In February 2016, Dame Alison Peacock, headteacher of the Wroxham School, a primary school in Potters Bar, Herfordshire, tweeted a message to ask teachers and leaders to put #LearningFirst. This single tweet resulted in over 500 educational professionals, including many teachers and school leaders, attending the Learning First conference in Sheffield on Saturday, including myself and Mr Rhodes.
The conference comes a matter of weeks after pupils nationally, including our own pupils, took summative SAT tests at Y2 and Y6. Many have reported the ‘chaos’ surrounding these tests, which has prompted calls for a total review of primary assessment. At our school we did what we have always done, we worked hard to prepare our pupils for the tests without abandoning our broad and balanced curriculum and by protecting them from unnecessary stress.
Throughout the day yesterday, we were urged to take control of our curriculum and our assessment system. We were encouraged to be courageous and make the system work for our own schools. We left the conference feeling inspired and knowing that we have indeed had the confidence to make our assessment system ‘school-owned’.
During the day, we heard from Sean Harford, Ofsted National Director for Schools. His message was that schools should start from their own principles, consider their ‘big ideas and milestones’ then assess it. He went on to say that the wider curriculum is really important and schools should utilise the freedoms offered since assessment levels have been abolished. It was so encouraging to hear the approach we have adopted at Unsworth articulated by Ofsted in the lecture hall yesterday.
Speaker after speaker spoke about the need to ‘tame’ assessment. One speaker expressed the concern that the ‘assessment tail is wagging the curriculum dog’. We know that there are certain national assessment points for our pupils, and all pupils nationally, but we have to take control of what happens in between. We have identified the experiences and skills we want our children to have and we have designed an assessment system to find out what they can do and how we can help them to learn the next skill. We firmly believe that it is dialogue between pupils and teachers, not data charts and graphs, that achieves this.
Coming away from the conference on the train yesterday, Mr Rhodes and I reflected on what we had heard across the day. We realised that we have made huge steps towards making our assessment system work for our children. We also spoke about possible next steps on this journey. In June we will be leading a second cohort of Bury headteachers in our ‘Headteachers Leading Assessment’ course. What is clear to us and to everyone who attended #LearningFirst, or who followed it on YouTube, is that collaboration between schools is what will make assessment ‘school-owned’ and fit for purpose; a system to improve teaching and learning rather than a system for accountability.