Assessment should be viewed as a means of enabling excellent teaching, as opposed to becoming a weapon in an accountability war.
Recently, together with our inclusion leader, I attended progress meetings with each of our class teachers. We set aside time to talk about the children’s progress. In preparation for the meeting, teachers updated their assessment files and in some cases copied examples of writing.
I prepared a class record sheet that included details such as date of birth, home language, pupil premium status and additional needs, and then left a large space for written comments.
Progress meetings have become standard in many schools, but what ensued was not a conversation about tracking or future test scores. As we sat down to talk about each child, it occurred to me that what was taking place was not a “progress” meeting in the limited sense – which the term has come to mean – but instead a pedagogical conversation about each child’s learning.
As a headteacher, my role is to ensure the highest-quality learning experience for every child and the best possible teaching experience for every adult. As I settled down with Year 1 teacher Emma to discuss each of her pupils, for example, we talked about the transition from upper foundation, friendships, growing independence, and children’s capacity to listen and engage in dialogue. I was keen to ensure that every child was emotionally secure and able to learn.
We looked at each child’s developing writing skill and discussed the books that they were reading, and Emma described the lessons she had been teaching and how children responded.
There were times in the conversation when we would stop and puzzle over a particular child. Emma commented: “Hmmm, I’m quite worried about Greta…” This followed on with a description of the things that Greta was finding difficult to learn. We discussed how we could all find a way to help Greta to overcome some of her challenges in learning.
We talked about how we could provide additional practical resources, how we could develop strategies to help her explain her thinking, how we could observe her play and her independent learning during a lesson. In short, instead of the teacher using the child’s additional needs as a summary response (or worse as an excuse), she was enthused and supported in a discussion about how we could all discover more about Greta, to help her. We had conversations about other children, some of whom were reading and writing fluently. How could we make sure that we were maintaining each child’s interest?
What about Jonny, whose father regularly visits the classroom after school to ask for updates? How could we reassure him further? What kind of problem-solving activities could we offer Elise, who already knows her multiplication tables? How could we support Lin to voice his opinions?
Trust was the underlying factor that enabled each meeting to become a sharing of pedagogical expertise. If I had seen my job as one of holding each teacher to account for their performance, the conversation would have started and finished with a data sheet. Tracking is not assessment, progress is not linear and teaching is not easy. Instead of focusing on tracking, which we simply use as a background metric, we engaged in a professional conversation to build knowledge about how to inspire future learning.
This alternative experience of a “progress meeting” offers so much more, as it provides a genuine, open opportunity to develop insight and expert knowledge about each child. Without doubt, Greta deserves better than to be summed up by a number.