On page 14, Friday columnist and author of The Motivated Mind Dr Raj Persaud tells how he questioned his marks at school; parent Brian Smith wishes teachers had shown more interest; and 15-year-old south London pupil Kelvin Omonfomah says he doesn't mind being shown his mistakes - as long as teachers also show him how he can improve.
As a former manager for Sainsbury's, Jonathan Knowler understands the importance of hitting targets. It's all very well knowing what the targets are, but in a fiercely competitive retail market, staff need to know how to meet them. It's the knowing how that counts in productivity. So it is with schooling. There's nothing more motivating for students than having a clear idea of how to reach a desired goal. Jonathan Knowler ditched Sainsbury's for teaching 15 years ago. He is now head of business and vocational education at Framwellgate school, Durham.
During his own school days he was mystified. "I never knew why teachers gave me the marks they did. I never really knew what 18 out of 20 meant, so I never felt in control of what I was doing. It seems ridiculous to let students undertake hours and hours of work and then assess them in a way that seems arbitrary, using criteria they are not party to." If students get a poor mark without understanding why, they will feel demoralised, he says. If they get a good mark but have not been told exactly how they've met the criteria, they may not be able to repeat the standard. "Students should know from the very beginning, before they even start researching a project, what they have to do, where they have to go, to achieve the top grade."
Framwellgate is a 1,250-strong secondary in a largely suburban catchment of Durham, judged in a recent Ofsted inspection as outstanding in its overall effectiveness. Headteacher Joan Sjovoll arrived five years ago with the desire to establish a learning culture for both staff and students at the top of her agenda. GCSE results have since moved from a comfortable 60 per cent to 77 per cent of children getting five A-C passes, most gaining at least two grades above what is expected of them when they enter the school at 11.
Mrs Sjovoll immediately started playing to staff strengths, encouraging teachers to provide their own in-service training, to research and lead on their own interests. Framwellgate has now built up a directory of around 100 internally generated courses, which staff must commit to for about 10 hours a year.
Jonathan Knowler has become the king of assessment for learning, having devised a framework which now sits on every teacher's desk. He created it as part of his work for his NPQH qualification, but at heart it incorporates his fundamental belief that assessment is a process that, from the outset, must be shared between teachers and students.
During a class on retail he puts this principle into practice. He is teaching a small group of academically weak students, who have nevertheless stayed on for the sixth form to develop their vocational education. They begin with a quick refresher on the interactive whiteboard, unscrambling anagrams of key words learnt in the previous session, and move on to look at the business of warehousing, taking in equipment effectiveness and health and safety regulations. Mr Knowler goes through some of the main processes and then displays a piece of work on the subject which the students themselves have to assess by discussing in groups whether it has covered all the key issues. He then leads the discussion. How many questions were fully answered in that piece of work? And why?
His aim is for the students to understand fully the assessment criteria.
"It's about getting them to self-evaluate as a matter of course, helping them understand what they are good at, what they need to do to improve.
These are skills for life, certainly skills they will need in the world of work."
As a final activity, he starts students off on making health and safety posters. Sam (not his real name), who has ADHD but who has managed to make focused comments so far, becomes even more animated and brings out a pile of photos he has taken of different transport distribution methods, cutting them up for the poster. Mr Knowler believes that as well as making assessment central to the learning process, teachers must also know their students and their interests. "I know what motivates Sam, and that's anything to do with trains, so I try to link projects with his aspiration to become a train driver as much as possible. He can be articulate and give good answers if you can keep him on side. Teaching is about interaction.
For pupils, self-evaluation and being able to evaluate others has to be part of that."
As head of business and vocational education, Mr Knowler takes in many of the less academically able as well as the most able students. But he applies the same principles of active learning and the modelling of success criteria to all. "My A-level economics students are studying unemployment so I'm going through the basics of how it's measured, etc, but I've also given some the task of going down to the job centre to interview staff about the sorts of people currently unemployed, and others to go into a company and ask managers about their recruitment policies and what they are looking for in an employed worker.
"I'm saying to able students, 'Here is some reading, here are some internet references, here are additional sources you can explore. This is the success criteria, take it as far as you want'. Those students achieve a high degree of self-supported learning, far more powerful than me standing and dictating to them hour after hour. My students know they are getting a good deal from me because they understand the relevance of their learning, they can see progress and that raises achievement."
Indeed, Framwellgate is going to great lengths to demystify the assessment process. A group of teachers has worked on producing child-friendly assessment criteria, decoding examination jargon so students can absorb it easily into their own learning. Students also work with teachers to set their own targets. "At the end of every term I discuss with them the grade they are working at and what they need to do to move that on," says Mr Knowler. "That target then goes home to parents, but there are no surprises for students. They know why we have arrived at a grade and a target, and the next steps they have to take to improve on that. I don't see the point of merely handing out work covered in red ink. I seek to iron out issues with students before they make the mistakes."
Joan Sjovoll has sought to empower students further in evaluation skills.
In partnership with Newcastle University's school of education, Framwellgate is training pupils to be researchers so they can ask other pupils about their attitudes towards teachers' classroom practice. The Children Act recommends that students should be consulted on their opinions about the quality of education in school, and Mrs Sjovoll believes they should be able to articulate views in a "very focused way" and with agreed criteria "rather than making judgments about what we do from gut reaction".
Children, she says, should also be empowered to judge each other's work according to strict criteria.
"They need to be able to say, 'This is a nice piece of homework because of this, this and this'. It's the 'because' bits that matter. We seek to give them the language to talk about learning so they are fully engaged, not just passive receivers. We have refocused our activity as a school on what the children are doing and thinking. As a result we are seeing incredible motivation from the children who are the most challenging."
Mike Hughes, a former teacher who is now a full-time trainer and author specialising in motivation, says that a key ingredient in assessment for learning is pupils having a sense of hope. "They must have a sense they are making progress; that things can get better; that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Otherwise they are likely to give up the ghost.
"Assessment should be formative, not summative; it should tell you what you need to do, not sign off what you have done. Bland remarks at the bottom of a piece of work such as 'good work' or 'good effort' are no help at all."