Classroom practice - All you need to know to create a master

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Every school has to replace levels, but this one has already found its own solution - and it could run from early years to GCSE

Sean is one of those students who, through no fault of his own, frustrates teachers. Halfway through your first Year 7 lesson with him you realise that what you see in front of you doesn't match what you have down on paper.

The paperwork says he's level 5. In many ways, he has shown you that he is just that. But plenty of other factors suggest that he isn't. The level is meaningless - not because he isn't working hard but because the system is flawed. You look at Sean and you foresee a year of unpicking what he does and doesn't know, rather than getting on with teaching him.

This situation has been common in many schools, often applying to numerous pupils in a class. But now that levels have gone, things should be different.

Imagine the paper doesn't state a level but instead presents a detailed grid of exactly what Sean is supposed to know by this stage of school and exactly what he does know. How much more effective can you now be as his teacher? And how much better is this situation for Sean?

This is what we are aiming to create at our school, and we have the Department for Education to thank for deciding to get rid of levels. As in all schools, this spurred us to look at how we structured the assessment of attainment. And the solution we are developing has even greater potential - hopefully, it can encompass our primary feeder schools, too.

Anchored to the curriculum

When DfE guidance explained that levels had been removed to give teachers "greater flexibility", we set about designing a system to suit our learners' needs. We recognised that the greatest school systems in the world do not reduce pupils' ability to a level or grade but instead provide a detailed description of what they can and cannot do in any given discipline.

So how could we develop an approach that accomplished this while at the same time working with whole-school reporting and tracking systems?

We started with the achievements of our pupils and set an ambitious target beyond the limitations of the A* grade at GCSE. We then discussed the knowledge and skills someone achieving this target would need to possess.

Working backwards, we identified a series of 90 "mastery points" in each subject, which were anchored to the national curriculum and the 9-1 grading system for the new GCSEs, which will be taught from September.

In English, for example, by Year 7 a child might master being able to sustain an appropriate tone and style throughout a piece of writing. By Year 9, they might be able to experiment with rules, conventions, form and style to achieve an intended effect. Their mastery moves from being able to produce writing that is appropriate to producing writing that is experimental and deliberately crafted for effect.

Similarly, there will be pupils in Year 9 whose knowledge of genre and skill as a writer are still not secure. They will need to revisit earlier learning to master concepts fully.

How it works in practice

In this new system, pupils will be able to work towards mastering key skills and knowledge rather than achieving a level. So instead of a teacher assigning a generic "4b" grading for a piece of work, they will look for evidence of knowledge and skills, and map those on to the mastery framework. Once the student shows the required skill or knowledge base in a number of pieces of work over a period of time, the mastery point will be recorded as being met.

In this way, teachers will have absolute clarity about what students can do. From a curriculum design perspective, it also offers huge potential: teachers and heads of department will be able to identify which topics and skills their classes have mastered and which areas require further input.

Interventions can become far more precise and teachers can take the opportunity to work with individuals or groups who are missing key skills or have gaps in their knowledge.

Pupils will also benefit from more effective reports, which will consist of a rich, qualitative description of recent progress and next steps, rather than a reductive statistical construct.

Although Assessing Pupils' Progress and progression maps had begun to address the limitations of the national curriculum levels, allowing pupils to be assessed across a whole range of refined areas (spelling, sentence construction and so on), the focus was still always on the overall level achieved rather than the skills mastered. But now that our school's focus is on mastery, the information we record on progress will have a similar emphasis.

Of course, the creation of such a radically different system provides a workload challenge, and we recognise the necessity of investing significant professional learning time in this endeavour - we will build collaborative assessment into next year's calendar.

We are also allocating time for assessing pupils' baseline understanding when they join the school, as well as building in opportunities for regularly reviewing their progress.

Some colleagues were understandably tentative at first, but once our department teams began the task of producing their "mastery statements", something unexpected happened: arguments broke out. Passionate, intense, brilliant arguments about what truly mattered in mastering particular subjects' content.

Is using a semicolon with accuracy more important than properly embedding a quotation? Must core PE be linked to mastery of GCSE criteria? Should mastery in design and technology be connected to the 9-1 GCSEs or post-Wolf review technical awards?

The task may be challenging and frustrating at times but it is also utterly enthralling and stimulating. It is giving our staff the opportunity to use their specialist subject knowledge to write their own definitions of "mastery", rather than passively receiving yet another agenda from outside the profession.

A `flight path' of learning

And there is another exciting benefit, too. We knew we had a unique opportunity to extend the reach of our assessment reform still further. A coherent, logical and tangible "map" of progression from Year 7 to mastery beyond A* at GCSE had started to emerge, which prompted us to ask a more ambitious question: is it possible to create a meaningful "flight path" of learning progression from early years to key stage 4?

We shared our initial work on mastery with the headteachers of junior and infant schools in our cluster, posing this very question. We now have a shared excitement about embracing this opportunity to collaborate and create an information-rich method of assessing progress that will help to solve a number of key transition issues, as well as providing a more seamless progression through education.

Initially, this collaboration was to be in English and maths only, but we are now looking at how we can improve the way we assess, monitor and share other non-academic but equally important information, such as the development of learning behaviours and personal and social skills.

Our IT team is currently developing an electronic recording system. We will start the new academic year tracking the assessment of pupils on our own matrix devised by our own experts. Once we have got it up and running, we hope that the primary schools in our cluster will be able to move away from market-wide solutions towards a bespoke, flexible, data-tracking tool.

There has long been a need for a more qualitative system of assessing pupils' achievements - one that can be shared between teachers, schools, pupils and parents. If we are successful in this development, at every stage of schooling, from Reception to Year 11, teachers in our cluster schools will be confident about how to plan lessons that form significant steps on a child's journey towards mastery.

Aislynn Matthias is leader of English and maths transition at Bay House School and Sixth Form in Gosport. Find her on Twitter at @aislynnmatthias. Nigel Matthias is deputy headteacher. Find him on Twitter at @matthiasenglish

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