Clare Hodgson, Assessment Adviser at Herts for Learning

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Succumbing to the inevitable, I have recently acquired, at great expense, a pair of varifocal glasses. I find that I have to hold my head at a fractionally lower angle, as I walk, in order to see clearly. Even so, I am still struggling to adjust. I’m told it will take time.

In a similar way, I am still struggling to adjust to the ramifications and implications of the first year of KS1 and KS2 results, using the new Assessment frameworks aligned with the new National Curriculum.

Nationally, 47% of children did not meet the expected standard at KS2 in 2016 – what message does this send to the pupil, to parent, to feeder schools? If we blame the system – i.e. standards have risen and the pupil has had fewer years of the new national curriculum than subsequent year groups will have – what message does that send?

Firstly, let’s just take a minute to unpack the terminology. We have been at risk of uttering the new lexicon of ‘working below’, ‘working at’, and ‘working above’ – no, let me correct that -‘working at greater depth within’ age related expectations, so frequently, that we may begin to lose sight of the jaw-dropping implications inherent in the words.  However this year’s results have brought the reality of these words back to us with a jolt.  If you want to make a child (and their family) feel a failure on their way to secondary school, then let them know that they have failed to meet ‘age-related expectations’. This year nearly half the children in the land, it turns out, are working below the national expected level for a child of their age (never mind if they were born in September or August… but that’s another issue.)

Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating a return to levels – a label that proved both unhelpful in terms of teaching (‘here’s my table of Levels 3s’), assessment (levelling every piece of work) and for pupils (‘I’m a 3c’). However the new language is equally a label – and arguably worse – and hence the same problems will occur. At an individual pupil level, pupils will adopt a self-belief in line with these phrases which will profoundly influence their view of themselves and their capabilities. In a continuum with the past, prior performance will be used to predict future exam success, and endemic underachievement can be built in. This, of course, is because while levels were removed, the accountability system has remained: we have travelled far since levels, yet the landscape has not changed.

What it all boils down to is expectations: at pupil and teacher level. The system being what it is, teachers must fight against its effects by refusing to label (or inadvertently label, for example through undeviating table grouping) children through summative assessment.

I am reminded of the now famous study by Rosenthal. In this astonishing experiment, teachers were told that, based on a test given purporting to measure potential, certain children would experience a dramatic growth in their IQ. In fact, Rosenthal simply picked children at random from the class. As Rosenthal followed the children over the next two years, he discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these pupils really did affect pupil outcomes. They excelled.  What he found was that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a myriad of almost imperceptible ways. Teachers give the children that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback (or withhold feedback) and more approval: they consistently touch, nod and smile at those children more.

Our pupils need us to see their potential and believe in their ability to succeed as learners. They need unconditional positive regard (and yes, love – well it is Christmas!) to excel and flourish. Emotions really are the on-off switch for learning. In focusing on this, teachers can bring the learning back into focus, not the outcome, and nudge pupils, Austin’s butterfly-like, towards excellence. And I, by focusing on the important, can, even with my new varifocals, hold my head a little higher.

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