Measuring pupil progress needs the personal touch

7th September 2012 at 01:00
Labelling children's levels in Curriculum for Excellence falls short as a measure of their personal development

As schools formalise their assessment procedures for Curriculum for Excellence, the new curriculum's success in tackling the underachievers in Scottish education will hang on the importance given to the nature of assessing and sharing the outcomes of experiences.

It is important to have a clear view of the centrality of the four capacities as the important outcomes desired for young people within CfE, as they have wide and deep implications for the ethos of the school experience.

On a recent train to Inverness, I could not help but notice a mother with a toddler spending the journey time together. For the full three hours the two were engaged in a variety of activities, involving stories, sticker books, play (within the confines of the compartment and respecting other passengers' space), and collaborative interactions about mood, food, and sleep. The long journey ended with the youngster insisting on rendering his version of a plethora of nursery rhymes, as the train raced down the brae to Inverness.

Here was a "bright" wee boy, whose learning and interactions were lovingly stimulated by his mum. How much would school assessment activities in later years merely formalise aspects of this rich background?

We have known for many years about the critical, educational and social benefits of adult interaction with children. Recently we have seen a wealth of new information on human understanding of the way the brain develops and grows. This knowledge testifies to the complexity and interaction of experience and genetic disposition, to environments, human relationships, including therapy, which impact on motivation, resilience and self-awareness.

In comparison, the dull models of grading and labelling of levels (associated with 5-14, and now, in some areas, at risk of being re- engineered into CfE) serve too frequently to satisfy a need for the education establishment to feel in control of progress, even though these outcomes are heavily influenced by the background of the pupils.

The four capacities are central to CfE, and raise the eyes up from the everyday classroom practice of developing skills etc. While skills are crucial, we should be shifting prime emphasis on to the holistic experience of school and how that develops the person, to give them the right to be considered equal and treated with respect for their individuality. Consider the inane exercise of placing those with severe additional needs on levels.

Often the four capacities seemed to have been tagged on to reporting formats as merely new sections to be filled in, and it is a worry that some schools may not fully appreciate the sense and depth of the nature of personal development.

There will be some who wish to unpack the capacities and create criteria for each level, but this is an unhelpfully mechanistic and restricting response. Primarily, we need to rediscover words and sensitivity to the growth of young people, and to see how experiences within the school nurture the values of personal development and personality. These are the universal drivers of motivation, self-discipline, perseverance, self- awareness and resilience whose outcomes are seen in the four capacities.

During my role as an associate tutor for postgraduate teaching students, I recall visiting a 23-year-old sociology student on her first placement in school. She was in her third week of student teaching, so had had at the maximum 12 days within a classroom environment.

As I observed her lead her Primary 4 class, I noticed that she had made observations of each one of her pupils: a short paragraph about each, in terms of interests and personality. I saw in her early teaching style, the value she placed on the individual, and how the pupils responded. It was as if she had known them for years. The pupils felt secure in knowing an adult knew them. There was the rapport I saw between mother and child on the train.

We also know, from our own experience, how a colleague or friend can inspire and motivate us, by giving personal, positive, supportive and sometimes critical feedback. This is the key to coaching. We know that when young people have engaged in a therapeutic relationship, there is development of the brain networks.

Too many of our pupils do not get this interaction at home or in school. Frequently, our assessments are driven by the ridiculous labelling of children by performance and level, and now teasing out whether someone is "secure" or "consolidating". Are our disenfranchised children and young people motivated by being labelled? Such an approach is more likely to dull their aspirations and overlook their individuality.

To quote from the CfE "Purpose of the Curriculum": "The experiences and outcomes for each curriculum area build in the attributes and capabilities which support the development of the four capacities. This means that, taken together across curriculum areas, the experiences and outcomes contribute to the attributes and capabilities leading to the four capacities."

So to focus our approach on the nurturing and development of all young people, we need to disengage from the absurd assessment of progress through levels, and to see the school and learning experiences as appropriate sources of personal development and learning, which provoke dialogue, engagement, and consideration of deeper inclinations and aptitudes.

Euan Mackie is a former headteacher, now North Area Officer for the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS).

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