June 2017


  • Core values
    As statements of values go, ours at ASCL is simply magnificent, says Geoff Barton. It crystallises what we do, what we stand for and how we work: “We speak on behalf of members; we act on behalf of children and young people.” More
  • Leading the way
    Headteacher and ASCL member Janet Sheriff shares her journey on becoming the first ever black and minority ethnic (BME) secondary headteacher in Leeds and the only female headteacher her school had ever appointed. More
  • Time for change
    Tim Ramsey from LGBT+ organisation Just Like Us says that schools and colleges are key in facilitating open discussion and promoting tolerance and respect. Here, Tim shares his personal experience and says that leaders need to reaffirm their commitment to this issue. More
  • Refocus assessment
    Research Manager Dr David Thomas says that schools have been given an important opportunity to develop a bespoke assessment strategy focusing on pupils’ needs. Here he highlights a new resource designed to help schools achieve this. More
  • Invaluable experience
    ASCL Annual Conference is a priceless opportunity not to be missed says Headteacher and ASCL member Pepe Di’Iasio. Here he provides a summary of the highlights from this year’s event held in March. More
  • Building character
    Headmaster Dr Julian Murphy explains why helping students develop a toolkit of habits to ensure that they flourish is so important and how it can be incorporated into everyday teaching. More
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Research Manager Dr David Thomas says that schools have been given an important opportunity to develop a bespoke assessment strategy focusing on pupils’ needs. Here he highlights a new resource designed to help schools achieve this.

Refocus assessment

Assessment is an essential part of what schools do. It provides an effective framework to identify and benchmark progress pupils make and, more importantly, valid assessment information can be used to inform future teaching opportunities to support further pupil progress.

Recently, there has been a significant “opportunity for schools to challenge and improve their assessment systems” (Commission on Assessment without Levels, 2015 https://tinyurl.com/z4q5zl9) and develop a bespoke approach that will refocus assessment on the needs of their pupils. The opportunity has arisen from the removal of reportable National Curriculum levels and confirmation that “Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy” (Ofsted, 2016. Guidance: Ofsted Inspections: Myths https://tinyurl.com/mut7fvp). In particular, this new policy framework allows schools to meet the needs of their pupils more closely, by embedding formative approaches to assessment, and placing more responsibility on teachers for assessment expertise.

Working together

It became clear to ASCL, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and SSAT (The Schools Network) in their contacts with schools that the removal of levels has created uncertainty as well as opportunity. While we have seen some excellent practice, many school leaders are unsure about how to develop a new assessment policy, and teachers are uncertain about the impact on classroom pedagogy and assessment practices. In this context, ASCL, NFER and SSAT agreed that the most effective school assessment systems are designed by practitioners to suit their particular context. We have, therefore, jointly published a free resource to support schools through the uncertainty – Refocusing Assessment (ASCL, NFER, SSAT, 2017).

Our resource guides schools systematically through their own discussions, initially on the purpose of assessment and the scope of core learning. Its focus is then on developing a realistic picture of pupil progress and, crucially, how progress, once clearly defined, can be evidenced through effective classroom practice. The resource also provides a well-informed background to assessment in schools and provides reassurance about some misconceptions around the policy framework for assessment.

Truly effective classroom assessment must recognise the specific patterns of learning and progress in different subject areas. It was important, therefore, that we consulted with practitioners to reflect the breadth of opinion and experience of collecting evidence in the classroom about patterns of learning and progress. We convened an expert panel of heads of departments for the six core English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects (English, geography, history, maths, MFL and science), and invited representatives of relevant subject associations. Through the often passionate discussions, we were able to distil the essence of many excellent day-to-day assessment practices that evidence and support the progress of pupils. The outcomes of these discussions are recorded in the six subject documents that accompany the resource.

Using the resource

It is important to emphasise that Refocusing Assessment is not a model assessment policy, but a resource with a framework to inform the development of a system to meet the needs of pupils, while fostering a common language of assessment literacy within a school. It is aimed at Key Stage 3, where there is more freedom to focus on formative assessment, however, this approach could be applied more widely.

Refocusing Assessment is designed to be used initially as an INSET resource. The introduction of a new assessment approach would benefit from senior leaders sharing their ambitions for assessment with all staff, and the resource provides useful guidance for communicating these aspirations. The pivotal stage is for departments to discuss the key questions on assessment, recording their responses on the templates provided. The rich guidance from the subject expert panels can be used to reassure teachers about their current practice, to inform new approaches to assessment or to challenge thinking on current practice. Although only the core EBacc subjects are exemplified, the approach can be followed by any department and many of the expert responses apply across subjects. By the end of the session, departments should have a clear idea about assessment techniques that support their pupils formatively.

Consideration will need to be given as to how departmental assessment priorities can work within the whole-school context. Ideally, the next stage would involve middle and senior leaders in informed discussions about how the different perspectives and priorities would fit into a wider assessment policy. Although this may not be an easy process, we hope that this dialogue will be informed by the departmental discussions and will therefore reflect the diversity of subject assessment needs, while identifying important commonalities between subjects.

It is important to remember to allow time for any approach to embed within practice. We recommend ongoing cycles of evaluation and review, with the main focus being on the benefit to progression of pupils.

Conclusions from the expert panels

Several important messages arising from the expert panel discussions, which are pertinent to the wider approach to refocusing assessment, are summarised below:

  • Engaging teachers in coming to a shared understanding of assessment practice is emphasised, particularly with formative assessment techniques.
  • Flexibility in the design of assessments allows for tailored understanding of genuine progress made by pupils, while flexibility in the timings of data collection ensures that progress can be assessed at appropriate transitions in the learning cycle.
  • Effective assessment, marking and feedback activities take time that must be built into curriculum planning, especially if cycles of feedback are required.
  • Teachers wish to be trusted with the assessment of learning in the classroom and emphasise the need for time for careful moderation and standardisation to support the accuracy of assessment.

The current assessment opportunity presented to schools poses a wide-ranging and challenging task. We hope that the guidance provided in Refocusing Assessment will help schools on the path to maximising the positive impact of their assessment system on the progress of pupils. We launched the new resource at ASCL’s Annual Conference in March, where there was certainly a strong interest in it. One conference delegate said that it was “a principled and practical approach”. So, if you think this approach will help to deliver effective assessment for your school community, our resource could be just what you need.

Some of the specific responses from the expert panel.

Shared tasks/assessments and moderation can help the department develop a more consistent approach to embedding formative assessment. Teachers should be encouraged to talk about students’ learning and progress outside of the pressures of accountability.

Progress is not just about being able to ‘do more’ or ‘do harder’. It includes students showing understanding of concepts, explaining how and why methods work and how they might use the new knowledge and skills they are developing.

Talking and listening to students is an essential assessment tool. This enables teachers to fully grasp the students’ thought processes while the students are actively engaged in their thinking.

Questioning: Students reveal a lot about their understanding and misconceptions from the questions they ask of their teachers and peers. Progress maybe evidenced by increasingly searching and complex questions which reflect current understanding and attempt to further develop and refine thinking.

Download the resource: Refocusing Assessment (ASCL, NFER, SSAT, 2017) is available online from:

Dr David Thomas is Research Manager at the NFER Centre for Assessment