Why we need to take a 'Punk' approach to the future of assessment

19th May 2016 at 12:17
Ahead of this week's Learning First conference, one speaker calls for a cultural revolution in assessment

"Don't be told what you want. Don't be told what you need"
God Save the Queen, Sex Pistols (1977)

This weekend, educationalists who have answered a call from Dame Alison Peacock (article free to subscribers) are gathering in Sheffield for the inaugural #LearningFirst event. Tickets for the conference, which is supported by TES, sold out in less than 40 minutes.

An impressive community of system and school leaders, teachers, researchers, experts and advisers are pushing back against the pervasive, unpopular and (some say) "damaging" culture of assessment, dominated by box-ticking, cramming and endless testing. The assessment tail has been wagging the pedagogical dog for too long. Our shared mission is to reverse this.

This profession-led effort to take back assessment is evocative of a well-known rebellion from 40 years ago: punk. Punk was partly a reaction by the youth of mid 1970s Britain to the failure of political and social institutions to address their aspirations and needs. Crucially, the punk philosophy also catalysed a powerful form of agency and self-determination.

While many of us have long-since packed away the tartan and safety pins, punk remains a good metaphor for the emergence and energy of #LearningFirst. Its ground-up, direct approach and DIY ethic (using Twitter and blogs) doesn’t just mirror punk’s values; it reflects the interests of groups under-represented or marginalised by the prevailing orthodoxies and embodied by our blunt assessment regime: learners most at risk of school failure.

I’d go even further: I think that to realise the #LearningFirst aim of building a truly inclusive assessment system, we can use "Punk" as a reminder of what we’re trying to achieve.

P is for purposeful and positive

Punks knew that just protesting against a delimiting system was insufficient to the task of changing it. Recently, both practitioners and parents have expressed unprecedented levels of dissatisfaction over the assessment regime. A one-size-fits-all approach restricts the curriculum. Professionals can’t just push back; we must constructively put forward a purposeful, principled alternative.

U is for universal and unlimited

An inclusive assessment system isn’t closed. Learners shouldn’t have to adapt to rigid marking schemes or exam protocols that disadvantage some. Methods should respond and evolve to serve learners. Confident, skilled and empowered pedagogues are architects and users of innovative tools and approaches that capture and articulate progress in all its meaningful forms, for all learners.

N is for needs and names

Progressive assessment is underpinned by the values of Learning Without Limits, which prioritise learners’ needs – not labels or diagnoses. As special school deputy head, Simon Knight, wrote recently in TES: "We don't talk about ‘Down’s children’…We talk about ‘Bob’ [who has Down’s] because we know who he is and what additional support he needs."

K is for kollaborative and kollective*

Punk had a common cause with, and was influenced by, other cultural movements, including reggae. A wider social change agenda grew through collaboration and cooperation, with myriad constituencies represented. Similarly, inclusive assessment gives everyone a voice – especially learners. Coherence, at the school level and system level, emerges as interests and aims are aligned through co-construction.

Interestingly, the conditions for this new movement have been created by the very establishment whose policies #LearningFirst now challenges. Ministers want a self-improving, school-led system. Well…be careful what you wish for.

* Yes, spelled wrong but, who cares, this is punk…

Rob Webster is a researcher at the UCL Institute of Education, where he co-directs the Special Educational Needs in Secondary Education (Sense) study. He tweets as @maximisingTAs and is speaking at the #LearningFirst conference on 21 May

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