The land might have been cleared for self-improvement but the tools are in short supply, says Stuart Kime

The coalition government of 2010 brought with it a secretary of state for education who believed passionately that “a thousand flowers” should bloom in our school system, borrowing from a phrase used in mid-1950s China to encourage public debate about the arts and sciences (“Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”).

Weeding the garden

September 2014 saw the (eminently sensible) removal of levels as a means for reporting pupil attainment and progress, with no replacement for them provided by the DfE (again, another sensible, albeit challenging, move). Documentation published by the Department stated the decision would “allow teachers greater flexibility in the way that they plan and assess pupils’ learning”.

The removal of levels is a classic example of Michael Gove’s vision of how our education system should operate, and it’s one that has caused consternation, pain and frustration ever since. But among all the turmoil, has it allowed a thousand flowers to bloom, or have the weeds returned?

The self-improving system that has long been the vision for English schools is a bold and brave one, but it’s also one that requires more than the mere removal of ineffective and inefficient practices. What comes after? What happens next? Filling the void with anything other than more versions of the thing removed (levels by another name) requires a deep understanding of assessment theory, design, analysis and, crucially, implementation. These are the tools of the self-improving system when it comes to assessment; tools that are in short supply.

Sowing the seeds of success

Long before Gove’s floral vision, a 2004 EPPI-Centre review concluded that teachers’ professional development on assessment was “essential” . In 2014, the NAHT said that “schools should identify a trained assessment lead” to be a beacon of expertise and positive change, and in 2015 the Carter Review of ITT identified assessment as the area of “greatest weakness” in teacher training programmes of the time. The review suggested that teachers should be trained in theoretical aspects of assessment such as validity, reliability and value, as well as the practical application of theory in designing questions effectively and efficiently. The Commission on Assessment without Levels in 2015 agreed with Carter, adding that “the quality of assessment training is currently too weak and reiterates the importance of schools taking up opportunities to train staff in assessment”.

So the weeds were removed from the garden, and the land cleared for schools to take up any of the myriad “opportunities” to improve assessment. But to know which of these is of sufficient quality requires the highly professional training that a range of commissions found insufficient – catch-22.

Yes, there are countless training courses for teachers on assessment, but very few that affordably help develop the theory and practice outlined by the reports listed above in ways that, themselves, are effective and efficient. If we know that one-day courses are generally ineffective in changing teachers’ practice (as well as unnecessarily expensive), why are there so many one-day courses on assessment?

It requires more than the mere removal of ineffective and inefficient practices. What comes after?

While the flowers of assessment may not have bloomed fully just yet, we need to nurture the strong shoots growing in schools such as Whitehill Junior School in Hertfordshire and Falinge Park High School in Rochdale.

We also need to work with and not against Ofsted as they introduce the education inspection framework for 2019; we need to engage constructively with the DfE’s early career framework. Only through such constructive, evidence-informed debate can we depersonalise our critiques of education policy and practice, and focus on bringing back professionalism to teaching by knowing more and doing better.

As part of this endeavour, Schools Week and Evidence Based Education are hosting a free event at which a panel of expert practitioners will answer the questions ‘What does every teacher need to know about assessment?’ and ‘What assessment practices should schools do more of and less of?’ It takes place from 4.30pm to 6pm on Tuesday 27 November 2018 at St Matthias School, Tower Hamlets, London, E2 6DY.