Arm yourself!

A headteacher recently told me she’d been informed by her LA advisor that “only ‘good’ schools can experiment and do what they like when it comes to assessment”. This fallacy has been trotted out so many times now that it has become embedded in the collective consciousness and headteachers have come to accept it. Perhaps even believe it. But surely what’s right for ‘good’ schools is right for all schools? It’s an incredible irony that some schools are essentially being told that until they are ‘good’, they are going to have to persevere with ineffective practices. It’s the ultimate education Catch 22: you can’t start to improve things until you’ve improved. And yet it is precisely these schools that have the most to gain from overhauling their approaches to assessment; by reducing tracking and marking and written feedback, not increasing it. Unfortunately schools are often being told the opposite: ramp it up, measure more and more often, track everything that moves.

With apparently little choice, headteachers wearily resign themselves to the drudgery, and often, quite understandably, rail against anyone that suggests a different path. I’ve been told numerous times “it’s all very well for you, but you try being in this position”. They are under intense scrutiny by people who think the way to improve outcomes is not to improve the curriculum, and teaching and learning, but to collect more data and increase workload. Clearly many of the processes put in place in the name of school improvement are having the opposite effect.

Schools need to be brave. They need to be willing to make necessary changes but they also need reassurances that changes are justified, supported, and will not backfire when an inspector calls. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of key statements that schools can use to support (and defend) their position as they seek to build a more meaningful, and less onerous, approach to assessment. And there is plenty out there to arm themselves with.

Ofsted School Inspection Handook (Draft for consultation, p44-46)

  • While they will consider the school’s use of assessment, inspectors will not consider schools’ internal assessment data during an inspection. This is because internal data has its limitations and may not be an accurate representation of the education of pupils at the school. The time pressure of inspection does not allow for inspectors to validate the accuracy of the data as presented by leaders (para. 178)
  • When used effectively, assessment helps pupils to embed knowledge and use it fluently, and assists teachers in producing clear next steps for pupils. However, assessment is too often carried out in a way that creates unnecessary burdens for staff and pupils. It is therefore important that leaders and teachers understand its limitations and avoid misuse and overuse. (para. 170)
  • Inspectors will therefore evaluate how assessment is used in the school to support the teaching of the curriculum, but not substantially increase teachers’ workloads by necessitating too much one-to-one teaching or overly demanding programmes that are almost impossible to deliver without lowering expectations of some pupils. (para. 171)
  • The collection of data can also create an additional workload for leaders and staff. Inspectors will look at whether schools’ collections of attainment or progress data are proportionate and represent an efficient use of school resources, and are sustainable for staff. The report of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group, ‘Making data work’, recommends that school leaders should not have more than two or three data collection points a year, and that these should be used to inform clear actions. (para. 172)
  • Schools choosing to use more than two or three data collection points a year should have clear reasoning for what interpretations and actions are informed by the frequency of collection, and the time that is taken to set assessments, collate, analyse and interpret the data created from this, and then act on the findings. If a school’s system for data collection is disproportionate, inefficient or unsustainable for staff, inspectors will reflect this in their reporting on the school. (para. 173)

Making Data Work report (key recommendations)

  • Beyond statutory data collections (such as the results of key stage 1 assessment), do not request regular attainment data from schools unless they meet a trigger for intervention. When this is required this should be in the school’s existing format where possible, and should not add to the number of data collections. The DfE should communicate to local authorities, MATs and others that they should not ask for this information either. (p22)
  • School and trust leaders should not have more than two or three attainment data collection points a year, which should be used to inform clear actions. Increasing assessment frequency is not inherently likely to improve outcomes for pupils. (p25)
  • School and trust leaders should not have make pay progression for teachers dependent on quantitative assessment metrics, such as test outcomes. (p25)
  • Governors should normally be prepared to receive information in whatever form it is currently being used in the school. They should agree with school and trust leaders what data they need and when. This includes consideration of any in-year data they receive, how meaningful this is and whether this can be reduced. (p25)

Amanda Spielman’s speech at Bryanston Education Summit (June 2018)

  • We do not expect to see 6 week tracking of pupil progress and vast elaborate spreadsheets. What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t! These conversations are much more constructive than inventing byzantine number systems which, let’s be honest, can often be meaningless.
  • Nor do I believe there is merit in trying to look at every individual sub-group of pupils at the school level. It is very important that we monitor the progress of under-performing pupil groups. But often this is best done at a national level, or possibly even a MAT or local authority level, where meaningful trends may be identifiable, rather than at school level where apparent differences are often likely to be statistical noise.

Ofsted Handbook mythbusting

  • Ofsted does not expect performance and pupil-tracking information to be presented in a particular format. Such information should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to monitor the progress of pupils in that school.
  • Ofsted does not require schools to predict their attainment and progress scores. It is impossible to predict attainment and progress as examination and test results for each cohort are compared nationally and this cannot be done until after the examinations or tests.

Sean Harford’s youtube video on assessment

  • Inspectors will use lesson observations, pupils’ work, discussions with teachers and pupils and school records to judge the effectiveness of assessment and whether it is having an impact on pupils’ learning. They don’t need to see vast amounts of data, spreadsheets, charts or graphs. Nor are the looking for any specific frequency or type or volume of marking or feedback.

DfE Workoad Video

  • I want teachers to spend their working hours doing what’s right for children and reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary tasks. Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education
  • If the impact on pupil progress doesn’t match the hours spent then stop it! Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector, Ofsted
  • The origins of the audit culture are complex but we do know there’s no proven link between some time consuming tasks around planning, marking and data drops, and improved outcomes for pupils. Professor Becky Allen, UCL
  • No inspector should be asking for these things, and nobody else should be telling you that this is what inspectors will be looking for. Sean Harford, National Director of Education, Ofsted
  • I want you to know you do have the backing to stop doing the things that aren’t helping chidren to do better. Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education

Ofsted Inspection Update March 2017

  • Ofsted does not expect any prediction by schools of a progress score, as they are aware that this information will not be possible to produce due to the way progress measures at both KS2 and KS4 are calculated. Inspectors should understand from all training and recent updates that there is no national expectation of any particular amount of progress from any starting point.
  • ‘Expected progress’ was a DfE accountability measure until 2015. Inspectors must not use this term when referring to progress for 2016 or current pupils. 

Commission on Assessment Without Levels final report

  • There is no point in collecting ‘data’ that provides no information about genuine learning
  • Recording summative data more frequently than three times a year is not likely to provide useful information
  • Tracking software, which has been used widely as a tool for measuring progress with levels, cannot, and should not, be adapted to assess understanding of a curriculum that recognises depth and breadth of understanding as of equal value to linear progression
  • It is very important that these systems do not reinvent levels
  • Ensure that the primary purpose of assessment is not distorted by using it for multiple purposes
  • Sometimes progress is simply about consolidation(Ed: how do you measure consolidation? You can’t. And if we persist with coverage-based progress measures (i.e. levels) then we are relying on measures that are out of kilter with the principles of this curriculum and potentially risking pupils learning by prioritising pace at the expense of depth.)

Data Management Review Group

  • Be streamlined: eliminate duplication – ‘collect once, use many times’ 
  • Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. Always ask why the data is needed. 
  • Be prepared to stop activity: do not assume that collection or analysis must continue just because it always has 
  • Be aware of workload issues: consider not just how long it will take, but whether that time could be better spent on other tasks
  • A purportedly robust and numerical measure of pupil progress that can be tracked and used to draw a wide range of conclusions about pupil and teacher performance, and school policy, when in fact information collected in such a way is flawed. This approach is unclear on purpose, and demands burdensome processes.
  • The recent removal of ‘levels’ should be a positive step in terms of data management; schools should not feel any pressure to create elaborate tracking systems.
  • Focusing on key performance indicators reduces the burden of assessing every lesson objective. This also provides the basis of next steps: are pupils secure and can pupils move on, or do they need additional teaching?

Amanda Spielman’s speech at Wellington Festival of Education, June 2018

  • I also believe that a focus on curriculum will help to tackle excessive and unsustainable workload. For me, a curricular focus moves inspection more towards being a conversation about what actually happens in the day-to-day life of schools. As opposed to school leaders feeling that they must justify their actions with endless progress and performance metrics. To that end, inspecting the curriculum will help to undo the ‘Pixlification’ of education in recent years, and make irrelevant the dreaded Mocksted consultants. Those who are bold and ambitious for their pupils will be rewarded as a result.

Ofsted School Inspection Update July 2018 (p10)

  • Inspectors are reminded that Ofsted has no expectation about how primary schools should be carrying out assessment or recording of pupils’ achievements in any subjects, including foundation subjects. Use of the word ‘tracking’ in inspection reports is problematic as it can suggest that some form of numerical data is required, when there is no such requirement, even in English and mathematics. Schools will not be marked down because they are not ‘tracking’ science and foundation subjects in the same ways they may be doing so in English and mathematics. This clarification will be added to our ‘Clarification for schools’ section of the ‘School inspection handbook’, effective from September 2018.

I will keep adding to this list as and when I find useful statements. Please let me know if you have any to add. Thanks.

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James Pembroke

Data Analyst and Advisor with 10 years experience in primary, secondary and post-16 sectors. Follow me on Twitter: @jpembroke

  1. Salema Curtis on June 13, 2018 at 7:27 am

    Excellent! This all makes perfect sense if you really understand teaching, learning and assessment. Sadly, a lot of people involved in education do not understand. Keep up the good work.

  2. James Pembroke on June 13, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks. I’ll keep banging at the door.

  3. David on June 16, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    As a Governor, this is brilliant – thanks – a great starting point for data monitoring/challenge.

  4. James Pembroke on June 24, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. James Pembroke on June 24, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    Thanks. Pleased it's useful.

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