Assessment: Giving pupils the power

Written by: Rachel Wells | Published:
Photo: West Heslerton CE Primary School

Headteacher Rachel Wells explains how her staff team have developed and implemented a new approach to assessment, encouraging pupils to play an active role in analysing their own progress, achievement and next steps for learning

West Heslerton CE Primary School, a small school in North Yorkshire, is typical in many ways of the many small rural schools countrywide. A complete redesign of our approach has resulted in a very different type of education for all learners.

At West Heslerton, 50 children are taught in two mixed age classes. I am the full-time headteacher, both classes have a full-time teacher and teaching assistant. The teaching assistants swap classes at lunchtime and many activities are whole-school, so that staff know and work with children of all ages.

Together, as staff and governors, we wanted to thread British values, and as a church school Christian values, throughout the learning experiences of each individual to ensure that all pupils were fully equipped for life in modern Britain. We wanted to put the hard-to-define spiritual, moral, social and cultural education (SMSC) at the heart of our learning. We also wanted to consider learning in its widest sense.

Using the National Trust's list of things to do by the time you're 11 and ¾ as a starting point, we wrote a list of things we would like each child to experience and the values we would like each child to display in everyday activities by the time they left primary school. The amazing ideas were discussed with governors and parents.

The positive responses inspired us to rethink the opportunities we give to each learner. Ofsted, in October 2014, noted "the curriculum makes a significant contribution to developing pupils' very positive attitudes to learning".

Changing roles

As a small school, our staff always found it tricky to fully undertake the role of subject leader: each staff member was the leader of a core subject and possibly four further subjects, as well as being phase leaders. Finding time to lead this in our own class and across the school was difficult. There were unnatural divisions between subject areas that weren't there for children. As such, we agreed upon a redesign of approach.

In discussions with our local authority representative, we devised three leadership roles – one for each teacher. Leadership roles cover curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. The curriculum leader oversees what is taught, the pedagogy leader focuses upon how it is taught and the assessment leader looks at the impact of the combination of these two areas.

As headteacher and SENCO, I oversee assessments. The other two class teachers swap between the other two roles to provide a fresh pair of eyes each term and aid their professional development. Although this was initially thinking outside of the box, this has really brought our staff together, the work of each of us is clearly interlinked with the others, creating a cohesive team. I'd suggest shaking roles and tasks up to see if there are alternative ways of working. We don't have to do what we've always done.

Again, Ofsted noted: "Together, all leaders within the school have been very successful in bringing about notable improvements in the quality of teaching and achievement of pupils."

Progress and achievement

As well as redesigning the way staff approached their work, we wanted to give pupils a clearer and more reflective look at their individual progress and achievement. We were very keen to move away from a teacher-led (extrinsic) motivation system.

There were key questions for us to consider as the basis for our approach. How were we to build in ways to improve intrinsic motivation in each learner? How could we encourage a greater depth of learning and application of skills to real-life situations to equip our pupils for life and work? How could we encourage pupils to reflect upon their learning and identify their strengths and next steps with little reliance upon adults? If we could achieve these we would be truly preparing learners for life.

The school already followed whole-school topics on a rolling four-year programme with core subject elements covered every two years. In this way, children revisit these areas from different viewpoints every two years.
To reflect the cross-curricular learning that is taking place, all children have one learning journey where all of their work is collated. This helps to show how the children are writing across the curriculum or applying maths skills in other areas, etc.

To reflect the idea of children being motivated and following their interests, both classrooms, inside and out, are set up like an early years classroom, with areas of provision. These have a range of regularly changing challenges within them to consolidate learning, extend thinking and deepen understanding of curriculum areas. Role-play, sand and water, creative art spaces, outdoor spaces for learning, designated reading areas all encourage children to learn independently in different ways.

To help children to identify what they have achieved, they are encouraged at the end of each session to reflect upon how they have developed. This can relate to life-skills, development of curriculum knowledge, application of prior learning, or to a British or Christian Value that they have displayed during the session. This is done verbally as a whole class in the Early Years foundation stage and key stage 1 so that the children have positivity and celebration modelled and learn the language of this thinking. Key stage 2 pupils record in pink how they have developed, aided by adults where necessary.

Classroom-based staff across the school also mark in pink ink to show achievements. Teachers and pupils are immediately aware of pupils' strengths and can celebrate these with them. Pupil perceptions of their work can be judged and praise given to those who need boosting.

During the Ofsted inspection in October, this system really helped children to talk inspectors through what and how they learnt and book scrutinies clearly showed progress of each individual. This is a really simple change that we made that has had a clear impact, I'd recommend it to any teacher.

Next steps for learning

Alongside the above, children are also encouraged to consider what their next steps are. This may be as simple as to "practise sums like this using money in the role-play area", "test this again, this time changing the materials I use in the science area" or "show how thankful I am to more people". These are recorded individually or in class groups, again in different forms based upon pupils' ages, in green ink to show growth. Language here models resilience and determination.

This approach has certainly helped pupils to independently identify their next steps in learning. We find children now are automatically reviewing their work, identifying what needs to be done next and planning the areas of the classroom they can achieve this in. Some pupils are challenging themselves to display these new targets in the most unlikely of classroom areas, to prove to themselves they have really understood their work and can use their newly learnt knowledge or understanding of process in problem-solving in so many contexts. That's what life-long learning is all about.

Each Friday morning, the focus is firmly on reflecting upon success and looking ahead. All children have their end-of-year targets at the front of their learning journeys. Each individual has time to look over their targets from the previous week along with all their pink comments. They colour the end-of-year expectations they have demonstrated in their work pink and those they still need to consolidate are marked green.

Where necessary, pupils are coached by the teacher or teaching assistant, but pupils are really developing in independence in reflecting upon their progress and ambitions. They are able to consider any new green targets they will set themselves for the week ahead and the teacher or teaching assistant is able to talk to them about how they plan to achieve these. This approach has clear benefits for learners who are skilled at knowing what to do next to improve and are motivated to achieve this in ways that excite them.

This approach has helped staff to be planning accurately for the needs of each pupil. Teachers' planning now incorporates time to check in with identified pupils at intervals during the week to see how they are doing. Whole-class areas for development can be identified and planned for and areas where individuals need one-to-one input are found.

Personalised approach

These accurate assessments and comprehensive tracking system help to ensure the curriculum is personalised for every individual. This review of weekly targets has helped children to reflect upon their learning, their application of Christian values, their use of preferred learning styles, their strengths and target areas.

Teachers know what each individual needs to learn and provide the environment and opportunities for this. Children have identified what their targets are and are highly motivated to find a way of achieving these. Teachers know "what" and not "how", it is up to children to discover their own way. This approach was initially scary yet this has improved teacher workload, helped to provide focus and clarity for classroom staff and significantly increased motivation and reflection for pupils.

Ofsted identified and reinforced the strengths of this approach: "Teachers have a very detailed knowledge about each pupil's progress and use this knowledge to plan really interesting and stimulating lessons that allow all pupils to make rapid progress."

I would suggest schools just try this for one afternoon a week, focusing children upon spending time reading marking and feedback and working to prove to their teachers they have improved since this last piece of marking. This provides teachers with time for one-to-one coaching, for social, academic or even emotional development of pupils.

Sessions at West Heslerton now look and feel very different to most schools of any size. Mornings consist of a mix of short sessions which focus on key skills in core subjects and are taught sessions to cover the curriculum objectives within the topic. These are often blocked (for example, an hour of electricity every day in the first week of term to "skill-up" pupils so they can apply these skills in classroom challenge areas in a range of contexts).

Each afternoon looks very different. Afternoons are handed over to individuals. Children throughout the school work in mixed-age, mixed-ability topic teams with others from their class. The teams group together based upon their areas of interest in their current topic and what they would like to focus upon and learn more about. There is no ceiling of progress.

Staff encourage children to plan each stage of their project, identifying strengths they could offer to their team and identifying areas they could develop by working with specific peers. Research shows that pupils learn far more from their peers than their teachers. Pupils who have grasped an idea are challenged to explain their thinking and their approach to others, thus consolidating their own learning. Children know they are working towards an end goal. They have time deadlines, an understanding of their audience (parents to see a carnival, older residents to a Blackout Ball, whole communities to a wedding etc), a key role in a team and therefore a great example of real-life working.

This shift in thinking has resulted in rapid academic progress, highly engaged and motivated children, a much more positive work/life balance for staff.

  • Rachel Wells is headteacher of West Heslerton CE Primary School in Yorkshire. West Heslerton was graded outstanding in all areas by Ofsted in October 2014 and by SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) in March 2015.

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