Schools’ capacity for change in interesting times

By Ben Durbin

Tuesday 10 February 2015

May you live in interesting times. It’s not a pronouncement you make on your friends – reputedly of Chinese origin, it is generally used as a curse.  Schools have certainly been living through some interesting times of late, with reforms affecting what pupils are taught, how they’re assessed, the standards they’re expected to achieve, and the way in which schools are held to account.  The latest developments came last week with the launch of a new assessment without levels commission.

So what’s the background to this new commission? Colleagues at NFER included an excellent overview of the background to the abolition of levels in a 2013 thinkpiece, but to cut a long story short…

1988: Levels were created to allow pupil progress to be ’defined in terms of the National Curriculum, and the stages of progress to be marked by levels of achievement as derived from that curriculum’ (Department of Education and Science and the Welsh Office, 1988, p.30).

2013: Fast forward 25 years, ‘We believe this system is complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents.  It also encourages teachers to focus on a pupil’s current level, rather than consider more broadly what the pupil can actually do’ (Department for Education, 2013).

2014: Then, last autumn a consultation was announced on new performance descriptors: There will continue to be statutory national tests (with results as a scaled score) and teacher assessments (using new performance descriptors)… The draft performance descriptors included here will underpin these assessments [and] will enable parents to compare attainment and progress in different schools  (Department for Education, 2014).

2015: And now, the Government’s response: Responses to the consultation… have raised concerns that performance descriptors could be applied to formative assessment in a way that is not intended. As a result of some of the conflicting responses to the consultation, we will work with relevant experts to determine the most appropriate course of action to address the concerns raised (Department for Education, 2015).

Many of the ‘concerns raised’ were included in our own consultation response and accompanying thinkpiece, and were shared by other experts we’ve talked with informally over the past few months.  These included various practical points of detail in how the performance descriptors are structured and presented, but also more fundamental issues such as the implied emphasis on pupil attainment rather than progress, and the dangers that inappropriate use of the performance descriptors undermines the benefits of formative assessment.

Capacity for change

But all of this is to miss a far deeper point.  The overriding emphasis of education reform by the Coalition Government (in keeping with longer term and international trends) has been towards greater autonomy for schools.

The success of such an approach hinges on one critical attribute: the capacity of the system to successfully deliver such change.  And I’m absolutely not using ”the system” as shorthand for “teachers”.

We have to ask ourselves, for a self-improving system to become a reality, do we have sufficiently mature structures through which change can occur?  Are we training, supporting and empowering leaders to get the most out of these structures?  Do we have mechanisms for capturing and mobilising innovations which succeed, and for recognising and course-correcting those that don’t?  And systems for ensuring the relevance, quality, synthesis, transformation and implementation of research evidence?  What about initial teacher training (ITT), continuing professional development (CPD), funding, inspection, governance, the list goes on.

When structures and culture in our education system have evolved for decades around a particular paradigm, change requires care, thought and patience.  Otherwise it’s like throwing a shuttlecock into the middle of a game of tennis and expecting the players immediately to begin playing badminton.

The abolition of levels provides a case in point.  Levels were abolished, and “the system” was expected quickly to fill the vacuum.  And while there are some notable examples of schools that have been able to step up to the challenge, in practice many continue to use levels.  Faced with so much change, alongside the ongoing pressures of school life, who can blame them?

To be fair to the Government, many of the other aspects of the system I’ve highlighted have also been subject to reform – often with the explicit aim of enabling a self-improving system.  For example, the Carter Review has examined ITT and, incidentally, one of its findings was that ‘of all areas of ITT content, we believe the most significant improvements are needed for training in assessment’ – similar to the message of our 2013 thinkpiece. Teaching Schools have also been created with a role in leading change, and a College of Teaching (an initiative NFER supports) could make a real difference.

But Teaching Schools are still finding their feet, the Carter Review has only just made its recommendations, and a College of Teaching is still in its early infancy.  The question then, especially for a new government is: is this enough or is there more we need to be doing?  ASCL’s answer can be found in its vision for a self-improving system published last week, which looks to be a valuable contribution to this important conversation.  I’ll also be interested to hear Sam Freedman’s reflections from a recent trip to Ontario when he hinted at what may be a similar point.

In the meantime, I welcome the new commission on assessment without levels as a positive example.  It should be used as an opportunity to pause and reflect on what can be realistically expected of schools over what timescales, and – crucially – to provide further support and build capacity across the system to improve upon the old system of levels for pupil assessment.

Hopefully, in time, school life will get a little less interesting.