As a young headteacher in 1997 I quickly realised that I was ill prepared for one of my key responsibilities – that of ensuring that pupils in my school made measurable progress to which one could ascribe a label, satisfactory, good or outstanding. In those days, the notion of value-added in a school was relatively new. Few headteacher professional discourses went there and only those at the cutting edge of educational thought or reform and those with an interest in or affinity for data wrote about it. A year later it was becoming a little clearer. I was beginning to understand that the blue bands in my school’s ‘PANDA’ meant that my pupils were not doing as well as they should. Still I really didn’t understand what the underlying data meant or how I could use this to drive improvement in my school.
Roll the clock forward eighteen years, and over 100 RAISEONLINE report analyses later, and I understood school data extremely well but more importantly knew exactly what to do with it in order to bring about change. I was a confident professional and although still shocked to come across headteacher colleagues who knew as little about their data as I did about mine in 1997, I am at least in a position to help them address this. Over the dozen or more years since I was a headteacher, I had developed a secure knowledge base and become an ‘expert’ on predicting outcomes based on prior attainment, target setting and more importantly target ‘getting’.
Unfortunately my cosy world was about to change. The government introduced a new national curriculum and then explained that as parents had told them they had great difficulty in understanding the difference between levels 1,2, 3 etc. the use of levels for assessing pupils was to be abolished. Instead of levels, schools are now free to choose their own assessment methods and labels, provided their reporting arrangements make it absolutely clear to parents how well their children are performing.
So where do things stand now? Those of my colleagues who are particularly proactive have combed through the various commercial assessments schemes and chosen a replacement (interestingly, some of these are using levels albeit with another name). The more creative ones have even created their own assessment systems from scratch. More cautious colleagues on the other hand are still using the old levels and hoping that very soon, someone will announce which of the new systems are best before joining the bandwagon.
As I go from school to school I am confronted with a plethora of systems to make sense of, mostly non-compatible with each other, some quite innovative, others quite basic. Sadly I feel deskilled. I am no longer a ‘data expert’ and the best advice I can offer frustrated colleagues is of the ‘suck it and see’ variety. So what are the main challenges? When pupils change school in Key Stages 1 or 2, unless they are fortunate enough to transfer to a school that uses exactly the same assessment as their previous school, their assessment information is useless to the receiving school. Some would argue that receiving schools always did their own assessment on entry anyway so this does not matter.
What does matter is that schools have no way of measuring their performance against an agreed norm. For example, in the past, there was a system wide agreement that pupils who made 2 sub-levels progress per year in KS2 were making progress that was at least good. So what does good progress look like now? Nobody knows! Colleagues don’t know what average, good, or excellent attainment looks like either. We used to have age-related expectations for each year group in numerical form, based on the corresponding points ascribed to each level. We used to be able to say that a cohort or indeed a pupil was working at, below or above age-related expectations based on these numerical markers. Now, we wonder – how many of the new national curriculum statements does a child need to meet in a given year for their attainment to be judged as average or better and at what point would we describe their progress as good or otherwise? More annoyingly, if we cannot measure the progress a cohort has made, how do we judged the effectiveness of leadership on outcomes for pupils? If we can’t measure the effectiveness of leadership, how do we judge a school’s overall effectiveness and decide whether it is a good school or outstanding school or not?
As a young woman growing up in Africa and watching politicians make a hash of thing because they were given responsibilities in areas well outside their experience and expertise, I used to believe that doctors made better Health Ministers and teacher made better Education Ministers. Sadly I have been disabused of this notion. It seems to me that our previous Education Secretary managed in one fell swoop to achieve in education, the equivalent of destroying all the microwaves in the world and telling everyone to go back to reheating their food on their stoves and cookers!
The world of assessment without levels is indeed a brave new world, actually it feels more like the dark ages. However, on a positive note, man conquered the dark ages and in the true spirit of humanity, we shall overcome this.