I was in the Green Group, so workshops first for me. I went to two – the packed Assessment without Levels delivered by the Head and two teachers from Sheringham Primary School and then Ros Wilson.
Sheringham Primary School
Holding teachers accountable for what they teach and how well they teach it. I know this was supposed to happen before but truth be told I can’t remember anything other than being hampered by assessment systems. The APPs simply weren’t good enough and while I appreciate that some were happy with them, having taught in three different cities and LEAs I can honestly say each one interpreted the writing standards in particular in such different ways that I was never happy with it. I went along with the way the judgements were cast in each one, but it never left me feeling that I had a grasp on it in the same way as numeracy or even reading.
Also assessing not only what children have achieved but how much support they needed to achieve it, is something that I think was lacking in the vague APPs. The PITA assessment (Points in Time Assessment) used by Sherringham was impressive for its ability to pick up on that and to promote a mastery curriculum rather than one that rushes through to the next years objectives paying no heed to the children who need more time and practice. It is a means teachers can focus on depth and breadth.
Trusting teachers to use slightly different ways to record day to day. Indeed, the culture of uniformity in all aspects of recording and reporting has left many teachers unhappy. SLT, who want to impose a single way of doing things for their purposes rather than because it enhances teaching and learning, should take note. It is evident that Sherringham have thought through what teachers need to do the same and where it doesn’t matter. The conflating of conformity with consistency is still a real problem and one that means teachers have to abandon working systems for the latest silver bullet, ultimately as a school leader one has to ask “If this is the paracetamol, what is the headache?”
I used Big Writing in my first school and loved it but it was not adopted in any of the other schools I worked in. In particular, the focused writing sessions were wonderful, dimming the lights, lighting a candle, letting the children have the time to really write a piece. It was tied in with the literacy strategy and therefore the VCOP pyramids were great for an NQT trying to work out what counted towards the different levels. It seems not a million miles away from the slow writing. The idea of writing less but better appeals to me in order to build up the stamina of children to be able to cope with re-reading their work and editing. I would have put up the slides that Ros showed us but they are not on the Beyond Levels website yet so for more on her approach click here.
Sheringham Primary School
@shinpad asked the intelligent question of whether PITA or any other system will ever lead to anything other than a best fit system in the end. PITA means that the sum of the parts of the whole are more clearly defined but it is still being added together eventually to see what a child ‘is’. However, I don’t think that is as problematic as before where the best fit based on so many fuzzy statements, some of which didn’t match up to the curriculum. If at least that pitfall can be avoided then maybe it won’t be so arduous to put together a rough best fit. Neither will it be as important given the accuracy of each part is where teachers show progress is or is not being made. Being able to talk about the children and evaluate one’s practice is no bad thing. This would also enable teachers to pinpoint their own subject knowledge and training needs better though there is still not as much out there to cater for this as I think there ought to be.
We are not all going to become best-selling authors, and that is a fact. What we do all need is to be secure with the basics and be given the opportunity to achieve the best we can. I admire that Ros wants all children to be creative writers but just as with reading for pleasure; it seems that we can’t force it or make it happen.
I think it is clear that Ros was happy with the old APPs in so far as they emphasised creativity more and no doubt wants to turn the clock back rather than adjust her resources. I do think that she ignores the very real problems that teachers had with levels and the assessment regime that went with it.
It did come across that she saw it is an injustice or slight that the government have chosen an English curriculum that does not fit in with her worldview but let’s be clear marking VCOP (with four different highlighters) did add to my workload. Also, the fuzzier the statement, the longer it takes to assess – an area where comparative judgement may well come in handy and support standardisation.
She pulled the right strings arguing that the best writing flows from the subconscious, and children should not have to think about fronted adverbials when writing. However, I find this disingenuous. Big Writing was never stream of consciousness. It involved the children thinking about their ideas and formulating sentences taking VCOP into account. In that respect, what difference does it make if they are adding a fronted adverbial or a connective to make that sentence better before writing it down? I don’t blame Ros, she knows her audience, and they lapped it up.
Sheringham Primary School
I know that this was a conference on assessment and that curriculum is separate, but after seeing this slide, I was a pain and asked about it anyway.
The Simple View of Reading? Sight words? The evidence for SSP exists and is growing. Even including the term ‘barks at print’ seems a nod towards the kind of pseudo-teenage rebellion attitude typified by Michael Rosen and his supporters. I just don’t think it’s professional. Assessment systems are pointless if the content of what they are assessing is not fit for purpose. Collaborative learning was another received wisdom thrown out there and shows just how much ground needs covering in primary education to slay some sacred cows. Using an assessment system which highlights certain aspects of one’s practice isn’t working is only worthwhile if everything is on the table – the method and content included. Any assessment system imbued with the received wisdoms of the progressive school without any challenge or consideration of alternatives is simply a replication of the bad old days of Ofsted but at school level. Wasting teachers time on trying to make certain methods or ideas work is just that, a waste of time.
“They can’t sack me!”
If I learned anything it’s how to work a room of mainly primary teachers:
- Criticise the government and Secretary of State for Education
- Talk about scrapping tests
- Big up the union and the need to strike over changes
- Play the ‘raging against the machine’, ‘I’m just a David against Goliath here’, ‘I’m being silenced while speaking in front of hundreds of people’ card. It goes down well if you have mentioned all of the above.
It smacked too much of the recently sacked Natasha Devon’s tactics for my liking. Since when has Ros Wilson not been able to speak her mind? Or had to hold back? For what reason?
At the end of the day, she is a smart woman, who is also an astute business woman, who is producing resources. She has made a fair deal of money from it, and I don’t have the slightest problem with that.
But if the government should not be adding or taking away things from the curriculum to suit, say Pearsons, then they shouldn’t do it for Ros or anyone else selling a service, and or resource either. Commercial interest is commercial interest, and I don’t see the moral superiority or virtue in one as opposed to the other. Neither is running a charity or a not-for-profit. Going yah boo the government before you offer up your product is simply a means of getting the audience to buy in. Watching teachers being gullible and naive to this is just depressing.
Again the lack of critical thinking (yes that thing) means that the teaching of multiple genres is not questioned at any stage, a major problem with the Literacy Strategy being that it didn’t allow for practice or rehearsal. Too much flitting and if we want mastery in writing then we need to think about this, as well as the role of interleaving and spacing.
Beyond Levels? Learning First?
I left early; the lecture theatre 5-minute shout-outs didn’t appeal but in all honesty but that had more to do with my personal mood on the day more than the speakers or what they would have had to say. The fact is that the conference was much needed and I don’t care so much about the commercial interests involved as opposed to schools as the mix is important. As for the pedagogical side of things, there were so many different workshops but to say it was progressive heavy is not an exaggeration.
The fact that College of Teachers was positively endorsed is another thing I was not convinced about. But in the end, it is down to the organisers whether this will in future become about assessment in all its facets and from a range of different perspectives or if it will be a mouthpiece for particular interests.
There will be another conference later this year I see on their website. I can only recommend going and seeing what is out there and making the best choice for the school you work in. Comparing different systems is no bad thing and tweaking them to make it work is similarly par of the course. If it makes some head teachers or SLT willing to try out something that moves away from levels more clearly then it can be no bad thing.