Month: October 2016

This year’s primary assessment data will be useless because everyone is going to just game it.

This is not going to be a popular post. It is not an attack on primary teachers, although it might seem that way. It is simply outlining the consequence of a poorly conceived and badly implemented assessment framework and procedure. We had no choice in this being hoisted upon us, but what we do have a choice in how we respond to it. And I think that for us to stand any chance of being taken seriously as a profession we should stand together and honestly explain how we are going to ignore guidance to ensure that as many children as possible make the expected standard in KS1 and KS2.

The new assessment criteria

Levels were abolished last year for a multitude of reasons. They have not been replaced, but an interim assessment framework has been published by the government, which includes a number of ‘can do’ statements for reading, writing, maths and science. For children to be assessed as ‘working at the expected standard’ they are required to be ticked off against ALL statements, with evidence from a ‘broad range’ of work.

Alongside the statements, there is clear guidance in how children should be assessed. Most importantly:

  • Children should only be assessed once they have completed the key stage
  • The statements should not be used for ‘tracking’ progress part way through the year.
  • And single pieces of work should not be assessed against the framework.

Failing to learn from past mistakes

There are very good reasons for this accompanying guidance. It mitigates against what made levels such a poor measure of what a child can do. As I’ve previously mentioned, assessment criteria fall easily victim to Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

What does this mean? During a school year (or key stage) an entire curriculum is supposed to be delivered; taught and learnt. At the end of it, we are interested in what children are able to do, so we apply measures to assess them. Clearly you can’t assess everything so you choose a small number of measures (i.e. a sample) which ostensibly allow you to make inferences about the entire curriculum (i.e. domain).

This should be done retrospectively, of course, but since people have the measures beforehand, and since they are under such pressure to deliver top results, they are hugely incentivised to teach to the test, or make the small number of measures targets for children to check off. This can be done quite quickly. If a measure is ‘uses varied and ambitious vocabulary’ then you simply make your learning objective ‘To use varied and ambitious vocabulary’, teach a tight lesson and hey presto, one of the measures can be ticked off.

Clearly this makes the ‘measures’ useless in any meaningful sense, since the children had very little opportunity to be successful. The hard work was done for them.

We can see now more clearly why the three constraints above were put in place. They stop this gaming by it being explicitly stated that children should only be assessed at the end of the Key Stage (year 2 or year 6), that lots of work is assessed against each standard, and that no tracking (checking which statements have and haven’t been met) should take place during the year.

How we’ll all ignore the guidance and game the data

Already, many teachers have admitted to shirking this guidance, happily falling into the same trap of levels. In many cases, teachers do not even realise they are gaming their data. They believe that assessing children and then teaching to the gaps (i.e. turning the measures into explicit targets) is good teaching. Furthermore, it is seen as the only way to guarantee as many children as possible make the expected standard.

So here is what is (or will be) happening. Teachers will take each child and RAG them against each of the statements for reading, writing, maths and science. Any child with red will be prioritised (another flaw in levels) whereas ‘green’ children will be left alone. Lessons will be adjusted to ensure that all children can easily demonstrate the ‘can do’ a statements (for example, turning one of the statements into a learning objective). Children will be reassessed, and red will turn to green (this is the very definition of ‘tracking’ which we aren’t supposed to do because it invalidates the measures).

There will be some poor teachers and schools out there who follow the guidance to the letter, and only sit down to assess their children against the standards at the end of May/beginning of June with a broad range of work for each child. They will find themselves in a pickle because it will take them between 80 and 400 hours to make sound judgements necessary. Most teachers have realized this and so have started assessing children now (even though the key stage hasn’t been completed, thereby ignoring the guidance). In making the assessments now, they will have another few months to ‘fill the gaps’ or teach the test, thereby narrowing the curriculum and making the data useless.

Secondary school teachers will get a bunch of kids through their door, almost all ‘at the expected standard’ which tells them nothing more than that a kid copied down some adjectives when they were very explicitly told to.

Suffocating young writers.

This article originally appeared in the Times Educational Supplement, a magnificent publication which you can subscribe to here.


It’s hard to describe to those who don’t work in primary schools the intense satisfaction and pride that travels alongside watching young children transform from novice writers, unable to transcribe a simple sentence, to authors who pen an entire story, woven and plucked from their imaginations. Our role as teachers in this process is critical in nourishing two key aspects of accomplished writing.

The first is the mechanical process, which includes letter formation, correct punctuation and sentence construction. But alongside this, children must acquire a creative flair that allows them to come up with ideas, innovate, organise their thoughts and arrange them on a page for some imagined audience. In short, writing is a tremendously complex and difficult process, consisting of dozens of sub-processes making painful demands on the pitifully limited working-memory that we are all stuck with.

When trying to assist children in balancing all these spinning plates and coming out the other side as independent and confident writers, marking can get in the way. In fact, I’d argue marking can have unintended consequences that end up doing more harm than good.

Since it is so easy for those who do not teach a class full time to forget, it is worth laying out just what a rigorous marking policy can cost in terms of time. An average primary school teacher will deliver at least one maths, one literacy and one topic lesson per day. With a class of 30, that totals 90 books to be marked after the kids go home. If only two minutes is given to read and respond to each book, it will take three hours to clear the pile. Three hours of marking. Every day.

While these overly-burdensome marking policies are written by the senior leadership teams of individual schools, the high stakes nature of Ofsted inspections has caused many, especially those carrying the cross of a ‘requires improvement’ status, to forget exactly who marking is for, and why we do it.

I have found myself guilty of this. After noticing a child wasn’t starting a new line for a new speaker while writing dialogue, I explained this convention and told her to follow it for the rest of their piece. Then, without thought, I scribbled in the margin exactly what I had just told her. “What are your doing?” the child asked, confused.

“Don’t worry, that’s not for you.” I replied.

Well who the hell is it for, then? I later asked myself.

Although there have recently been some very promising reforms and clarifications, spearheaded by National Director Sean Harford, Ofsted must bear some responsibility for the chaos of marking and the potentially damaging effect it is having on students. Schools, desperate to secure a magic ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted, scour recent reports for clues of how to impress their impending visitors. A simple search of the Watchsted website returns comments from recent inspection reports like:

Teachers’ written comments in marking do not always give pupils precise enough guidance on how to improve their work -108800

Pupils do not have a clear understanding of what they have achieved or how they can improve their work because marking is not always thorough – 115606

It is not difficult to see how these comments, both published in the last twelve months, could mold and supercharge a school’s marking policy. If this were only crushing teachers’ work/life balance with unreasonable demands, it would be bad enough, but this baseless ‘advice’ means children aren’t able to stretch their wings as writers and take ownership of their work. They follow a checklist laid out by an expert who does all of the hard work for them. Writing is reduced to a dull, generic formula of fronted adverbials and developed noun phrases.

When caught in the maelstrom of life in the classroom, with duties freewheeling down a never ending to-do list, it is so easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture; the end goal. In short, we want our students to become proficient and motivated writers. The work of professor Robert Bjork shows how mechanistic feedback from teachers can get in the way of the former.

He has demonstrated that ‘desirable difficulties’ – i.e. not spoon feeding the student – improves student’s retrieval of important information in the longer term. After all, why would a child remember to start their sentence with a capital letter if they know that you’ll circle them all for them later that evening.

“They are desirable because they enhance long-term retention and transfer,” he explains, “they’re difficulties because they pose challenges. They slow down the rate that your own performance is improving as a student. And the consequence of that is that they can be easily unappreciated.”

But what of motivation? Surely marking children’s work at least ensures that they are driven to write?

It seems plausible enough, but rests on a mistaken belief of what motivates us. By rewarding every piece of work with a gold star or written praise, we are laying extrinsic motivators on top of an activity that should be inherently desirable. In Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn makes the point more clearly, summarising one of the most robust findings from social psychology: “the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do”.

A more natural way to motivate children to write is to provide an authentic purpose for doing so. So, asking children to write letters to public figures or organisations (and sending them), publishing articles for a school newspaper, or creating recipes to feature in a cookbook that is sent home to parents will provide a much greater drive than writing ‘so I can improve my level’ (a genuine response from a child when I asked why we were practising writing letters).

Perhaps one of the most promising uses of technology over the last five years in primary school is the Pobble website (previously Lend Me Your Literacy), which allows pupils to publish their work and have it read and commented on by teachers and students across the globe. Forgetting capital letters, then, becomes something that a student is compelled to check not because their teacher scribed it as a ‘wish’, or because it features on their target sheet in the front of their book, but because it’s embarrassing to miss them when you have a real audience.

If we abandon the received wisdom that every piece of writing must be post-scripted with obligatory Praise and Next Steps which require no reflection or thought, then we might just start to see children emerge as real writers, unafraid to make messy drafts, but meticulous final versions. They may well actively seek feedback and be compelled to implement it, rather than have it enforced upon them. They may well begin to flourish and light a fire within themselves that we couldn’t put out if we tried.