Alison Peacock calls for collaboration to prioritise learning over measurement

Throughout my career I have engaged with research into teaching methods that avoid labelling by ability. I first baulked at giving students a label as a young secondary teacher. I was told by my head of department the Year 7 class I had taught throughout my first term could only achieve grade D because that was the set they were in. I was allowed to grant a number for effort, but could not move the grade. This was not only unjust, but inaccurate.

Years later, as deputy headteacher in a primary school teaching the literacy and numeracy strategy, I resisted the notion that, in the name of raising standards, each child should be overtly graded and tracked.

Looking back, my approach was radical. I applied to participate in a cross-phase research study at the University of Cambridge, published in 2004 as Learning without Limits, and my classroom was one of those studied. The nine teachers within the research project aimed to teach with high ambition for every child rather than differentiating groups according to perceived levels of attainment. I always wished to teach in a manner that finds a way through for each student rather than predetermining what they may be capable of.

Feeding the tracking machine

Taking hold of assessment and making it work as a tool to improve teaching is not yet common practice. Growing numbers of schools use externally written test materials that provide data for tracking purposes, and increasingly teachers are required to provide ‘data drops’ on a half-termly basis. The problem is, tracking is not assessment and learning is not linear. Ironically, too much focus on output reduces the amount of time available for high-quality teaching input. Data collection, for the sake of feeding a tracking machine or proving to an external inspector the teaching is competent, turns assessment of learning into assessment of teaching.

The problem is, tracking is not assessment and learning is not linear

Those of us who can recall the early days of national curriculum levels know they were intended to form a broad indicator of progression. However, with increasing demands for accountability, the desire to record attainment and progress has grown to the point where teachers are required to quantify the impact of almost every aspect of their teaching. This has led to a deficit model of education that seeks to cast blame on teachers if pupils do not meet an anticipated trajectory of attainment.

Although national curriculum levels were removed in 2014, the hyper-accountability agenda remained. In 2015 I was asked by the Department for Education to join a Commission for Assessment without Levels. One of our recommendations following this work was opportunities for teachers to collaborate on assessment of progress. Although the commission report was welcomed by the government, the recommendations made were not acted upon centrally.

Beyond levels

Sensing frustration and concern about assessment, I began a Twitter conversation at the beginning of 2016. Using the hashtag #LearningFirst, I suggested teachers wishing to share assessment practice could come together.

Within days, the first ‘Beyond Levels’ conference was planned, and the event took place at the Sheffield Hallam Institute of Education in May 2016. It attracted over 500 teachers and 50 speakers. Representatives from Ofsted, Ofqual, governance and exam boards contributed, alongside teachers from every phase of education. Further events in the same vein, hosted by universities, have continued across the country. This is a movement among teachers to champion assessment practice that seeks to put learning – not measurement – first.

Meanwhile, the Welsh government is working with a group of pioneer schools and an advisory group led by Graham Donaldson to rewrite the entire curriculum. Assessment processes that support high-quality learning will be designed, leading to refreshed GCSEs alongside a new accountability framework led by Estyn, the Welsh education and training inspectorate.

This root and branch review of the Welsh education system, inspired by Donaldson’s 2015 review, Successful Futures, is taking note of Wynne Harlen’s work on the ‘big ideas’ in science. Will it be possible to design an assessment framework that supports an entire curriculum centred on six core areas of learning experience? This is the very real challenge that teachers in Wales are working on in partnership with academics. This example shows what can be achieved when teachers as professionals are empowered to work collaboratively and rigorously for collective benefit.

It is time for us to rebuild expertise and confidence in assessment

In England, clusters of schools and academy chains are grappling with the vital task of making assessment work for them – seeking to adopt an approach that relates assessment to pedagogy rather than as a means to an end. Our teaching profession needs to work together with the support of learned societies and subject associations to recognise assessment as an important and complex process that can be used both summatively and formatively to inform teaching and learning. Dylan Wiliam has recently insisted that assessment should be the servant rather than the master.

It is time for us to rebuild expertise and confidence in assessment so that we can not only regain control but also improve our teachers’ wellbeing and pupils’ learning as a consequence.

Alison Peacock is chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching. She is author of Assessment for Learning without Limits.