of how the political land lies. Whatever the challenges may be, there are numerous opportunities for us to influence policy makers both in government and in opposition, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Making maths add up
    When specialists are scarce, leaders need to understand the fundamentals of mathematics in order to ensure it is well taught throughout their schools, says Julia Upton. More
  • Central lines
    John Banbrook looks at the advantages of centralising services for schools in a multi-academy trust (MAT) and the issues for leaders to consider in terms of governance, staff and costs. More
  • Off the chart
    The obsession with tracking and recording data threatens to annihilate joyful learning and teaching, says Dame Alison Peacock. To make assessment truly meaningful, we need greater expertise throughout the system. More
  • No barriers
    Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson brushed aside society’s low expectations of disabled people to achieve multiple golds on the athletics track and a seat in the House of Lords, yet still faces prejudice in everyday life. She talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Recruitment drive
    The number of graduates entering teaching is falling and the confusing plethora of routes into the profession isn’t helping. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how schools are tackling the problem themselves. More
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The obsession with tracking and recording data threatens to annihilate joyful learning and teaching, says Dame Alison Peacock. To make assessment truly meaningful, we need greater expertise throughout the system.

Off the chart

Assessment in both primary and secondary school has increasingly been driven by the need for individual teachers and institutions to prove their worth.

When National Curriculum levels were introduced in 1990 following the Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT) report, the intention was to provide a national benchmark for standards. However, since then, schools have faced increasing amounts of monitoring and testing and levels have taken on a disproportionate importance.

As a member of the DfE’s Commission for Assessment Without Levels, I was reassured by the debates we had. We agreed that the prime objective of teachers should be to use many types of assessment, provided they are helping to improve the quality of learning.

We were alarmed by the excessive workload of teachers required to track every aspect of attainment. Tracking and recording data has become a monster that threatens to annihilate joyful learning and teaching. In many secondary schools, a six-week unit of work now typically contains four weeks of teaching, one week of revision and another of testing.

Somehow, within the profession, we need to rediscover the importance of assessment as a means of ensuring the best possible teaching, rather than as a way to constantly monitor teachers and hold them to account. We are out of balance.

Define progress differently

Our accountability system needs to define progress differently, putting greater emphasis on depth of learning and understanding achieved within subjects. We need to shift the current ‘race track’ expectation of distance travelled between key stages.

The latest Ofsted framework promises to focus on the quality of the assessment process in classrooms, as opposed to tracking data. These extracts from the inspection handbook outline how leadership of assessment will now be judged:

  • Assessment information is gathered from looking at what pupils already know.
  • Assessment information is used to plan appropriate teaching and learning strategies.
  • Pupils understand how to improve as a result of useful feedback.

The demand for national, regional and school data is here to stay. However, the removal of levels offers a unique opportunity to school leaders to bring in a system of assessment that explicitly relates to the curriculum and informs good teaching. Instead of requiring teachers constantly to submit abstract sub-level data sheets to prove progress, there is scope to focus attention on supporting teachers to tailor their teaching to incorporate formative assessment using low-stakes summative assessment. This assessment could take the form of comparison of a first draft with a final draft of writing, for example.

Pedagogy for assessment

So how can we confidently capture progress? The key will be to develop a pedagogy for assessment that gives teachers maximum insight. Good teachers constantly assess for understanding while they teach; excellent lesson planning is flexible enough to build on feedback gained from learners so that each session is tailored to their needs. This is obvious, but we have become used to coding learning to fit a sub-level, instead of focusing on the curriculum.

As school leaders, we can evidence high-quality assessment through visiting classrooms, taking part in lessons and talking to students, while also noting progress evident in written work over time. Recording the performance of individual students at the end of a series of lessons or unit of work provides specific information for tracking purposes and enables essential monitoring to ensure that all children are being supported and challenged effectively.

This kind of tracking can be used for the individual child, class and cohort. School leaders who are taking time to build their own bespoke assessment system can avoid the trap of relentlessly feeding a tracking machine. After all, statutory assessment remains and will continue to be reported. Our task is to ensure that every child has the best chance of learning. First and foremost, assessment should be used to support this process.

If we are to move towards more informed assessment practice, we must provide the teaching profession with access to professional learning that builds rigorous assessment expertise. Assessment practice for many teachers is often an area of low confidence where colleagues typically defer almost exclusively to externally published test materials, rather than design their own low-stakes regular assessments.

One way of increasing evidence of progress is to develop the expertise of pupils to engage in formative assessment as part of their daily experience of learning. Anne Goldsworthy, Primary Science Specialist, describes the importance of identifying children’s misconceptions in order that they can see what they have learnt. They may record their understanding before a series of lessons takes place and then compare this with their new insight, for example, ‘I used to think this . . . but now I think . . .’ or if their understanding was correct, but has been enhanced still further, ‘I used to think . . . and I still think this, because . . .’

This simple kind of assessment illustrates clearly what has been learned and understood and supports future planning.

Learning without limits

In a culture of trust, peers can support one another rather than trampling on one another in a race to be top of the class. A ‘learning without limits’ approach seeks to avoid notions of fixed ability and labelling, enabling everyone to contribute to the learning of the collective. If we have an expectation that everyone will continually be engaged in assessment, we can move to a culture of ambition where students and teachers are all working to evidence understanding.

The Commission on Assessment Without Levels has had a positive response from government. The commission recommends a move away from micro-measurement towards greater opportunity to enhance the quality of teaching and learning through meaningful assessment.

Adopting new assessment practice takes professional courage. Unless teachers, school leaders and inspectors are confident, the temptation to over-measure and under-nourish learners will remain. We need to shift emphasis away from merely tracking and towards assessment that enriches, extends and enables learning.

Dame Alison Peacock is a member of the DfE’s Commission for Assessment Without Levels and a primary headteacher.

Your professional development

Book your place on our Leadership of Assessment Conference on 22 March 2016 in London. See here for more

Further reading

The Commission on Assessment Without Levels was set up to provide schools with guidance and support on designing their own assessment polices and approaches after the abolition of National Curriculum levels. The commission’s report, published by the government, outlines the purposes and principles of assessment with the aim of helping teachers and school leaders to develop approaches to assessment that align with their curriculum and work for their pupils and staff.ASCL has provided a summary and analysis of the report online; see withoutlevelsWe would encourage ASCL members to share their own examples with colleagues. If your school has already put in place a new system on assessing without levels, please let us know – you can send us your case studies to suzanne.o’farrell@ and we will share them via the ASCL website.

Please note, there is no one model of assessing without levels that would be suitable for all schools. Schools do need to develop their own system fit for their own purpose.