Following the Government’s decision to remove levels from the National Curriculum I was keen to review the school’s assessment practice. There was a general feeling in the school that the removal of levels provided an opportunity to re-think the approach to assessment.
Specifically, I wanted to know how assessment practices were impacting on teaching and learning in the school. If there was no evidence that practices improved learning, they would be challenged.
The school evaluated a range of approaches to assessment with the impact on teacher workload a key element. After consideration of a range of approaches, the school felt that the NAHT assessment framework with its focus on key performance indicators (KPIs) was the right approach. I wanted to ensure that the curriculum was challenging and that teachers fully understood progression. Secondly, the use of KPIs helped to focus assessments on the key concepts rather than a scatter-gun approach.
Time was allocated to allow all teaching staff to be involved in the process of evaluating existing practice and the development of new approaches. This allowed teachers to talk about what worked and what didn’t: I believe such discussion is an essential element of the evaluation process.
Marking was central to these discussions. Teachers at East Whitby appreciate marking is an important element in the assessment process and is central to good teaching and learning. However, the prevalent practice of writing comments on pupil’s work and pupils responding was challenged against the question ‘does it do what we want it to do without being laborious and purely routine?’
The school also discussed who the marking was actually for – the children, the headteacher or Ofsted? It was clear that teacher’s comments had become detailed, too long, not focused on clear objectives and were not always targeted at the pupils.
Feedback and listening
A key element of the school’s approach to teaching and learning is a focus on talking to children. The school development plan targets talk as an important means by which we communicate and build social relationships, and it plays a crucial role in learning.
Marking is seen as a form of communication through feedback. As such the school is of the view that talking to children about their work is at least effective as writing extended comments.
This is particularly true where younger children are involved. Teachers use a balanced approach in their communications with pupils including probing questioning and challenge along with written comments that are now highly focused on assessment objectives, short and appropriate to the children. I am confident the approach is working - you just have to look at the pupils’ work.
The work/life balance of staff is also very important to me. Moving away from mechanised marking has given staff more time to think and plan what they intend to do rather than drown under piles of marking.
Too much marking means that you don’t get the best out of teachers. Pupil’s work can often be corrected in real time and their learning developed through focused questioning and appropriate challenge.
I am also clear that using oral feedback and discussion gives pupils a voice. This is an important aspect of the school’s approach.
Old habits die hard
For some teachers this has been a challenge, but involving them in the process of change pays dividends. Old habits die hard, but I am clear that the old approach was one driven more by habit rather than effectiveness. It has taken time and the development of confidence in the new approach. However, marking is now highly focused on clear assessment objectives, is short and directed appropriately at the pupils.
The removal of levels offered us a ‘clean slate’. Any approach in the school has to meet one very clear challenge - does it improve teaching and learning?
My specific advice for schools wanting to address the same issue is to constantly review how things are being done and for whom. The key question should always be “So what?”
The Leadership has to be committed, focused and supportive to ensure it works; listening to staff is key. At points it will go wrong or not work how you want it to work. Talk about it, and adapt it until it works. Marking is for pupils and no-one else, if it doesn’t help them don’t do it.
Getting it right takes time, patience and trust. There is no quick fix! Focusing marking onto assessment means that pupils are clear about their next steps. Feedback can be provided through various channels and should not only develop learning but feed forward into future learning.