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Slithering snakes and chuckles

Descriptive writing is just one area where self-assessment plays a key role at a Surrey primary, reports Diane Hofkins

Ilic cuming to Rige way because wey get clevu," wrote a child at the end of Year 1. "I am good at mafs I no haw to add up. I wood lic to be a betu ficuu (better thinker)."

Self-assessment is a big part of learning at Ridgeway primary in Croydon, Surrey, a school permeated by a culture of discovery and self-development, for pupils and teachers. It is unashamedly child-centred in its approach, with planning and assessment shared with the children. Written comments on work are scarce, although teachers make sure to note down "unexpected achievement" when it occurs. There are no external rewards, such as stickers: headteacher Anna House believes learning should be its own reward.

In the foundation stage, "learning stories" are used to capture children's achievements. These displays of digital photographs of youngsters engaged in their work, combined with comments made by children as they are working, are posted all over the nursery. One story could be titled Natalie Builds a House and show a girl drawing a plan, beginning to build a brick structure, coming back to it day after day, and getting other children involved.

The display says: "'It's not finished,' Natalie comments while placing a wedge-shaped wooden brick on top. 'But that can't be the chimney.' She takes the wedge off and replaces it with a flat brick."

Other displays include Curtis Makes a Circuit, about a boy who sets out to light-up the classroom bear cave, and Callum Keeps Score, in which three football enthusiasts record their results on a whiteboard. Their teacher, Anna Skinner, says it shows clearly the connection between play and learning.

"You can see a learning story unfolding in front of you," she says.

"There's a higher level of involvement. You can see them thinking and trying to solve a problem."

For the older children, a key assessment method is the "learning conversation", essentially a detailed conference with the teacher over a piece of work, in which the teacher draws out ideas and improvements. In her story about a river, nine-year-old Sian has written that a "foamy, slithering snake is moving along". She and Year 5 teacher Katie Moody agree on the aptness of the snake metaphor. Then they consider the word "moving".

What could make it more dramatic? An adverb. Sian makes a note to look in the thesaurus later for a good descriptor.

In another line, the river "bubbles and chuckles". "Why did you use 'chuckles' right there?" asks Ms Moody. "Because the bubbles sound like laughter." "I love the images you've created there, because you've used words you wouldn't usually describe a river with," says the teacher.

Before writing, Sian says, the whole class talked about river descriptions, looking at passages from such books as The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-The-Pooh. Ms Moody explains that teachers hold writing conferences regularly with every child, and that children also discuss each other's work.

"What's your favourite part of this story?" she asks Sian at the end of the learning conversation. "The trees dipping their hair into the water." "What could you improve on?" "Use the thesaurus," Sian replies.

The staff believe that by the time children leave Ridgeway they have developed a strong sense of themselves as learners. "This year I feel that I have worked non-stop and have been challenged," wrote one child at the end of Year 6. "It has been great fun. Time has whizzed past. I feel that I work best in groups but for some more creative subjects individually."

And another self-assessment says: "I like doing science because it can have quite a few answers and its a good challange, but it is quite difficult at times. I am also good at thinking ahead and I enjoy my ability to persuade people my way is corect."

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