Assessment. Now there's a contentious word. During my early years as a head, well before computers or the national curriculum, I evolved a system for evaluating children's work at our school that was quick, easy and seemed to work rather well.
The standards in the school were pretty low, but there was little guidance for teachers in those days on what "working class" children could, or should, be expected to achieve. A few of the teachers thought the children were doing well if they could write their names correctly.
Throughout my first year I often used school assemblies to show examples of excellent work, to give the children - and teachers - reminders of the standard I wanted. I spent much time in classrooms, not monitoring aggressively but simply encouraging and coaxing, and often teaching classes myself to show what could be produced. At the end of that year, I collected books, topic work and folders in a range of curriculum areas from the three most able children in every class, and I put them in display boxes in my room for teachers and children to explore. It was a fascinating exercise. The work from one very able Year 4 pupil outshone that of the top class, and progression from year to year seemed erratic, to say the least.
Over the next six years, as standards steadily climbed, the work collections proved extremely useful. Teachers learned what they were aiming for at the end of each primary year, and the books provided a quality benchmark. At staff meetings, we discussed the work, argued about it, came to decisions about how we should mark and assess it. Because the system was simple, it left everybody with bags of time to do what they were employed to do: teach the children.
Sadly, these days that system would probably seem arbitrary. Computers enable us to gather masses of data on every child and most senior managers insist their teachers spend many hours doing just that, even if the teachers are perfectly well aware of what Charlie needs to do next to improve his sentence structure. Data co-ordinators spend days collating, tracking, investigating trends and then printing it all out in line graph and colourful block format.
A school improvement partner - or SIP - inspects it all and asks why Cynthia has slipped to a 2b and what you intend to do about it. She doesn't show any interest in actually meeting Cynthia, of course, or want to listen to the human reasons behind Cynthia's modest slippage. Cynthia is a speck on the graph, among all the other specks. Recently, I've watched two parallel class teachers, masters at their trade, levelling writing and taking 40 minutes per child ... simply because the local education authority moderator was due to visit, and they were nervous.
We've gone so far into this bottomless barrel that many teachers spend half their waking hours recording data and studying graphs before resorting to worksheets because they don't have time to prepare a proper, exciting lesson. Senior managers no longer teach, they moderate. Even in my own school, where we avoid this sort of thing like swine flu, we spent three recent staff meetings on assessment because we've bought a new data handling programme, and quickly became bogged down in irrelevant detail until we made a really determined effort to see the wood for the trees.
This obsession with data doesn't raise standards. It's to keep Ofsted, SIPs, the government and the local authority off our backs. Standards are raised by exciting, inventive teachers who have the freedom and time to inspire youngsters.
Which gives me a sneaking suspicion that my work collection system isn't so outdated after all.
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: email@example.com.