Assessment 'voids', anxiety and astonishment abound

1st April 2011 at 01:00
Care must be taken not to undermine CfE's foundations

I was astounded, at the recent TESS debate, to hear a secondary headteacher talk about the "seven-year assessment void" which, she claimed, now existed in primary schools. How any school leader could arrive at such a conclusion baffles me, but the statement serves as a reminder of how much ground remains to be secured around understanding the role of assessment within Curriculum for Excellence. This was further underlined by the response from the panel of education spokespersons - none of whom even challenged the assertion.

Certainly the purpose and role of assessment is a key area of change within CfE. The whole programme is predicated on moving away from the previous narrowly-focused obsession with "testing" (and all the subsequent data crunching, target setting and shallow learning which accompanied it) into an approach where the primary purpose of assessment is the support of learning and teaching. And where teachers' professional judgments are both central and trusted. If policy makers, headteachers or local education directorates subvert this approach, they will undermine the very foundation of CfE.

At the recent Tapestry conference, attended by more than 300 teachers, Dylan Wiliam discussed assessment. He was at pains to underline that "assessment was a good servant but a bad master". A timely reminder, perhaps. Of course there are anxieties about the changed arrangements. Teachers wish to be confident that we understand the standards implicit in the experiences and outcomes and that we can effectively report to pupils and parents about progress, and this has led to demands for more effective CPD.

What are we to make of local authorities who are wasting money on standardised testing regimes, essentially because they don't trust teacher judgments? Or the developing abuse around reporting formats where the narrative around skills is being overtaken by tick-box "levels within levels"?

These approaches need to be challenged before unnecessary and excessive paper chasing around CfE, such as programme audits, drowns out the creativity that is central to developing the new pedagogies required. Paying lip-service to change is not enough; practice must follow. CfE remains centre stage but teachers remain to be convinced that the political will is there, at Scottish Government and local authority level, to allow the democratisation of schools which CfE demands.

Current discussion about the governance of schools has seen a growing consensus emerge about giving heads more control. Actually, that's not radical enough. Why not give teachers control?

Schools should be democratic places. Now there's an idea worthy of debate.

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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