Sean Harford, National Director, Ofsted recently published a blog on inspection and the use of grade predictions. In this post he stated; “I have written to all our inspectors in the March 2017 'School inspection update' to ask that they do not request predictions for cohorts about to take examinations; and that goes for key stage 2 SATs as well. I hope this reassures school leaders and teachers that inspectors will just ask how schools have assessed whether their pupils are making the kind of progress they should in their studies and if they are not, what their teachers have been doing to support them to better achievement.”
Sean’s blog is a timely reminder, should anyone need it, that the build up to the test and examination season is upon us and like many parents up and down the country he has a special, personal interest this year. The blog also underlines the fact that however important exams and tests are perceived, they do not tell the whole story of what goes on in our schools - a view reflected in the much improved approach to the inspection of our schools for which Sean can take a lot of credit.
Over the years the issue of results each summer has become an ever growing pre-occupation of the media as they search for an angle to generate a news story on the education system. Unfortunately congratulating pupils and teachers for their hard work and achievement does not attract front-page news. Perversely, when students perform well and show improvement on previous years, accusations of a drop in standards or grade inflation abound; a drop in standards, however perceived, is more newsworthy apparently.
What is already clear is that the outcomes of the coming year will be particularly hard to digest. Last year we had a quite different profile of results for the new more demanding key stage 2 National Curriculum tests and this summer we are likely to see something similar as the first of the revised GCSEs roll off the stocks with no doubt the predictable debate about the grading profile. In short, it’s hard to predict the actual outcomes and Sean’s advice not to get caught up in the ‘mug’s game’ of predicting grades is sound as per usual. None of this is new of course: we have had change before like when the GCSE was first examined in 1988, revised standards such as that for the AS and A2 in 2002 and the afore-mentioned National Curriculum tests in 2016. And each time, the system gradually adapts as teachers and awarding organisations get to grips with the new standards and new approaches.
Part of the reason for this adaptation is that once tests and examinations have been taken, we move from reliance on the written word to define expectations through grade descriptions or interim assessment frameworks into that which we can actually see - what pupils produce in response to the questions and tasks set, how examiners mark the work and where awarding bodies or STA set the boundary cut scores.
Exemplifying what standards of performance actually look or sound like is crucial in understanding expected performance and progress. And this should not be confined to the end of a key stage or end of course examination. It is just as important for each and every year of education. If we don’t understand and show what progress actually looks and sounds like, how can we state with any real confidence that pupils are making expected or age related progress? So as the revised Inspection Framework rightly focuses on progress and age related expectations, schools should respond by demonstrating their expected standards, show how they assess against these standards and what they do with the outcomes of their assessments to inform teaching and learning. When Graham Herbert and I developed the NAHT Assessment Framework, understanding and exemplifying standards of performance was a central theme. Working with some excellent teachers from a group of schools, we were able to capture a sample of pupil’s work to exemplify standards of performance across year groups and this work can be found on the Life after Levels website. To be clear, this is not an attempt at defining a national standard, but the process of understanding and articulating expected performance can be emulated in schools to show their understanding of what progress actually looks like, and of course if they share these exemplars with other schools through Life after Levels we develop greater confidence in the quality and usefulness of the materials. It’s not a bad thing to share with Ofsted inspectors either.
The process is actually more than instrumental. It gives teachers and schools the opportunity to audit their curriculum for content coverage and progress and the opportunity to share and agree expectations. And if you use the suite of applications offered by Frog Education it’s not difficult to manage. The curriculum can be arranged and developed using Curriculum Designer: exemplification can be quickly captured and annotated using Frog Snap and pupil’s attainment monitored in Frog’s Curriculum, Assessment and Progress solution. What is central to this is that the underlying philosophy supports an approach that focuses on each and every pupil identifying what they know through assessment against key performance indicators (KPIs), but as important spotting gaps in learning which is the first step in supporting the needs of pupils and directing teaching.
This approach uses data appropriately – not as nefarious levels or grades – but rather on what pupils can or cannot yet do. Importantly, this methodology is encouraged by the approach described in the Inspection Framework. Clearly Sean is still working hard to ensure his team of inspectors stick to the spirit of the new approach. And to be fair, schools need to work equally hard to take advantage of this approach. Having had 27 years or so of a National Curriculum and an associated system of levels and the use of grades A*- C for GCSE, some colleagues are finding it difficult to adapt: old habits… etc. But Sean is doing his bit in helping schools to embrace new approaches: schools now need to take confidence from his wise words.