Correcting the primary assessment imbalance

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As a former primary head teacher, I am no great fan of statutory assessment.

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James Bowen, NAHT Edge director

I have experienced first-hand the distorting effect the current system has had on the curriculum and the unnecessary pressure it places on schools, teachers and, most importantly, children. It is clear to me that the majority of the changes introduced by the Government last year made things worse rather than better.

It was for this reason that I was delighted to be invited to join the NAHT Assessment Review Group. Assessment experts and practitioners such as Dame Alison Peacock and Michael Tidd were involved, and many expert opinions were sought, including from early years specialists.

It was enormously tempting just to make one simple recommendation – scrap all forms of statutory assessment altogether. This certainly appealed to the teacher and former school leader in me. But as appealing as this might sound, the reality is it simply is not going to happen in the current climate. Also, we shouldn’t shy away from the fact that it is not unreasonable for schools to be held to account. This just needs to be done in a way that is fair to both them and the children. The group decided that the best way forward was to consider what a future statutory assessment system might look like.

PRINCIPLES OF ASSESSMENT

We started by identifying a set of principles that should underpin any assessment system. One of these was that if we are going to use data to hold schools to account, progress should be valued over raw attainment. It seems patently unfair to compare schools serving entirely different catchments and communities on scores alone.

Having accepted that progress should be valued over attainment, the group could see there would need to be a start point or some form of baseline for this to work. This conclusion led the group into what was probably the most contentious point for discussion – when and how should a baseline be conducted? Under the current system, the Key Stage 1 tests act as a baseline for measuring pupil progress in primary schools. This really does not make a great deal of sense. By the end of Key Stage 1, the pupils have been at the school for three years already, and by having a baseline at this point, you are actually ignoring the vitally important work that schools do in those first three years. The other problem is that these assessments actually serve potentially conflicting purposes; not only are they a baseline for progress, but they are also an ‘output measure’ for the end of Key Stage 1 and so there is enormous pressure on schools for children to ‘perform’ well.

ADDRESSING CONCERNS

Ideally the starting point for a progress measure should be as early as possible if you are going to make a valid judgement about the difference a school has made. This is what led the group to reconsider the role of an assessment at the start of a child’s time in primary school. Understandably, there were mixed views about this idea. Those who had experienced the mess that was the initial attempt at a baseline were clear that a repeat of such an approach could not work; I have no desire to see that either. There were also concerns expressed about the potential impact of any such assessment on the children and also on early years practice.

As a result, the group were clear that any such assessment should be approached with great caution. There was certainly no appetite for any form of formalised testing and it was generally agreed that a teacher-led observation approach was the best way to go. We have also said that the results from any such assessment should simply be a retrospective progress measure for whole cohorts and not be used to set progress targets for individual pupils. Additional concerns such as the impact on teacher workload and the crucial settling-in period for children starting at school also need to be carefully considered.

For me, when discussing this thorny issue, it is important to return to two of the other overarching principles that the group agreed on. First, we should separate formal statutory assessment from the important ongoing assessments that practitioners engage in every day with the children they work with. It is this detailed understanding of a child’s learning that is most useful to teachers and parents. Secondly, we also need to hold on to the key point that data alone will never tell you the whole story about a school’s performance. We have to recognise that any piece of data will have its flaws and limitations, including a single primary progress measure. We need to move away from a world where school performance is reduced to a set of statistics. In such a world, the data produced by statutory assessment should take on far less significance for all concerned.

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