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Comparative judgement: a world of pure imagination?

Primary teachers may feel uncomfortable with ranking their students – but isn’t that what we do, anyway?

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Primary teachers may feel uncomfortable with ranking their students – but isn’t that what we do, anyway?

If you are a Year 2 or Year 6 teacher, how would you feel if someone told you that they could guarantee you wouldn’t have a moderation visit this year?

A sense of relief? Joy, perhaps? What if they could further guarantee that you wouldn’t even have to make the judgements: no more use of that wretched tick-list in the interim framework; no more searching for an elusive semi-colon; no more enforced teaching of the ridiculous exclamation sentence. Sounding good?

Not only would you stop wasting your time searching for these things, but, in fact, you wouldn’t have to crowbar them into writing in the first place. In this brave new world, rather than trying to force children to use bizarre grammatical structures and punctuation, you would simply develop the best writers you could.

Too good to be true?

Imagine a new system where credit was given not only for correct spelling of exception words, but also for creative flair, adaptation to purpose and maybe even engaging the reader. Indeed, a system where the only way to improve your league table outcomes would be to improve the quality of writing.

Does this sound too good to be true? Well, maybe it’s not, but there is one small hurdle. You have to face the truth about the key stage statutory assessments: they are essentially about ranking children.

The reason that we have tests and the complex system of teacher assessment grades is so that we can sort children into those who scored highly and those who did not, so that the Department for Education might judge which schools have been most effective at promoting progress.

It seems the idea of ordering pupils makes primary teachers uncomfortable

If you have come to terms with that, then the leap to comparative judgement isn’t a step too far. This new model of assessment proposes to do exactly what we’re asking for: instead of arbitrary thresholds and lengthy tick-lists, it merely takes examples of children’s work and asks whose is better.

Rather than markers trying to make judgements based on vague descriptors – the sort of approach that was so ineffective with the old writing tests – it simply asks that they decide which child is a more effective writer. Because the truth is, while we might have quibbled in the past over whether a piece of writing was a 3c or a 3b, or whether there were too many comma splices, most teachers could agree on which writers were more competent than others overall.

The new trial of comparative judgement (which has been launched at is asking primary teachers to do just that this year. While we are stuck with the interim frameworks at the moment, this approach has the potential to completely transform how we judge work at the end of key stage 2 – and potentially key stage 1, too.

Teachers will simply submit a small portfolio of work for each Year 6 pupil, and then colleagues across the school will judge which are better. They do this not by looking at every piece at once, but by simply comparing two and making a judgement. Once you repeat this process enough times – with lots of colleagues assisting in the process – it’s possible to come to a rank order of all the pupils in the cohort.

Yet, it seems the idea of ordering makes primary teachers uncomfortable, even though we do it all the time when we pile books according to ability, or make judgements on levels or bands.

The difference here is that it takes some of the personal bias away, and provides a much fairer judgement. Imagine that process replicated nationally? Children needn’t be told their rank, but could be allocated a scaled score or descriptor just as they are now – but all without the burden of tick-lists and moderation. Just that change itself has got to make it worth considering, surely?

Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire

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