Don’t lose track of what has a positive impact on learning

23rd February 2018 at 00:00
Many tracking systems are meant to improve schools, but instead their demands lead to teachers leaving

I recently visited a primary school that was keen to develop a new approach to tracking. They wanted teachers to track against learning objectives and grade according to each pupil’s security in meeting them.

“How many objectives?” I asked.

“Around 50 per subject.”

“And how many times per year will teachers assess these objectives?”

“Every half-term.”

That meant assessing 50 objectives for 30 pupils in three subjects, six times per year. I fired up the calculator on my phone. “That’s 27,000 assessments.”

The headteacher turned pale.

This incident is a synthesis of conversations I have in primary schools every week – and it’s deeply worrying. Senior leaders are setting up tracking systems that place huge demands on teachers’ time for no discernible benefit other than generating numbers.

Of course, senior leaders aren’t doing this just to keep themselves happy: they’re reacting to the external demands of governors, local authorities and multi-academy trusts, among others.

Teachers 'at breaking point'

I have deliberately missed Ofsted from this list because it is much less of an issue. Ofsted has stated on numerous occasions that it is not looking for data in any particular format. This is right there in the myth-busting section of the school inspection handbook, in the school inspection updates and in Sean Harford’s excellent short video on YouTube (

But despite this advice, the problem persists. Teachers are burdened by the demands of assessment and many are at breaking point. In the last year, I have spoken to a number of teachers who cite assessment and data collection as factors in their decision to find another job. The irony of putting processes in place, ostensibly for the purposes of school improvement, which result in teachers leaving, is sadly lost on too many people.

You can ask teachers to track every learning objective, have six “data drops” per year and expect the numbers to go up every time, but none of these things will improve a school. It is highly likely that they will have the opposite effect.

Schools need to design their approach to assessment as a unit. This means involving teachers in the decisions. Have an honest conversation and go through your processes together, asking one simple question: does this have a positive impact on learning?

Assessment is about checking if pupils have understood what has been taught. It is not about generating numbers for external agencies. Get that right, and the results should take care of themselves.

James Pembroke founded Sig+, a school data consultancy, after 10 years working with the Learning and Skills Council and local authorities.

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