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Talking standards: a conversation between educationalists Sir Tim Brighouse and David Cameron

In the first part of an ongoing online conversation, Scottish educationalist David Cameron (left) pens a letter to his English friend and colleague Sir Tim Brighouse (right)

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In the first part of an ongoing online conversation, Scottish educationalist David Cameron (left) pens a letter to his English friend and colleague Sir Tim Brighouse (right)

Dear Tim

There are many differences between the education systems across the UK, but there is absolutely no variation in terms of the current debate about assessment. In Scotland there is massive concern as to whether there is a sufficiently robust performance framework to support the commitment to raising attainment and to closing the persistent gap in outcomes between learners from different backgrounds. In England, there is an ongoing discussion about life after the removal of levels. The starting points may be different, but the debate is just as live in Wales and Northern Ireland.

It is a depressing debate for many reasons.

Colleagues who are old enough will remember the Bullock report, A Language for Life, from 1975. One of its contentions was that if the authors were convinced of the ability of teachers to assess consistently, they would see no further need for standardised assessment. The statement implied clearly that such an ambition was realistic, but 40 years on we seem little closer to realising it.

It would be fascinating to know how much has been invested in standardised testing over that period and to be able to compare that with the levels of investment in building teachers’ capacity in assessment. It would be even more interesting to know what the relative costs would be of giving teachers the time to conduct internal assessment effectively. Our guess would be that much more could have been done to achieve the Bullock vision.

What we have committed to in that period has been a greater commitment to moderation of assessment. This takes various forms at different stages and in different parts of the UK, but none of them seems to take us any closer to a consistent view on standards or a growing sense of trust in internal assessment. Moderation is in danger of becoming an industry without product. It may generate consistency around grades for individual assessments, but it never seems to get us closer to the Holy Grail of reliability across assessments.

Moderation is also in continuing danger of setting grades but never setting standards. Indeed, in our current model for assessment, the scores have become the standards. We seem to have gone on for years engaged in standardisation without ever talking about standards. This is the implicit problem with the whole concept of “raising standards”. It leaves us looking to what we have previously done and trying to do that better, regardless of the relevance of that previous performance to the challenges that our learners face.

We need to raise standards of literacy and numeracy and we may need to improve performance in areas that we currently assess, but we are not getting the information we need in terms of learners’ performance in higher order skills and, notably, in creativity. So much information is there in the knowledge that teachers have of students’ performance and progress, but we continue to prefer to trust the snapshot of performance offered by the standardised test. In other words, we consistently choose the narrow focus, which appears to guarantee reliability over the validity of the panoramic view of those working consistently with learners.

The depression is only intensified by the opportunities that we have had to move closer to the goal of bringing reliability and validity together.

Recently, when you and I worked with a group of school leaders in Gateshead, we found ourselves going back to some of the fundamentals of Assessment for Learning (AfL).

It had two broad themes: supporting pupils’ learning and assuring the quality of assessment judgements that get right to the heart of what we want to achieve – assessment that informs learning and provides the basis for the sort of performance framework that would allow us to monitor progress.

AfL went further in defining its ambitions as:

  • Promoting classroom activities that will generate sound assessment evidence; and
  • Encouraging teachers to “share the standard” through local discussion e.g. in associated schools’ groups.

Surely, this is a direction we need to take. So much discussion about learning centres on the balance between delivery and capture – whether we should control learning by focusing on teachers and what they do or by emphasising the need to recognise and record what learners actually do. There needs to be balance between the two, but it is clear that “capture” is vital and that there is much to be learned from early years practice. The approach of creating experiences and opportunities for learners is likely to lead to progress in knowledge and skills; observing and recording what they do with these opportunities and then planning next steps based on that offers much at any stage of learning. It also avoids the tendency to plan the curriculum backwards from the test and, thereby, narrowing progress.

In the view of the Bullock report, standardised assessment could be seen as a stopgap, something that we needed until we could build the capacity to make informed judgements against agreed standards and a consensus about what progression in learning should be. In that sense, it was like stabilisers on a bicycle. We seem to be in danger of making the assessment stabilisers permanent and, possibly, bigger than the wheels that drive the bike. At the risk of overly stretching the analogy, it is time to recognise that the stabilisers don’t drive the bike and there comes a time when they need to be removed.

Our reliance on standardised assessment has retarded progress in developing practice, undermined trust in the richness of ongoing assessment and infantilised the discussion about standards. Isn’t it time for weaning off?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts,


David Cameron is a Scottish educationalist and campaigner. He has been a teacher, a school SLT member and a director of children's services

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