Whether Sean Harford is winning the war on excessive marking remains to be seen, but I fear another edu-myth is in the making. A few days ago, a teacher I know remarked that the head of their outstanding school had returned from a heads’ briefing looking pale and anxious. The briefing had included the warning that Ofsted were now looking for schools to assess all the foundation subjects and woe betide any school that didn’t. For most head teachers, when you say ‘assessment’ of a subject, they see some sort of excel spreadsheet, full of colour coded figures, of the type we are used to having for maths, reading and writing. The amount of work it takes to test children, mark the tests, get the test data into a spreadsheet and then analyse that data is enormous. It can easily take me a whole weekend to analyse data in these three subjects in sufficient detail to be able to put it into a report for the standards and curriculum committee. Said head teacher was blanching at the prospect at having to go through a similar process for 10 other subjects. If that really was what Ofsted wanted, there really would be very little time to do anything else.
However, I knew that Sean Harford had specifically said otherwise. Here is a quote from a recent Ofsted report, brought to our attention thanks to @simonkidwell
The word ‘tracking’ in particular gives the impression of a spreadsheet with numbers, especially when the’ high standards’ of tracking English and maths are praised. It looks like Ofsted – or at least this particular inspector and those who QA’ed him/her – really do want red, orange and green boxes with numbers in them. But rest assured, Sean says no.
I suggest we all cut out and keep these tweets to wave at Ofsted inspectors as required. As long as assessment is to the same ‘standard’ as used in English and maths, that’s cool.
Still worried? What on earth does ‘to the same standard’ mean? The Ofsted report links these assessments with school leaders and governors (which suggests we are talking about summative assessment; reporting data to show standard are bearing up and good progress is being made) but also teachers (which points to formative assessment, or responsive teaching, as Dylan Wiliam now wishes he’d called it). So, presumably our assessment of foundation subjects need to enable responsive teaching and enable others – governors or external visitors aka Ofsted – to hold us accountable for progress and standards for all areas of the curriculum. But not necessarily with numbers.
How then might this be possible without further burdening a workforce already acknowledged as staggering under a crushing workload? As excessive marking leaves by the front door, are new accountability pressures to assess foundation subjects sneaking in by the back door?
I say ‘new’ because, honestly, I don’t know any school that currently does this. I tell a lie; I know one school where as a hoop jumping exercise they had a simple spreadsheet that RAG’ed children at the end of term in history, geography, RE and science. They didn’t actually look at the children’s work in these subjects; they made the (probably fairly realistic) assumption that attainment in the humanities would match that in writing and attainment in science would match that in maths; so a simple cut-and-paste operation. Job done! With the added bonus that whatever data analysis you did for writing was automatically already done for geography. I would hope that were Sean Harford to read this, he would be screaming ‘NO! NO! NO!’ It’s a completely meaningless task, done with no other reason than to placate the accountability monster by giving them a delicious spreadsheet to chomp on.
If we are going to assess the foundation subjects properly, then we had better do it in a way that – here’s a wild suggestion – leads to children learning more effectively. This means that formative assessment – or responsive teaching as we all need to start calling it – must be the driver of any new policy. But here’s the rub. If we discover that a group of students in year 4 have a dodgy understanding of place value, we will do something about it. We might spend more time teaching that topic to the whole class, we might change our teaching to use more concrete apparatus, we might get a TA to run an intervention group towards the end of the day or at lunch or after school, we might send work home to practice or find an app they can use at home. We have termly pupil progress meetings just to discuss such matters. Imagine we had the same across the curriculum. Imagine a discussion bemoaning the fact that little Jimmy might know the 5 Pillars of Islam very well, but was hopeless with the 4 Noble Truths. What would be do about it? Say we discovered that a group of children had poor technique in shading with charcoal, would we suggest they came out of maths early three times a week to work with a TA on that? Would we have after school booster lessons to improve children’s ability to put the events of the Roman occupation of Britain in chronological order. Would we get children to work with their teaching on mapwork during assembly? Or send woodwork home for extra practise? Probably not. Responsive teaching is going to look very different in foundation subjects. Unlike maths, where concepts such as place value come up again and again, in history, for example, once the topic on the Ancient Greeks has finished, it’s unlikely to be revisited. If children do not know by the end of the topic the main differences between the Athenians and the Spartans – well that ship has sailed. Now they never will. (Well not on our watch anyway).
Responsive teaching (formerly known as afl)
We introduced knowledge organisers (KO’s) this year. By clearly identifying the key knowledge that we expect children to know by the end of a unit, this gives us a way in to assessing whether of not they have done so. We teach most of our foundation subjects – including the ‘big 4’ of science, history, geography and RE in three week blocks. (Yes, I do know that science and RE are officially ‘core’ subjects – I’m referring to their de facto status.) Children take home a multiple choice quiz (mcq) each week to go through with their parents for homework with all the answers available on their KO. Then at the end of the third and final week, they do a third quiz in school. This quiz assesses how much of the key knowledge they now know. This mark (out of 10) is currently only recorded in their exercise book, but it would be very easy -and quick – to put it into a spreadsheet if that is the security blanket we feel we need. I confess that I am feeling that need. Call me weak. For what is is worth, almost all children score 9 or 10 out of 10 after three weeks of study. But this is summative assessment, not responsive teaching; the unit is finishing as we test them. If they do score badly, we have no time left to do anything about it.
Other primary schools who have been experimenting with KO’s have started each lesson with a very short mcq recapping the key knowledge from the previous lessons as a ‘do now’ activity. We haven’t been doing this quite as formally, although most lessons start with an oral recap of key vocabulary, so teachers have some idea if their teaching is resulting in actual learning. But the ‘do now’ brief mcq is something we need to start doing, not least because we need to teach responsively; i.e. to use feedback from the children to adjust our teaching. If very few of the children remember what we learnt about yesterday or last week, we need to respond to that by revisiting that material rather than pressing on to the next idea. We would do this in maths (at least I hope we all would!) so why not in geography or RE? If revisiting means we don’t cover all the material we were meant to, then so be it. It’s surely better that children actually remember some of the curriculum than cover all of it.
Some schools are also ending each unit with a piece of writing – a non chronological report – summing up what they have learnt over the course of the topic. While part of me is drawn to that idea, again, if it occurs at the end of the unit as a summative assessment, then our ability to do anything about misconceptions or gaps is limited. Maybe a better idea is to have children write a paragraph (or couple of sentences in ks1) summing up what they have learn so far every three or so lessons, which eventually contribute to a non chronological report. Older children could then write the introduction and conclusion at the end of the unit. This approach would have the advantage that we could give students useful feedback on their written work by using a visualiser to share answers, helping children identify where their answers could be made more complete (or correct.) This would be an assessment of learning within the foundation subjects to be proud of.
But do children still remember what they learnt months – or even years – later? We are going to do a scary experiment in July. We are going to do a super quiz, assessing knowledge from all the ‘big 4’ topics they have done this year. We will reissue them with back catalogue of KO’s to take home to revise, whizz through previous KO’s in story time, re-run a couple of previous mcq’s in the run up – presenting the super quiz as a fun challenge with prizes for the year group with the best average score in each of the 4 subjects. My class teachers are predicting very low scores…2 out of 10 being one suggestion. We shall see. If they are that low, then mmm…. perhaps they just won’t make it onto my
transitional object spreadsheet. It will be fascinating to see how the children do. If they really don’t remember that much longer term, then that’s another argument for doing daily short mcq’s or drills during the unit . I was talking to Daisy Christodoulou recently and she had the very sensible idea of helping children embed key grammar and punctuation ideas by doing editing challenges using short passages drawn from the humanities curriculum from the previous year. By so doing, the knowledge floating semi-forgotten somewhere in the long-term memory is re-remembered, thus strengthening that memory’s retrieval strength.
When I introduced the KO idea, I suggested that during topic blocks for the subjects we weren’t going to have KO’s for (computing, art, and DT) that they gave out a previous unit’s KO each week, so knowledge was revisited. For good reasons this fell by the wayside, but it is something to think about for next year. And that brings me nicely to…
Assessment in the other 6 subjects?
So history, geography, RE and science are sorted then. That still leaves French and computing, art, DT, music and PE to assess. I’m not even going to go there with PHSE surely we can just teach that and leave it at that? At St Matthias, French is taught by a subject specialist and native French speaker. She is off to Norwich in July to learn from Barry Smith how to teach French the Michalea way. I’m hoping we can adapt his method for ks2 learners, including the use of KO’s. Computing, art, DT, PE and music could have their own KO’s reinforcing key vocabulary but I’d rather we focused most of our attention on the process leading to an end product and used responsive teaching based on in the moment verbal feedback as our primary assessment method. Teachers could also plan one over-arching end of unit objective against which to assess the end product and decide if this has been ‘met’, ‘exceeded’ or is, in the assessment vernacular mot de jour still ‘developing’. Personally I think this is a bit daft, so maybe I should stick to my guns and say that our assessment policy for these 5 subjects is purely formative. The downside of that approach is that then it is difficult to know if your students are achieving at an acceptable standard and the strengths and weaknesses of your provision How would a purely formative approach enable reporting on progress in DT to governors, for example? (Remember that allowing ‘leaders, governors and teachers to track progress’ in foundation subjects ‘ was the key issue in the Ofsted report at the start of this piece.) Actually, I think it is just not do-able for primary teachers to track (with or without out numbers) every subject in the national curriculum in a meaningful way that actually improves learning for anyone and I’d hope that Sean Harford would change his mind on the appropriateness of Ofsted expecting this across the board. Instead of making up systems to pretend we are ‘tracking’ attainment in art etc., we should pour our efforts into making sure that the teaching – usually by non specialists – of these foundation subjects is as good as it possibly can be. Quality professional development and cross school moderation of foundation subjects, especially these foundation subjects – now these are things worth pouring time and energy into.