The Future Of Assessment In Schools According To The Headteachers Roundtable Group

Assessment in primary schools sometimes seems to be the only real focus of  both politicians and educators – how should we assess, how often, and to what end. So it’s not surprising that it has been a key focus for the wonderful Headteachers Roundtable Group (#HTRT on Twitter and for the rest of this post).

What is the Headteachers Roundtable Group?

Briefly: it’s a beacon of light and positivity in face of an education system that sometimes appears in despair, crumbling under the weight of budget cuts, recruitment, and ever tougher accountability measures.

But more prosaically the Headteachers Roundtable is a group of approximately 20 headteachers, the genesis of whose coming together was a meeting in 2012.

Stated Core Purpose of the #HTRT

We are a non-party political headteachers’ group operating as a think-tank, exploring policy issues from a range of perspectives. Our goal is to provide a vehicle for people working in the profession to influence national education policy-makers so that education policy is centred upon what is best for the learning of all children.

Stephen Tierney, the #HTRT Chair has a more evocative take on it:
‘[The group] looks to light candles in the darkness, bringing forward positive policies and ideas based on our collective experiences, rooted in evidence, of what will enable all our pupils, staff and communities to thrive and flourish.’

As a primary school leader or teacher, the views they espouse on assessment in primary schools and accountability make heartening and illuminating reading – see below for more detail.

Headteachers Roundtable summit

In the first week of February, the #HTRT held an #HTRTSummit in London to bring together school leaders and people from the wider education sector to discuss and champion some of their key issues, particularly those contained in their November 2016 Alternative Green Paper.

Topics under discussion ranged widely, but included Vic Goddard, Principal, Passmores Academy (of Educating Essex fame) on Inclusion, Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI Upper school (and new ASCL Leader) on School Leadership, and John Tomsett (Headteacher, Huntington School) on the future of MATs. No single blog post can do justice to the range of topics.

In light of our own focus on supporting primary schools to raise attainment in Maths with an intervention that includes both an initial diagnostic test and formative assessment I’m sharing here some of the thoughts and findings around assessment in primary schools to come out of the HTRT.

Assessment and accountability in the HTRT Green Paper:

First, a look at what the 2016 Green Paper says on the topic.

These are the key points within ‘Accountability: Policy Proposals’ as summarised by Stephen Tierney.

  • Establish a means for determining system effectiveness and improvement through National Reference Assessments starting in reception and at four year periods (current Years 4, 8 and 12), independent of the curriculum of the day.
  • Introduce an annually reviewed Office for Standards in Education Quality Mark (the Ofsted MoT) based on schools meeting an agreed multi-year contextualised value added measure (weighted to reflect the amount of time a pupil spends in a school), secure Safeguarding processes and unqualified audited accounts. Schools awarded the Quality Mark would be exempt from any other form of external accountability.
  • The use of floor attainment targets should cease immediately; Key Stage 1 assessments, in their current form, should be discontinued as a means of holding primary schools accountable and the Government should refrain from establishing accountability measures relating to an aspect of provision instead using holistic measures.

What comes out throughout the Green Paper is a clear antipathy towards the use of ‘floor targets’ based on attainment measures “as they are more a measure of a school’s intake than the quality of the education provided to pupils.”

The Future of Assessment in Primary Schools: Learning First or Accountability

The three speakers in the assessment session at the #HTRT summit offered a range of perspectives and experience: Binks Neate Evans, Headteacher of West Earle Infant and Nursery School, Prof Christine Merrell, Director of Research CEM and Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching. This is their vision for assessment, together with some summarising points that may be useful for you to take back to your own class.

Listen to the experts on formative assessment

Binks Neate Evans, Headteacher of West Earle Infant started with a plea to listen to the experts when deciding what works in schools. And those experts are not regional schools commissioners, nor local authorities, nor Ofsted but teachers.

So it’s with teachers in her view that assessment should sit. The answer is not high stakes testing which narrows the curriculum and opportunities for learning, and encourages teaching to the test and rote learning.

Instead we should learn from the assessment measures used in Early Years with its greater focus on listening and understanding children rather than testing them.

Throughout a child’s primary education we and they / their parents should be looking for more regular formative assessment which helps a child to progress.

How to assess at primary school: the three essential questions

Binks suggests that really this boils down to only three questions that a child needs to know the answer to:

  1. Where am I going
  2. How am I doing
  3. Where am I going next

That’s the data we need as opposed to numbers.

And what’s key about it is that the child understands it and takes ownership of it. Binks referred to the latest list from John Hattie and his Visible Learning research into effect sizes for what works in education; ‘metacognition’ is rising up the chart for the most important indicators of student success much ahead of teacher feedback. So shouldn’t we be focusing on this instead?

Third Space Learning has long emphasized the impact a pupil’s understanding and personal investment in their own learning can have; our tutors are trained to help pupils to be more aware of their own learning as well as to develop a growth mindset during the 1-to-1 tuition lessons.

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Individual progress without comparisons

Right now, the emphasis in school accountability is on progress, not attainment (despite those persistent floor standards). In many ways this is a good thing, but not if we’re looking at it across cohorts or schools and judging them on it. It should be about individual children and the individual progress each is making not about putting numbers against ‘expected progress’ or ‘expected standard’.

Hence why mixed ability teaching is now taking hold in so many classrooms. When a child chooses the level of work best suited to their own understanding of a topic, they’re invested in their own learning, nobody feels the stigma of ‘bottom set’, and progress is personal.

Binks finished with a rallying cry to the primary sector to become more active, to join in the debate, and use their expertise to create a more humane and individualized assessment and accountability framework.

Learn from academic research into assessment in primary schools

Professor Christine Merrell took a slightly different tack using her academic expertise on Assessment and Research methods to highlight the importance of using a variety of assessment measures as appropriate to the age and stage of the pupil when measuring progress.

She gave the example of research done from assessing the difference in language development between babies with university-educated mothers and those with mothers who hadn’t been to university.

By 10 months babies with university mothers were able to link an object to meaning – making noises to say something about the object that was meaningful to others. The other babies were slower to develop this. So researchers put an intervention in place – asking the mothers who hadn’t been to university to talk about an object with their baby for 15 mins a day. That’s all it took. The difference vanished.

Good assessment in primary school leads to appropriate interventions

This was an appropriate intervention linked to progress. But it was the right intervention at the right time. At 24 months it wouldn’t work.

Similarly a distribution chart of number recognition for children starting school showed that most can recognize numbers up to 10, with a few outliers managing many more and a larger group recognizing far fewer.

What’s clear though is that those who can recognize the higher numbers nearly always can also recognize the lower ones too. Therefore there’s no point in starting them on 11-20 and assume they’ll catch up on 1-10. We need to put the intervention in place early to master the basics if we want them to then move on to 11-20.

Change one variable at a time

These are examples of the way that academic research can have a really positive impact in the classroom but only if it’s relevant. Christine encouraged all educators to be ‘active inquirers akin to a scientific community monitoring what you’re doing, changing one variable at a time’

Finally, echoing the Green Paper, Christine recognized the need for accountability at a national level to monitor standards across groups, but using sampling not blanket testing. (For more on CEM’s work in this area, visit their blog.)

Saying no to ability based assessment in primary school

The last person to speak was Dame Alison Peacock, new CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching who drew on her Learning without Limits work to give some of the history of the current accountability measures, why levels were phased out and why she is so opposed to ability based assessment measures.

Perhaps the most galling revelation from this was that one special advisor to Michael Gove had apparently advised that there were some children economically not worth educating…

Like Binks Alison wants to see a more humane curriculum and approach where we get children to explain their thinking, engage in talk and reflect on their learning.

She would like to see a curriculum that challenges pupils to go beyond where they thought they could go and where we thought they could go.

Attainment targets too often become short hand for this child can, this child might and this child won’t. This simply limits aspirations.

Read this: 5 reasons the new summative tests on times tables won’t help pupil progress.

Low threshold high ceiling tasks

We need a pedagogy that supports open ended tasks so we’ve got more opportunities to asses what’s being learned. The holy grail is low threshold high ceiling tasks where a child can continue to surprise themselves and us and their success is not predicated on how their neighbour is doing.

Read this: The Year 7 Progress Check in Maths: a help or a hindrance? 

Teaching and learning need to keep growing

This same attitude applies to judging good teaching. It’s not about the calm classroom or the nice displays, it’s about what the impact is on the children. Is something working? If not, what are we changing to improve it?

Here’s how one headteacher got rid of formal lesson observations entirely in order to focus more accurately on the impact of teaching on the children.

It’s time to ignore what the school down the road is doing with their children and stop worrying whether you’re doing better or worse than them.

Assessment in primary schools should be a diagnostic that then tells us what we can do that actually makes a difference.

In maths now for example, at Third Space Learning we’ve been able to create some extremely detailed diagnostic maths tests that pinpoint exactly what misunderstanding a child has in key areas of the curriculum from multiplication to place value. We’re not assessing their attainment but their understanding and their gaps.

Moving the vision of the future of assessment in primary schools forward

There were many consistent themes in this workshop, but for me, these were the 5 key messages:

  1. The need for a more humane assessment process (the word humane came up several times) that takes into consideration a greater breadth of interest and opportunity, and doesn’t subject children and teachers to so much testing
  2. Real formative assessment is about moving a child forward one step at a time, looking at where they’ve just come from and where they are now going
  3. We should all operate with more of a growth mindset in reviewing our own teaching and listen and learn more from pupils. We will be surprised at what we can all achieve.
  4. Assessment has to be individual and personalised, and all relative measures just distract from its real purpose
  5. The child is the centre of this learning process and they need to understand and be aware of their own learning – metacognition is key.

Where next for assessment in primary schools?

If this has whetted your appetite for more indepth insight into how assessment could or should be done, I recommend you read this guide to formative and summative assessment in school which include links to some valuable formative assessment examples.

Further reading

Third Space Learning Upsell Section


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Learn about the diagnostic assessment or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.


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