Ensuring consistent assessment approaches

Written by: HTU | Published:

Faced with an inconsistent approach to assessment strategies, tests and tracking methods across the school, deputy headteacher Amelia Nelson set out to turn things around. She explains how.

When I look back at my time at primary school, I can honestly say that it was the best time of my life. My memories of those years are nothing but positive. My mum remembers me coming home from school after my first day in reception and when she asked how I got on, I replied: “I don’t want to be the pupil, I want to be the teacher!”

My experiences there are what made me first want to be a teacher, and they have also helped shape me into the leader and deputy headteacher that I am today.

It wasn’t until I undertook some university volunteering work in a challenging school that I realised not all children have positive experiences of their primary education. I was shocked by the lack of direction within the school and the working conditions that staff and pupils had to deal with.

There was no doubt that some of the pupils were challenging. But rather than the leadership team acknowledging this and trying to support staff to improve the life chances for pupils, they were just adding to the challenges. This realisation steered the direction of my career as a teacher. 

Since my NQT year in Hackney back in 2008, the schools I have worked in have all been in challenging circumstances. I want to help recreate for all children the positive experiences that I had, and that they are ultimately entitled to.

So here I am, six years later, having taken up my first deputy head role at Oasis Academy Long Cross back in January. The school was taken over by Oasis that month, a forced takeover after eight months of being in special measures.

Five headteachers had come and gone over this time, and there had been a high turnover of their senior leadership team as a whole. With a group of us taking over from the interim leadership team, there was a new senior management team, a new deputy and a new headteacher.

We were well below the floor target of 65 per cent combined reading, writing and maths for key stage 2, predicted just 36 per cent. So when I joined the Future Leaders leadership development programme that year, and was required to complete a whole-school “Impact Initiative”, my focus was immediately clear. We needed to implement a tracking and intervention system to improve standards across the school. I set us the target of 70 per cent by end of the year.

After picking through the current assessment procedures, it became instantly clear that subject knowledge wasn’t the problem. Children did have the knowledge – it was the system that was failing them.

Throughout the school, staff were doing their own assessment strategies, tests and tracking methods. It was not that they did not know anything or did not have the capacity, but that they were simply used to following their own system, or did not realise the need for having a consistent approach to assessment. There was no evidence of preparing pupils for the next year and the next challenges. Many simply kept their head down, just trying to survive the year.

We developed a standard assessment cycle to roll-out throughout the school, introducing six assessment points throughout the year for reading, writing and maths. The cycle ensured that all classes and year groups were using comparable tests and that these were taken in similar conditions.

Levelling criteria was rewritten using the national curriculum as a base line, but we also ensured that it fit within our school context and level of development of staff. So as well as being able to compare different classes, the following year, we would now also be able to combine data and track students’ progress. And unlike before, we would have the solid evidence from which to moderate.

Getting buy-in to such a huge change was not an easy task. We put aside the first 20 minutes of every staff meeting to dedicate time for cross-school moderation. Every week a year group would bring two or three samples of their classes’ writing from that week. As a staff body we’d spend time informally discussing the work in groups, and using our rewritten levelling criteria, we would come up with a level for each piece of work together.

We initially used the children from my classes for moderation to demonstrate that we all were on the same level and these assessment strategies applied to everyone. We made it a supportive environment, where everyone had the opportunity to give feedback. Deadlines for assessment were communicated clearly and everyone knew that they now had to report to us six times a year. 

At first, many were not used to being chased. But the regularity of procedures and our staff meeting discussions helped us to integrate the new procedure into day-to-day schedules.

We also set up assessment surgeries to give staff the opportunity to drop in and receive support for particular areas of need. As you can imagine, for the first few weeks, I was quite lonely! But it was about gaining trust. 

One year 6 teacher was having difficulties with his class and came to me for help. Together, we looked at the Department for Education (DfE) exemplification models of writing to see other school examples of different levels. I asked him questions about his work, such as why he thought the child was this level and not that level. We then went back and compared his work to the exemplification models and corrected the levels together if needed.

Each week he would take away a task to use with his class to produce evidence of the things his students’ writing was missing. He would bring this back the following week for us to discuss. It was great to see him making progress so quickly and soon he was feeling much more confident with his class. This didn’t go unnoticed by other staff. They would walk past our meetings, see the informal chats going on, and realise that it was a collaborative process and the strategies we were implementing were really working. Slowly, everyone began to come around. 

Overall, we have come a long way since January. And how are we doing? This year, we hit our 70 per cent combined target for reading, writing and maths. It is an incredible feeling to know that we are now sending most of our children on to secondary school achieving at their expected levels. 

And assessment judgements were also moderated by the local authority for both year 2 and year 6, and we received 100 per cent accuracy across the board. Staff now know why we are implementing these new strategies and are on board. They realise that it is not just about what is on paper, but the purpose behind it. Parents have also recognised that there is a new management team and that the school is changing for the better.

Looking back, it has been hard. There were many days that got overwhelming, and I thought this is unachievable. But you have to remain focused and make sure you achieve the fine balance of day-to-day work and long-term strategy. You can’t lose site of the bigger picture.

I still keep a card on my desk that I was given from one of my more difficult children in year 6, written at the end of SATs this year: “Thank you for everything Miss Nelson. I’m trying to be gooder than ever. Since you came it has been great and now I know what I need to do to get better.” 

It is things like this that mean the most to me as a leader, and this is the message I was trying to get across at Oasis Long Cross. If we as teachers don’t know how children need to improve, how can they possibly know themselves?

By implementing a consistent approach to assessment, we are now giving all children the opportunity to reach their potential. We’ve still got a long way to go. But hearing the news that we’d hit our 70 per cent combined target – a 22 per cent increase on last year – has given us the lift we need to keep going.

  • Amelia Nelson is deputy headteacher at Oasis Academy Long Cross in Bristol and a graduate of the Future Leaders programme.

Future Leaders

Future Leaders is a fully funded leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools across England. For more information visit apply.future-leaders.org.uk/register-interest

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