A Brief History of the Primary Future: Part 1

The pace of change over the past 2 years has been extraordinary, bewildering and probably unprecedented. Reforms to assessment and accountability have come so thick and fast that I have got into the habit of checking the DfE and Ofsted websites and twitter feeds for updates just before I do a talk; and I’ve included last minute, ‘hot off the press’ items into presentations on a number of occasions. But now that things have settled down (a bit) I thought it’d be a good opportunity to try to summarise these changes – well, the key ones anyway – and provide a rundown of the main documents that have been thrown our way. This is as much for my benefit as it is for anyone else’s. Sometimes you have so much stuff piling up in your brain that it’s a good idea to dump it all out onto a page just to try to make sense of it all. Bit of task in this case but I’ll give it a go.

It all kicked off in earnest back in June 2011 with the publication of the final report of Lord Bew’s independent review of key stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability following a consultation that ran from November 2010 to February 2011. Amongst numerous other things, this report recognised the inconsistencies and failings of the levels system and paved the way for their removal.

*Jumps into TARDIS and zips forward 2 years, probably missing loads of important stuff*

The DfE set out their stall  on 17th July 2013 with the publication of the consultation on Primary Assessment and Accountability under the new National Curriculum. This was the document that proposed decile banding of pupils and a KS2 floor standard of 85%. It also included the phrase ‘secondary ready’. All these things have now gone, except they haven’t. Not really. This document also confirmed the removal of levels, which prompted various software companies to announce that they’d sussed the whole problem by calling levels something else. Oh, and there was the small matter of reception baseline thing. Note the timing of publication of the consultation, by the way, just before the summer break. Yay!

There then followed the publication of the new National Curriculum and programmes of study on 11th September 2013, which gave us all the key objectives/statements/indicators that we are now assessing and building into our tracking systems. Actually, the consultation states that the programmes of study were published on 8th July yet the official document states 11th September. Maybe they’re referring to different things. I’m not sure. I’m just the data guy.

The next key document came in March 2014. This was the Government’s response to the consultation on primary assessment and accountability, which closed on 11th October 2013. This 24 page document is essentially the DfE saying “OK, we won’t do the decile banding thing, but we’re going ahead with everything else”. Call me a conspiracy theorist but I still reckon the decile banding idea was a red herring.

Next up was the consultation on Performance descriptors for use in key stage 1 and 2 statutory teacher assessment for 2015 / 2016 , launched on 23rd October 2014. No one seemed to be particularly excited or upset by this and responses were few until Michael Tidd galvanised a Twitter army into action. The deadline for responses was 18th December 2014 (end of term. Hurrah!). We waited with bated breath.

The government published their response to the consultation on the performance descriptors in February 2015. Evidently Michael Tidd’s army had made themselves heard, and the DfE, to their credit, listened – the performance descriptors were to be withdrawn and replaced in September 2015.

Then, in March some exciting news: the Commission on Assessment without Levels was announced. At last, something progressive and useful was happening. Unfortunately the final report wouldn’t be published until September 2015, months after we were promised, but those of us keeping an eye on Twitter over the summer were treated to a leaked version via the Guardian’s Warwick Mansell. It’s a great report, full of reassuring and supportive statements, which has since been endorsed by both the DfE and Ofsted’s Sean Harford. Finally, schools could feel empowered to go forth and develop meaningful methods of assessment, and leave those ‘levels by another name’ systems behind. To be honest, we could have done with this a year earlier but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

July 2015 saw Nicky Morgan announce the DfE’s plans to tackle so-called ‘coasting schools’. Many are still trying to work out what a ‘coasting school’ actually is, but essentially it’s floor standard-max: schools that are below the 85% attainment floor and below all progress thresholds across 3 years are deemed to be coasting. And since 2014 is the first year of this 3 year rolling programme, the first batch of coasting schools will be identified in autumn 2016. FFT estimated that around 5% of primary schools will be affected based on the last 3 years’ data. It may well be higher than that.

Then, in the dead of summer, the DfE snuck out this document. The floor standard would remain at 65%, not be raised to 85% as originally proposed. Well, except in the coasting measure, but that’s different, obviously. Still, it’s nice to have some good news for a change.

Summer over and, as promised, in September 2015, the Interim Frameworks for Teacher Assessment at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 were published. These replaced the withdrawn performance descriptors with something that was, well, a bit similar. The key difference was the disappearance of ‘mastery’ and its replacement with the snappy ‘working at greater depth within the expected standard’. At least it’s definitive. The elephant in the room here of course is the use of the word ‘interim’. Things are no doubt set to change again next year.

Then came the Assessment and Reporting Arrangements for EYFS, KS1 and KS2 in October 2015. These set out schools’ responsibilities for administering the tests and provide key dates for testing and submission of data to LAs and the DfE. It also confirms that only the teacher assessments, not test scores will be submitted for KS1. Will that still be the case in 2017? I doubt it.

The ARA documents were updated in December 2015 to take account of the recommendations of the Rochford Review. This report provides an interim solution for pupils working below the standard of the key stage tests in the same format as the interim teacher assessment frameworks described above. The proposed pre-key stage standards contained therein have caused a lot of head scratching, a bit of consternation and even some amusement. Now, I’m more than happy to see the back of levels but the arguments against them on the grounds that they were complicated begin to look rather shaky when they are replaced with classifications such as these. On the plus side, at least such terminology is unlikely to be adopted for the purposes of formative assessment. Perhaps that’s the point. And of course, there’s that word interim again. What will happen next year is anyone’s guess but will ‘growing development of the expected standard‘ still exist? Possibly not. And is statutory teacher assessment an endangered species?

No doubt there are many more seismic shifts on the assessment horizon.

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