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Future without tests

Funding and vision are needed if we want teacher assessment to work, writes Richard Daugherty

Wales should become internationally renowned as a learning country. This was the goal set in 2001 by the Welsh Assembly. In this vision of a radically different education system for Wales, the professional judgement of teachers would be celebrated and their capacity and expertise unleashed.

The assessment of learning will be a crucial element in the Assembly's plans. The review group that I chaired during 2003-4 put forward recommendations, now being developed and implemented, for the vital years of schooling for pupils between the ages of seven and 14.

These changes could mean that Wales will become a country where the quality of pupils' learning, and not just the scores they achieve in tests, is at the centre of educational decisions at every level - from the teacher in the classroom through to the minister in Cardiff Bay. But will that happen?

All three key features of the review group's proposals depend on the teachers in every school in Wales being able to apply their professional expertise effectively when pupils' learning is being assessed.

Teachers are to be encouraged and supported in making regular use of "assessment for learning" practices in their classrooms; to go beyond grades and marks and help their pupils to become better, more independent, learners.

The judgements that teachers make at the end of both key stages are to be backed up by arrangements ("moderation") to give pupils and their parents confidence that teachers are judging what has been achieved on a common, consistent basis.

And skills profiles, to be drawn up initially towards the end of Year 5, will make use of skills tests and teachers' own evidence to focus on improving children's learning skills as they move through the final year of primary school and on to secondary.

Work is already in hand to plan the skills tests, to design the moderation arrangements and to support teachers in becoming more effective in using assessment to support learning.

But, as with any rethink of a system when it is being reorientated to different goals, there are several challenges to be faced in the years ahead.

The first challenge is to ensure that the changes being introduced over the next three years have the full support of the people on whom their successful introduction depends - the teachers.

The review group's proposals were about much more than phasing out the end-of-key-stage tests or Sats, a decision that was welcomed by most teachers in Wales. They put teachers' ability to assess their own pupils'

learning at the heart of each aspect of the new approach to assessment.

The skills tests, the moderation arrangements and the assessment-for-learning practices will need to be seen by teachers as being of direct benefit to their pupils' learning. If teachers were to see these innovations as unduly burdensome, and as activities over which they have little control, then the hearts and minds of the profession in Wales would have been lost and the changes would not work.

Second, "unleashing the capacity and expertise of teachers" has to become more than an easy soundbite. There has been a long-standing failure in our education system - not just in Wales but across the UK - to invest in the professional skills of teachers.

We have not learnt the lessons that successful organisations in business and the voluntary sector have long taken to be self-evident. If organisations as different as Tesco and Women's Aid can build into their budgets high-quality training to develop staff expertise, why should it be so difficult for Education Wales to do the same?

Too often the continuing professional development of teachers has been an inadequate, disjointed extra, the first item to be cut to balance the books. What is needed now is a sustained programme of professional development that is fully funded, shaped by teachers and tailored to their needs.

But the biggest challenge of all will be to change the mindset that has equated the quality of learning in our schools with snapshots of pupil performance from short tests in the four core subjects.

If we are serious about lifelong learning, we have to rethink how we judge schools and teachers. Schools should be judged on the extent to which they have helped pupils become more capable and better-motivated learners when they move on to the next stage of their education journey.

School inspection reports could focus on the evidence for a school's success in those terms. Difficult, you may argue, to measure such intangible qualities as learning capability and motivation. Of course. It has always been easier to make what is measurable appear important rather than to measure what is important.

But if we really want Wales to be a learning country we will have to meet such challenges.

Richard Daugherty is emeritus professor of education at University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He chaired the Daugherty assessment review group for the Assembly government

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