School data consultant and Tes columnist James Pembroke talks to hundreds of primaries a year about tracking pupil progress. He has witnessed how many have struggled to adjust following the government’s abolition of the old national curriculum assessment levels in 2014.
How off-the-shelf tracking systems are stopping primaries from letting go of the past
Pembroke estimates that three-quarters of England’s primaries are using some kind of “levels surrogate” that retains the old approach by recording how much of the curriculum a child has covered, rather than how well they have learned it.
He says that is being driven, in large part, by the off-the-shelf tracking systems. These schools have, he says, persisted with levels in all but name.
“It’s the emperor’s new clothes – schools have been convinced that they are looking at something different – but they’re not,” he says.
Increasingly, Pembroke argues, schools are now realising the truth but they are gripped by an inertia that he finds “insane”, as they are “potentially jeopardising children’s learning”.
Why DIY is not always the answer
“Most weeks I come across someone who says, ‘Oh, we do our own thing,’” Pembroke says. And that often means “homemade” spreadsheets.
“The problem is that tracking using Excel is really unwieldy. It is just horrible.
“They fall into this trap…They start off with one spreadsheet. Then they think, ‘We need one spreadsheet each for years 1,2,4,5 and 6 and then we need a tab for reading, a tab for writing and a tab for maths and then another one for science.’ So there are six spreadsheets now with four tabs each and maybe some other tabs which have got some pivot tables or reports in. Then they get to the end of the year, and the year 1s become year 2s – then they set up another set of spreadsheets and it grows and it grows and it becomes massive.
“But they [the heads] are really chuffed with what they’ve done and that’s quite a dangerous thing – they’re like Charlton Heston at the National Rifle Association: ‘You’ll tear this out of my cold dead hands!’ But everyone hates it, all the teachers hate it.”
Doing the right thing
Don’t use “datadrops” whereby all entries on to a tracking system are made on a particular day or week, says Pembroke. Instead, move towards continual assessment by using your tracking system as a mark book.
This leaves teachers with more accurate data and means senior leaders have got live, up-to-date data on tap.
To avoid being stuck in levels, he says, schools “need some way of recording children’s depth of understanding, security and competence, in key areas of the curriculum as and when you teach them”. But Pembroke warns about collecting too much data. “There are schools that go down the micro-assessment level,” he says. “They might have 60 learning objectives for each for reading, writing and maths, then they have got 30 children and they might assess them six times a year – that’s 32,400 assessments each year for a single class. It’s a huge amount.
“The teachers think, ‘Well, I’m not going to put much effort into this. I’ll leave it ‘til the end of term and then go in with a big sigh and tick a load of stuff.’ Where is the accuracy in that?”