Don’t just SATs there, do something!

Primary schools need to put themselves at the heart of the Rethinking Assessment movement

Joe Hallgarten CEO, Centre for Education & Youth

This piece was first posted on Cfey

I was just about there at the start of SATs. Sometime in the 1990s, as I played one of those mental maths cassettes (yes cassettes) to my year 5s, and as most of them struggled, I realised the extent to which our maths teaching was letting so many kids down. I also realised how something SATs-like was an unpleasant but necessary jolt, vital to the mission of raising primary school standards in literacy and numeracy.

As a result, while some of the changes suggested by the recent EDSK report feel sensible, I’ve never been a fan of any attempt to boycott SATs. While the ‘more than a score’ campaign has great people and energy, its call to Drop SATs for Good feels flawed and unproductive.

And this priority shouldn’t wait. Primary schools need to put themselves at the heart of the Rethinking Assessment movement rather than wait to become a ‘your turn will come’ afterthought.

Last month, the CfEY (inspired by our recent Making Waves report with Pearson) and Big Education convened a small group of primary schools and experts to explore practical next steps. Our meeting was provoked partly by the potential of NCFE’s new assessment innovation fund.

Although NCFE’s core work is for older age groups, applications from the primary sector are encouraged, and Gray Mytton from NCFE participated in the meeting to explain the fund and answer questions. From my experience with other similar funds and foundations, this open approach is unusual and so refreshing.

We heard contributions from:

  • Gemma Moss from UCL’s Institute of Education. Her recent co-authored BERA paper’ high standards, not high stakes’ included a call for ‘new assessment instruments, especially those which will be going beyond literacy and numeracy tests and their current narrow remits.’
  • Matt Morden, Co-Head of Surrey Square, who discussed his school’s trial of a digital portfolio for Year 6. Watch Matt discuss the approach in this terrific video.
  • Alison Peacock from the Chartered College of Teaching, Kulvarn Atwal from Highlands Primary School, Anna Beresford from Stebon Primary School, Denise Burgess from Great Denham Primary School and Maxine Low from Brooklands Farm School.

Last year, I also discussed my own work with the LETTA Multi Academy Trust in Tower Hamlets on a new Explorer curriculum.. Designed as a weekly addition to subject-based curriculum delivery, pupils in mixed-aged groups work on badges that focus on the development of clearly defined learning and character behaviours. I could blog and bang on about this for ages, and probably will another time.

Assessment innovation is without a doubt tricky territory and achieving agreement on next steps online with people who had never met proved even trickier (who’d have guessed?) At the end of our 90 minutes, three options for action emerged:

  1. Develop a range of instruments for foundation subjects that can assess knowledge, skills and possibly dispositions beyond narrow national curriculum requirements.
  2. Refine and trial Surrey Square’s digital portfolio across a larger number of schools.
  3. Create a version of the Extended Project Qualification (currently used in Years 12-13 and occasionally at Key Stage 4) for years 5 and 6.

We’ve decided to rule out the first and second for the moment. We think and hope that foundation subject assessments will grow organically from the welcome refocus on curriculum design in these subjects. Rethinking Assessment is doing detailed work on a digital portfolio for secondary schools, so waiting and learning from this investment makes sense. The third feels like more fallow and fruitful terrain on which to innovate.

Here is a bit more detail and maybe even the start of a brand.

XI: RECOGNISING OUR ELEVEN-YEAR-OLDS AS CREATIVE CHANGEMAKERS

An extended project for Y5-6 children based on addressing real-world challenges that they shape themselves and presenting this through a variety of media

An assessed award where children receive meaningful, formative feedback from a wide variety of people, in and outside of their school and community

A programme with a clear but adaptable set of pedagogical principles

A network of schools, people (including older young people) and organisations who can work in sustained ways to support, challenge, assess and celebrate these projects and their creators

A festival where, for one week a year, the whole country and world can see and celebrate what our eleven-year-olds are capable of

We also decided to pause for a while. We haven’t yet got the precision to apply to NCFE or the bandwidth this term to get that precision. With this pause comes an invitation. If you are a primary school interested in co-designing and trialling this with us. Or if you think you can play a role in designing and delivering this innovation across schools. Or if you might have resources to support us. Please get in touch.

Matt at Surrey Square will also convene our group again, hopefully with more primary schools, so that we continue to share current practices and future ambitions and connect with the work already being done with Secondary Schools through Rethinking Assessment.

Carla Rinaldi, one of the founders of Reggio Emilia, once described Assessment as an ‘act of love’. Right now, our assessment regime feels anything but this.

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