Recently, I went to a cross-borough moderation for mathematics and came away thoroughly depressed about just where teaching his going, and indeed where it’s come from. I’ve no doubt that at any time education in this country can turn a corner and become about learning rather than about accounting for teaching, but it’s so far away from that now, and it’s all the more depressing because I thought there was window when it could have all been different. Education has dropped the ball. There are still too many teachers, and importantly leaders of teachers, who don’t seem to understand how children learn well and how teachers teach well too.
At the start of this ‘moderation’ (or general panic), teachers spent that first part pawing over the interim frameworks for maths, gasping and moaning about how they would be able to show evidence for this or that criteria. Fair enough. After a while, the PowerPoint presentation flicked over to ‘What makes good formative assessment?’ Oh good, I thought, something useful for a change. A muffled silence followed as teachers looked at each other hopefully, until the presenter began.
‘So in assessing these criteria, what makes good formative assessment here? What can you do to find out what the children know? Come on, what do you do to assess your children here?’ Gradually, arms went up. ‘Children’s recording in books, listening to discussions, making observations, taking pictures, getting children to write explanations….’ and so the list went on. Then the presenter rounded the discussion up with her own list of good ‘formative assessment’.
I now kick myself that I only sat there, frowning and scratching my head rather than challenging this obvious and complete misconception about what formative assessment really is, because one thing I know for certain is that ticking an interim teacher assessment framework sheet as you look through a set of books is not formative assessment at all and for a borough moderator to stand up and talk about such as formative assessment is more than a little worrying. As the great man himself * has said – continually and quite clearly, formative assessment only becomes such if it is used to change teaching in the future; it ‘forms’ practice, that’s what formative means. Once again it seems teaching has tripped over its tangled understanding of assessment, stacking all its cards on the side of measuring learning rather than effecting learning, not unlike a small child who measures himself everyday against his wall in the vain hope that somehow this act will cause him actually getting taller.
The fact that no one around me at this moderation seemed to notice this clear and obvious misuse of the term ‘formative’ disturbed me more than anything I’ve heard or read recently about DfE blunders and botched testing. Apparently we had to get this ‘formative assessment’ done by July 28th too? Now, I know some people might say I’m just being pedantic, it’s just a word – but I’m not backing down here. Assessment against the ITAF is only going to be summative and to call it formative is no different from calling an autopsy a medical checkup – there’s a big difference, not least for the patient! It’s even more worrying that so much time and energy is going into this great big autopsy we’re all tied up in rather than allowing us all to get on with the business of helping children learn. I also wonder how many schools are using those ITAFs as their new curriculum too? One thing that also bugged me was that STILL most teachers around me were grouping their children by ability and calling them all sorts of dubious terms like my ‘highers’ and my ‘lowers’. One teacher even had her books colour coded for ability: red was for the real ‘lowers’, yellow for the ‘middlers’, green for ‘middle aboves’ and blue for the real ‘high flyers’. Good grief! I wonder how that kid who keeps getting that book with the red label on feels about that?
Having kept my raging thoughts to myself, I began to chat a little more to my colleagues, all of whom I’d never met before and were from schools right outside my borough. After a while, a woman shared her stress about the expectations put on her by her SLT. They had thoughtfully based her performance management pay progression target this year on her pupils achieving 98% expected and 50% greater depth, this is despite her leaders having no idea what working at ‘expected’ or working at ‘greater depth’ means – never having looked at the ITAFs (that’s only for teachers to see, right?).
It is fundamentally wrong to use data for holding teachers to account, not because teachers shouldn’t be held to account, they should, but because using data to do this is unreliable and more importantly, often distorts assessment practice to the detriment of pupils’ learning. Let’s face it, if a pay rise depends on ticking a box for a child who’s ‘nearly there, but not quite,’ how many teachers are going to leave that box unticked and forgo the pay rise? And how many teachers are going to narrow their teaching focus on to only those criteria that will lead to the pay rise? If you set up teaching as a sales commission exercise then you’re going to get salesman’s tactics, aren’t you.
In addition, we know that the effects on learning don’t come in neat twelve months packages. As the great man himself* explains, you might have a teacher who spends a year getting the children’s behaviour under control and ensuring they are working well collaboratively together, but after all this, they don’t learn that much academically. Then the next year, the new teacher gets all the benefit that the previous teacher put in to getting those children ready to learn, with all the behaviours for learning that really matter. Now, a decent leader who knows the pupils and teachers well would be able to know that the first teacher deserves that pay rise, even though according to the data they technically ‘did nothing’. This is why connecting pay raises to data stinks. Yes, in this bureaucratic world you have to measure and record teacher performance, but make it over time, make it descriptive, wide and with a huge measure of flipping common sense. I even have a friend who once had a small class of twenty children, two of whom had Down’s syndrome and were years behind in their learning. She was given a PM target of 98% of children reaching expectation, despite the fact that this was an impossibility. She was told all teachers had to have the same PM target to make it fair. Really? Argh.
As you can see, I’m taking all this SUMMATIVE assessment madness calmly and not getting upset by the whole shambles teaching finds itself in.
My only solace is that on the inside, where I work, people have sense, but out there, in so many schools, I fear this is far from true.
* Thanks to Dylan Wiliam – a constant source of knowledge and insight.