Teaching union conferences are the perfect venue for members wanting to wind themselves up and blow off steam on any number of issues. But next to the hardy perennials of Ofsted, league tables and workload this year emerged a new unifying concern - the introduction of Assessing Pupils' Progress (APP).
At first glance it appears simply to describe what teachers do throughout their working days. But behind the title lays a raft of confusing guidelines that demand ever more paperwork from overstretched staff, delegates at the conferences claimed.
One said the way the assessment method had been introduced was a "nightmare". Others denounced it as a "top-down system" that "de-skilled" the profession. Amid the complaints was a fair amount of confusion. So, what is the state of play with APP and how concerned should teachers be?
The system, which involves teachers keeping files of children's work that they assess against detailed national criteria, was first introduced by National Strategies as a pilot at key stage 3 in 2006.
Teachers are asked to consider evidence from their day-to-day interactions with pupils demonstrating what they can understand and do - for example, pieces of writing and oral presentations - or observations of pupils' behaviour. Guidelines aim to help teachers assess this evidence in relation to national curriculum levels.
But the issue is only now coming to a head, as primary and secondary schools are being pushed to introduce APP in all core subjects across all age ranges.
A Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) guide published last year said that all schools should have "embedded the APP approach" by 2011.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families is preparing a survey to gauge take-up, but in the meantime 83 per cent of teachers taking part in a questionnaire by teaching union the NUT said their schools had now introduced it.
As its use grows, so have the fears about unnecessary bureaucracy, inadequate training and whether schools which fail to run it will be marked down by Ofsted.
The problem appears particularly pronounced in primary schools, where the idea is newer and teachers and pupils are still bearing the yoke of the KS2 national curriculum tests.
Primaries are also more likely to accept the services of overzealous local authority advisers, some of whom are reported to have been introducing APP in a particularly prescriptive way. And generalist primary teachers have to grapple with assessments in several subjects, unlike their specialist counterparts in secondary.
A new NUT poll revealed that 44 per cent of teachers whose schools were running APP said their workload had "increased considerably". Sixty-five per cent said the training they had received was either only satisfactory or poor, while more than two-thirds said they needed more training.
The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors recently said that "hundreds of hours" should be spent on assessment issues during initial teacher training to cope with APP and other initiatives.
There is also confusion about how the new method fits in with the Assessment for Learning (AfL) scheme, an older initiative which was also introduced by National Strategies in 2004.
The QCDA maintains that the two schemes should be complementary - with AfL informing day-to-day assessment and APP allowing for more formal periodic judgments on student progress.
But Laurie Smith, a research associate at King's College London and a former teacher and examiner, said in a recent paper that the policy of conflating the two systems had caused "confusion and scepticism" among teachers.
APP had been introduced with no substantial research evidence that it improves achievement, he wrote. The research basis quoted by the Government, the Monitoring Pupil Progress pilot, he said, was small-scale and involved only low-ability children.
He told The TES: "APP doesn't improve students' learning or achievement. It's essentially about finding the gaps in the learning and filling them in. It encourages a culture of criteria compliance."
Despite the confusion and stress surrounding the complexity and paperwork, there are certainly glimmers of hope on the horizon. The NUT's survey found that around half of teachers did not realise that the introduction of APP was not statutory, despite official documents implying the opposite. Although schools are being pushed towards APP by local authorities, signing up is theoretically voluntary. But schools should still be aware that Ofsted recently refused to sign a statement confirming this.
The NUT has also recently pledged to support teachers if their schools fail to consult them on the introduction of APP.
The union has sent guidance to members explaining that APP does not require them to compile vast folders of work for every child for assessments.
Officials at the QCDA said the process should be completed two or three times a year in most schools, and six times a year in schools in special measures.
John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said schools could easily reduce workload by only using the system in a way that suits them.
"Schools can cherry-pick what they want from APP, using light touch sampling of work to get an idea of the progression in the class," he said.
"Local authorities have been complicit in hiding the fact that APP can be used on a sampling basis."
Sue Kirkham, education policy specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said a lot of current concerns occurring in primaries had faded out in secondaries already.
"During the pilot at KS3, National Strategies advisers were very prescriptive and went way beyond what was required," she said. "During the pilot some of the worst excesses were written out and we now have heads who say it is excellent.
"But there are still local authority advisers saying: 'This is how you've got to do it.' Most of the difficulties have arisen from local authorities putting pressure on schools to do it in a particular way."
Primaries could still take comfort from the fact that secondaries were now seeing some success with APP, she added.
"We have a lot of members being very enthusiastic in terms of students really understanding why they are making progress or not. Staff also find it facilitates conversations between teachers and between secondary and primary schools because it gives teachers a common language."
Early feedback from APP pilots in science is that is it encouraging schools to be more adventurous with lessons.
Liz Lawrence, chair of the primary committee of the Association for Science Education, said anecdotal evidence pointed to schools modifying their teaching to achieve a more balanced approach to the subject.
Teachers responding to the NUT survey also offered some positive comments about APP. One assistant head said he thought in the long term the scheme would "save teachers time" despite being initially long-winded. Another teacher described it as an "excellent tool".
The final question on many teachers' lips the this year's conferences was whether the introduction of APP would go any way towards putting an end to Sats, along with some kind of system of "when-ready" tests.
This idea alone could offer some comfort to teachers spending their holidays translating the APP "attainment focuses" into pupil-friendly language.
'ALL IT DOES IS FORMALISE WHAT GOOD TEACHERS ARE DOING ALREADY'
Newly qualified English secondary teacher Carly Prout, pictured, felt so strongly about the workload implications of Assessing Pupils' Progress, she took to the stand at a recent teaching conference to express her concerns.
Miss Prout was taught how to use APP during her teacher training, but believes there has not been adequate guidance about how schools should implement it.
She says it has created a lot of paperwork, and schools are having to work out for themselves how it should be embedded at key stage 3. In the English department where she works at Park House School in Newbury, Berkshire, APP has been running since September.
She spent much of last summer with colleagues, re-writing the grids of "assessment focuses" so that pupils could understand them.
She says: "Like all new initiatives, there is a lot of time spent putting it in place.
"It creates a lot of paperwork and reading material and we've had to create a lot of it for ourselves. There are not enough templates or guidance.
"But the reason I stood up at the conference was really because of workload concerns about how it will be implemented at the primary stage, where one teacher will assess several subjects."
But she feels the initiative could successfully give a formal stamp of approval to existing teacher assessment, removing any doubt about the need for external testing.
She adds: "All it really does it formalise what good teachers are doing already. It has come in as Sats have gone out of key stage 3, and if I had to choose, APP has got to be better."
THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT
Guidance on Assessing Pupils' Progress, agreed by teaching unions, the Government and the QCDA, says that:
- APP is not statutory but provides a reference point for teachers in relation to national standards.
- Implementation should be the subject of discussion and consultation with staff.
- Schools can adapt APP for their particular circumstances.
- It works best when used no more than twice or three times a year.
- It does not require special assessment activities but uses evidence from day-to-day teaching and learning. It should reduce the need to prepare for, set and mark time-consuming tests and assessment tasks.