Ben Fuller is Lead Assessment Adviser at Herts for Learning

Welcome to the inaugural blog post from the Herts for Learning Assessment team. The aim of this blog is to periodically bring you important updates, ideas and suggestions in the world of school assessment.

I will start with some brief reflections on 2015/16, which has certainly been an interesting year in statutory assessment, with new approaches to the ways in which pupil performance has been measured and evaluated at the ends of Key Stages 1, 2, 4 and 5, as well as ongoing developments in the debate around Reception baseline assessment.

In this post I will focus on the primary phase, where teachers in Years 2 and 6 this year had to contend with new tougher tests and a new system for teacher assessment, based on the Interim Teacher Assessment Frameworks (‘ITAFs’) – which use what has been referred to as a “secure fit” (rather than “best fit”) system.  (Personally, I prefer to call it a “must have everything” approach, as I think it an unusual use of the word ‘secure’).

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This has required teachers to take a very focused (some might say ‘tick-box’) approach, in terms of identifying as early as possible any gaps in children’s skills (if those skills are amongst those required by the ‘ITAFs’) or, sometimes, gaps in the evidence of what children can do, and ensuring these gaps are addressed in order to maximise attainment outcomes. A major challenge has been the way in which the picture of what was required emerged and evolved over the year. The ‘ITAFs’ were made available early in the Autumn term, but exemplification of the standards was not available until much later. The situation was then further confused when the DfE ‘clarification’ document  stated that teachers ‘do not need to refer to the exemplification materials’. In my view this was not a helpful statement – exemplification is always required if the aim is for all teachers to interpret a set of criteria in a consistent way. There were also mixed messages about whether or not the criteria relating to handwriting were statutory, for a child to achieve ‘expected’.

What I believe is needed for the forthcoming academic year is clear and unambiguous guidance, made available from the very beginning of the year and not changed in any way during the year, so that the goalposts are clear from the outset. So, from that point of view, it is to be welcomed that the STA has already released the 2017 Interim Teacher Assessment Frameworks. However, on the other hand, given that the 2016 assessment criteria were described as ‘interim’, perhaps we might have expected some evaluation of how well they had worked this year, and maybe a little consultation with stakeholders, before a set of 2017 criteria, almost identical to the 2016 ones, were produced. (Note: these new criteria are still referred to as ‘interim’, so we remain on tenterhooks about the longer-term future for statutory assessment).

This leaves me feeling personally torn between wishing we had an opportunity for dialogue with the STA to suggest improvements to the assessment approach and wanting the system to remain unchanged for the academic year.

What I do feel is that, in the longer term (should any policy-makers happen to chance upon this blog) serious and careful consideration needs to be given to the “secure fit” approach – and which skills are to be included within it. I have tried to think of other contexts where a “must have all skills” approach is used, and I have so far only managed to think of the driving test. I think there are good reasons for it in this context; however it might be argued that letting someone loose in charge of a motor vehicle on the public highway is slightly higher stakes than letting a pupil into secondary school with an insecure grasp of the semi-colon.

I’m sure most of us would agree with the sentiment expressed by our former Secretary of State of Education when she said “nothing is more important than ensuring that young people master the basics of reading, writing and mathematics early on”   but there needs to be an honest and frank discussion about what these “basics” are. For example, is knowing how to construct an ‘exclamation sentence’ (starting with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and including a verb) a basic skill that all seven-year-olds should master?  I have yet to see an example of these sentences incorporated within a child’s writing that has not appeared to be a blatant bit of shoe-horning, which in no way sounds natural for a seven-year-old child living in this century. (NB no criticism of teachers implied here. The rules of the game are set and teachers have to play by them.) Bear in mind also that once the Year 2 children have successfully managed to tick that box, they never need use such sentences ever again – they are not required at Key Stage 2 or beyond.

A similar ‘shoehorning’ situation exists in the Y6 ITAFs, where it is required that pupils include hyphenated words (cue lots of ‘law-abiding citizens’, ‘ear-splitting screams’ etc). As has been pointed out by my colleague in the HfL English team here and by Daisy Christodoulou in her blog, this “must have everything” approach weights the small and the significant in equal measure and is not appropriate for something as open-ended as creative writing.

The “secure fit” approach also discriminates against the dyslexic child who may be a talented and creative writer but struggles to meet the spelling criteria.

I do agree with the STA that writing is best assessed on the basis of work produced in class, arising from meaningful stimuli, such as cross-curricular themes, and where time is not strictly limited and ordinary classroom resources are available. A return to testing creative writing under test conditions would be a huge step backwards. I also strongly believe that writing is best assessed across a range of pieces from a child, so that it can be established what a child can do most of the time, and that a combination of internal and external moderation is the best approach for establishing consistency in the application of the assessment criteria.

I also hope that creative writing continues to remain one of the key skills assessed at the end of the Key Stages, on the grounds that we should assess the things that we value the most. If instead the accountability system were to depend solely on the grammar, punctuation and spelling test as the means of assessing writing skills, this could potentially lead to a terrible distortion of the focus of teaching in classrooms up and down the country.