P1070546Warwick Mansell has written a significant critique of the most recent consultation document from the DfE which came out over half term. The purpose of the consultation document is to test reaction (and reaction there will be) to a new national system of measuring the performance of primary school children at 7 and 11 in terms of a putative “national standard” which they can be below, at or exceed. It replaces the old levelling system, which at least you could move around within, with a system that fixes children’s ability more permanently and thus has all of the faults of the old system and adds nothing (helpfully) new. Leaving aside the whole question of whether or not we require a national standard (this is not a settled problem, by the way), it is also an indictment of a failing department that insists on placing maths, English (particularly writing) and science as more important than other fields of study. Wendell Berry or Ken Robinson will do better than me, any day, in dismantling that particular argument, so I will concentrate on the more immediate issues.

The questions in the consultation are all highly “internal” i.e. they do not challenge the overall purpose of having the document, and make the assumption that this is the correct way to conduct assessment:

  1. Do the names of the draft performance descriptors allow teachers and parents to understand the meaning of, and differentiate between, each performance descriptor? If no, please provide details.
  2. Are the performance descriptors spaced effectively across the range of pupils’ performance to support accurate and consistent judgements? If no, please provide details.
  3. In your opinion, are the performance descriptors clear and easy to understand? If no, which bullets lack sufficient clarity to allow for effective teacher assessment?
  4. In your opinion, does the content of the performance descriptors adequately reflect the national curriculum programmes of study? If no, please state what amendments are required.
  5. Should any element of the performance descriptors be weighted (i.e. should any element be considered more important or less important than others?). If yes, please detail which performance descriptor(s), which element(s) and why.
  6. If you have any further comments regarding the performance descriptors, please provide details. For example, is there further supporting information that would be helpful in understanding and using the performance descriptors?

I strongly challenge the assumptions made here. The questions that should be in the consultation are the following:

  • Do the draft performance descriptors accurately reflect the type of assessment mechanism the profession wants and believes will lead to high levels of pupil progress?
  • Will these performance descriptors support secondary schools in knowing how well a child has done and thus spare them the need to re-assess using CATs or some such industrial method?
  • Do the draft performance descriptors have the scope to be adapted to allow teachers to develop effective assessment mechanisms based on them and thus use them to deliver the programmes of study in Reading, Writing, Maths and Science?
  • In what ways are the draft performance descriptors an improvement on the current system of levels?
  • Do we need performance descriptors to assess progress in subjects other than Reading, Writing, Maths and Science? If not, why not? It is not enough to say, as they do in para 7  (p5): “Performance descriptors will not be written for other subjects”. Either the “foundation subjects” are important subjects or they are not. If they are not, then fine, no performance descriptors, and no foundation to our curriculum. This tells us more than they want us to know about their view of the arts, the physical health of our children and the humanities.
  • Why, when we have perfectly good assessment tools for so-called “core subjects” provided by organisations such as the NFER, based around a standardised score system, do we need to know about national standards, mastery standards and even (in the case of KS1 Science) a pass/fail system of being at or not at the mational standard?
  • Can we use these descriptors to provide an effective school assessment tool to demonstrate progress within key stages and within a year, as we can at present? If not, they fail as a usable tool pretty much at the first hurdle.

I am a strong believer in engaging with the Department for Education through the consultation process, and have responded to all consultations to do with primary practice since they started consulting us. However, here, I cannot find anything to write except in response to their Consultation Questions 6. The first 5 questions flow from a poor and pre-judged assumption that we want this, and believe it would be useful, in the first place. This is not me being my usual bolshie self. I simply can’t see any point in answering the questions until they have at least made some effort in addressing the questions I have raised, in some sort of preamble.

It is not that the path is unclear – rather it is the problem of destination. Why would we embrace this level of incoherence when there are perfectly valid and usable alternatives to this kind of approach? If I get round to completing the consultation, I will post it here, but at present, I am simply unsure of where I would start.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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