Category Archives: Assessment

If Teachers Want Confident Pupils They Should Teach Them to Communicate Well

The Sutton Trust report ‘Life Lessons, Improving essential life skills for young people’ (Oct 2017) makes interesting reading. There is much to discuss within its pages. One of the things that stood out for me is the need to teach written and spoken communication ‘skills’* including debate, argument, speech and the art of conversation.

When asked to rank motivation, communication, confidence, self control, ability to cope with stress into a rank order employers put motivation first, closely followed by communication ‘skills’ whereas teachers put a great deal of emphasis on confidence with communication ‘skills’ way behind in third place.

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In the Oxford English Dictionary confidence is described as:

A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.

This implies that confidence arises from something rather than being a prerequisite for something. It is a quality gained from experience. It is not the same as self-esteem or arrogance, confidence can only come from a place in which one has experienced something and knows one can cope. Confidence comes from knowing one can do. Confidence that one can take a further step is due to having the prerequisite ability and knowledge  so that a risk is worth taking – that everything is in place for them so to do.

Why did the teachers surveyed rate confidence so highly and the employers much less so? Maybe the term is meaningless as it can have a wide interpretation as to what it means in practice. But if we put this doubt to one side I feel there might be something worrying about the disparity between the two. Maybe the employers feel that someone who can communicate well can move into a new area (i.e. a job) learn about it and be able to communicate with their colleagues and customers effectively growing in confidence as they learn more. Whereas the teachers feel it is confident children who are more able to learn new stuff.

Yet we have already seen confidence comes from learning rather than the other way round.

And some of the areas of knowledge teachers can teach children successfully is how to communicate eloquently and beautifully. I would be much happier if the graph showed the majority of teachers rating communication above confidence. Way above confidence. Because teachers can teach rhetoric, the whys and wherefores of debate and the knowledge necessary for a pupil to know what they are talking about. Teachers can teach knowledge and get their pupils to really grapple with that knowledge through argument and conversation. And through this children’s appreciation in their abilities will grow. In other words they will become more confident because of good teaching.

The urgency comes in with the realisation that there is a social justice angle to this.

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70% of the least disadvantaged get access to debating, whereas this falls to just over 30% for the most disadvantaged. Importantly, this is about the provision, it doesn’t reflect the take up. The Sutton Trust estimate that:

Young people in the most disadvantaged schools are 13 percentage points more likely to not be involved in any extra-curricular activities than the least disadvantaged schools (45% compared to 32%).

And that take up in schools for extra curricular activities is difficult to judge accurately in the first place. They also suggest that pupils in ‘disadvantaged schools’ are less likely to debate in class and learn how to make speeches and, indeed, write those speeches. And yet it is by learning these essential academic skills that pupils can grow in confidence. Confidence – the life ‘skill’ that, apparently, teachers most value.

Wouldn’t it be great if pupils in ‘disadvantaged’ schools had access to the full range of academic opportunities that come from learning how to communicate their learning effectively?

The spoken word is one of the ways teachers can assess the quality of learning easily and efficiently. It would be a shame if another gap between rich and poor is one of eloquence and whether a pupil is able or unable to join in with the great conversations of our time with confidence.


*I use the word ‘skills’ advisedly in the context of the report calling them ‘skills’. One could argue that the art of communication is about knowing what and how. For e.g. one can learn the art of rhetoric – it is a body of knowledge.

The Problem With Austin’s Butterfly



Ron Berger’s famous ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ is a great lesson about how redrafting and feedback can help a child create a more accurate ‘scientific’ drawing of a butterfly. In the context of the task picture six is clearly the ‘best’ depiction of the butterfly.

If one removes the context and no longer looks for accuracy and, instead, tries to judge the drawing on its own merits – art for its own sake, which drawings are the ‘best’? I would argue that, artistically, one and four are the ‘best’.

How about these three Turner’s, which is ‘the best’?



In terms of ‘accuracy’ maybe the first one, but the third, of a fire at the Tower of London, in 1841, a watercolour ‘sketch’, has an immediacy of response that might represent a different sort of ‘accuracy’, that of the artist responding to a moment in time in a way that captures something of the event beyond an accurate depiction of it. In fact, for many years, this was thought to be a painting of the fire in 1834 at the Houses of Parliament, does this mean the picture is not as good as it should be? Well, it was only a sketch but it did help Turner in developing his Art. This, from 1844, is a finished work:


The art teacher has to rely on knowledge and intuition to decide what is ‘best’, sometimes this is not so easy, especially in a lesson where Austin has already drawn the best butterfly in the first five minutes.

Paul McCartney ‘dreamt’ Yesterday, and remembered it the next morning, quickly working out the right chords, but always thinking in the back of his mind that somebody else must have written it and he remembered it because it came to him so easily. Had a teacher overworked the tune with my ‘imaginary Paul as a music pupil’ who had come up with that tune – saying it needs redrafting, it might have ruined the tune. A lesson which has a given amount of time is often too short for work to be completed. Sometimes it is too long. What to do with those minutes if a child has already created a great piece?

Well, Paul, had to work on the lyrics, ‘scrambled eggs’ was not as good as ‘yesterday’…

But arts teachers need to think what happens if a pupil comes up with perfection straight away? I mustn’t ruin it and I need to feed their aesthetic judgement and taste to ‘know’ when good is good. How do we teach a child to ‘know’ when something is good…

And not, merely, accurate?


You Can’t Teach the Best That Has Been Thought and Said

Here are the slides in PDF format from my talk at the Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College on 22nd June 2017:

You Can’t Teach The Best That Has Been Thought and Said

Results Day Failure


37 years ago today, or thereabouts I received my results for O levels and CSEs. I collected my envelopes and went away on my own, knowing that I wouldn’t have done very well. One of the worst things about failing is being around success, good to escape it. I looked at my results, I’d achieved an O level equivalent in Maths CSE, though not achieved it in O level… I passed O levels in Physics, Geography and English Lit and failed all the others… I had 4 O levels to my name.


I retook English Language and History the following Autumn getting an A and a B respectively and I also reinforced my D in Art.

6 O levels to my name, in two sittings. No smiling pics of me clutching certificates…

By December I had left secondary school ‘by mutual consent’ and the chip on my shoulder has accompanied me ever since.

It wasn’t exams I failed, it was school. I didn’t apply myself and the school did little to truly educate me. The school worked for some, failed others, and for many in our cohort in 1979 there were worse stories than mine, that there were also better ones points at my responsibility to see myself through. Nowadays people call this needing grit, then I was simply lazy.

Looking back I can see what the school could have done for me that would have enabled me a fair shot at passing more than I did. For myself, I could have worked, I didn’t… I was extremely cynical about my school, the schooling and the whole point. Loud, argumentative, I was probably ‘difficult to teach’, and it is this that would prove in the years to come an asset when in a round about way I found myself back in the classroom as a teacher, vowing to be the teacher I needed when I was at school.

Those who celebrate failure as a precursor to success, seem to do it with alarming self-assuredness. Whether it be Jeremy Clarkson boasting about how he didn’t need his exams to become a rich celebrity or a teacher on twitter encouraging growth mindset, it seems as if failure is a virtue; it isn’t.

For all the pictures of successful students jumping into the air with big smiles on their faces, there are many more skulking away in the background, it might be because they were taught badly, have behavioural issues, are lazy, are not academic, whatever the reason, it still hurts.

“So what,” I’d say, “I don’t care…” and I got more and more bitter…

Exam results do matter but a good education matters more. No-one dragged me through exams, which I am thankful for, but on the way no-one really spotted I could be taught well either. What to do with the kids who won’t learn unless you teach them well?

Great teaching requires a teacher to instil discipline, focus, ensure great content, a curriculum that connects, the use of argument and challenging ideas, teachers should teach pupils how to write, speak and debate, and yes, they need to be passionate about what they are teaching too…

Ultimately  the responsibility for good results should lie with the child and not the school. Teachers should make sure their pupils know this and provide them with the knowledge and the tools by which children can ensure they do their best. If a child is dragged through tests and exams they will have no idea what real failure looks like until it hits them hard when they least expect it. If a child is let down by a school they will always have someone else to blame.

At least I expected to fail.

I still do; this is no bad thing, but it doesn’t ever feel like one step nearer to success. It won’t if I can still blame the school rather than thinking about my own responsibility towards my failure.

Two is Good, Four is Better: On Inter-Subject Comparability.


What’s in a number?

In the old days it was all As, Bs, Cs, Ds… Now we have the 1 to 9 but it really doesn’t matter what you call it the idea that an A is an A or a 9 is a 9 is sacrosanct. A** or 9 or turn it up to 11, this is the bestest, most excellentest, the brightest…

When you see a report card and it’s all nines except in one subject it’s a six you think, oh dear, not so good at Maths or Art or whatever… but what if that assumption was wrong? Maybe the grade given by the teacher in that subject is a sign that the child is equally brilliant in that subject as the subjects in which the child achieved a 9… or is even more brillianter!!! Ridiculous, you’d say, it is clearly that the child is putting in less effort or is ‘just not cut out for that sort of thing’ but what if your assumption was wrong? What if nobody knew whether a 9 in Art was equal to a 9 in Physics and equal to a 9 in History? And even at GCSE… What if pupils make choices about what A levels to take and they drop a subject because they only got a 7 in it? Two As and a C for Uni not good enough, maybe, maybe not… And what about dropping subjects to take for GCSEs at option time? Let’s say your key stage 3 marking is based on some solid foundation like GCSE grades and a child got a 6 in French so decided not to take it, sensible?

Performance related pay… She always gets great results in Geography, whereas his results in Latin are always a couple of grades lower…

You would have thought all this was based on firm ground. The data doesn’t lie…

But no-one knows whether a 9 in D&T is equal to a 9 in English Literature. This is the issue of Inter-Subject Comparability and if you have ever assumed that the same grade in one subject is equal to that in another you have been mistaken, I repeat, no-one knows.

There is presently no requirement in our regulations for the exam boards to align subjects…

Although thinking has advanced considerably over time, we still see huge disagreements concerning how best to define and conceptualise inter-subject comparability, let alone how best to monitor it, let alone how best to respond to monitoring outcomes…

Ofqual 2015…

If you have a great assessment model in your school do you assume that the same mark in one subject is equal to that in another? If you feel that it is, how do you know? What decisions do you make if you assume all are equal? Should you review how these decisions are made if they are made on the assumption that all is equal?

Some subjects are more equal than others.

Don’t Panic About Tests


‘In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all anymore. I prepare children for tests. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it, but we’ve done it : and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions’  Zoë Brown

Zoe and her fiancé Tim Paramour have both made a big thing of quitting teaching – with articles focussing on their reasons published in ‘The Independent’. Paramour wrote that:

2012 was the turning point. Ofsted’s obsession with results and the threat of no-notice inspections for schools whose test scores dipped engendered a culture of fear. Terrified by the threat of losing their jobs in an academy takeover, headteachers made more absurd demands of their teachers’ spare time.

This is telling, Headteachers are making absurd demands because of the perceived threat. Now I’m not denying that the threat exists but I do wonder if making absurd demands is the right way to deal with it? I have long argued that the accountability regime has lead to a distortion of what constitutes a good education, but by blaming this regime for every bad choice made in a school just adds to the problem rather than highlights it.

In my book, Trivium 21c, the former education minister, Elizabeth Truss, argued that: ‘At the moment exams have two purposes: one is assessing students and one is assessing the school. I think those two purposes need to be separated.’ She was right and if when we test children it is not mainly about assessing them but mainly about assessing the school the situation is exacerbated.

Paramour went on to say:

Got a passion for music? Primary teaching is not for you. Want to inspire children with drama? Go hug a tree. Think children should learn about their local area? Officially that’s fine (it’s on the meaningless, untested part of the curriculum) 

He seems to imply what is not tested is ‘meaningless’ Now this might be dark humour at play but does formal testing excuse a narrowing of the curriculum? Paramour suggests that Ed Balls was an ‘impressive’ Secretary of State and that the Rose review of the primary curriculum was a good thing as it suggested that:

…traditional subject divides be replaced with broader areas of learning and stressed the importance of play, particularly for younger pupils. It promoted the development of good speaking and listening skills and the value of nurturing character traits in young people such as resilience and independence, as well as the clear focus on maths and English that already existed.

It seems to me, from this statement only and not the whole review, that the Rose review could have resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum – drama, in particular, fares badly if subject divides are removed, it becomes lost as it metamorphoses into being a pedagogical tool to study issues and tick ‘speaking and listening’ boxes through role-play. One of the best ways to protect the Arts in education is to have ‘traditional subject divides’.

Brown states in her piece, drawn from this blog, that she has focused on the answering of test questions. I wonder how much this has been done and whether in reaction to the over-bearing accountability measures teachers are focusing too much on the absurd demands driven by their SLT which, in turn, might be an over reaction to the absurd accountability measures? That the reaction is understandable is one thing but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be questioned, how a school reacts to measures can exacerbate the situation.

Take stress, a teacher needn’t pass undue exam stress onto her pupils, and a Headteacher needn’t pass undue stress onto her teachers. People work less well under a lot of stress; by passing it down the chain, each link ceases to function so well. Therefore if a school wants to perform well, they should do a lot to take the pressure off. This is not done by telling children they needn’t be stressed by tests etc. by offering last minute letters signalling ‘DON’T BE STRESSED’, which is the equivalent of Corporal Jones shouting ‘DON’T PANIC‘ it is done by letting the tests come and go with as little rancour as possible. How the tests have been introduced by the DfE and the content of the said tests is open to question but increasing panic throughout the system doesn’t help. How to not panic so much? Well, maybe more testing, low stakes, as part of regular teaching and learning could help.

This excellent piece by Tim Oates points out that our children are not over tested. He writes:

The sense of ‘most assessed’ derives not from the amount of formal testing, but its ‘high stakes’ nature…

adding that pupils:

often fail to distinguish between a formal, required national test, and a timed, ‘quiet’ test devised by the school. To them, it’s all testing

Oates points out that:

Finland, that country which is seen as relaxed, high performing and respectful of teachers, has many more timed, ‘quiet’ tests in primary schooling than we do. Frequently these come from well-designed learning materials and, interestingly, from teachers’ associations. The Finnish State has a history of testing too: tests from the centre, not to all children but to a sample, for the state to make judgements about the quality of schooling in the country. Overall, a high density of formal tests… in Finland – where testing also is far more frequent than in typical primary schools in England – pupils aren’t stressed by the high levels of testing.

Maybe this could offer us a way forward?

The absurd demands that are, it is said, being made by school management can be alleviated through thoughtful curriculum design, for example a ‘joined up curriculum‘ would help enormously. Traditional subject boundaries, especially at ks2 and 3, help protect a broad curriculum offer and, especially, the Arts. We should test more often, we should design better tests and teachers should be at the forefront of the design of these tests. For accountability purposes the state could run sample tests to ascertain overall quality of schooling and, indeed, schools. In the meantime, let’s ditch the absurd ‘don’t panic’ approach that may be adding to the stress our youngsters feel.



When Things Go Mad: The Destructive Power of Ideas

Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation.  Isaiah Berlin
Yesterday I read a post by @teachertoolkit about a measure he employs in his school called ‘book look’. In his blog he wrote that the measure was to check on: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” As my main teaching subject is a practical one I thought I would ask the perfectly reasonable question:

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My thought being that in subjects where much of the feedback, teacher, self and peer assessment is done verbally that instead of demanding those subjects should do unnecessary written work to fit in with the book look system, that the system might bend in a way to recognise the richness of this type of assessment.

Strangely, before I was able to receive an answer, this happened:

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This was an odd diversion. Clearly Paul, who is an Ofsted inspector, had been into Teacher Toolkit’s school and had seen the ‘book look’ in practice, he implies here that he likes it. He also makes a leap from my tweet to imply that I meant practical subjects don’t mark. No matter, I had a right of reply:


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And I expected it to be left there, after all, I was asking a question to which I hadn’t received an answer. My ulterior motive is to avoid subjects with a large practical component having to write everything down – where currently they are more effective by not having to log everything.

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Now Paul has begun to question my understanding of ‘practical subjects’ – I have taught drama for twenty-five years, so this certainly ‘bristled’ with me. All I can think is that Paul is deliberately misunderstanding me because I’m asking about the practical component of practical subjects.

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I know they all do written work. I am waiting for an answer from Mr. Toolkit about how they approach practical subjects, in other words do they want ‘everything’ logged in written form?

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This is where things went mad and we went into meltdown. I had spent the day leading a course on the new exam specs for drama so Paul’s comment that I need to look at the exam specs was particularly hilarious.

The meltdown:

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From this point the whole discussion went even further down hill, it is on twitter for those you who wish to see a spat about ‘you said this’, ‘you said that’.

There is something far more important going on here, the original book look idea is a bureaucrat’s dream but it falls apart when faced with practical subjects. Either it means that subjects with a sizeable practical  component will be asked to do more, unnecessary, writing or the system that has been brought in will miss the feedback given verbally and understood physically in, say, drama and PE.  Will this result in teachers at the school putting too much emphasis on written feedback and ignoring the richness of other ways of teaching and assessing?

Paul Garvey clearly thought I had no idea what I was talking about and the best I can think of him is that he misunderstood the nuance of my question. He seems to have a huge vested interest in ‘book look’. As a consultant he had visited Teacher Toolkit’s school and, as mentioned above:

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has given ‘book look’ his blessing. As an Ofsted inspector his word carries power, I can see many schools jumping on the book look book check and adapting it for use in their schools. This would be a disaster for practical subjects and, I would venture, for all subjects. Read this excellent blog from Greg Ashman where he examines the thinking behind ‘book look’.

Since I pointed out the problem with practical subjects Teacher Toolkit has removed the bit of the blog where he wrote about checking: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” maybe because it doesn’t work for a large part of the feedback that is done in practical subjects. However, the tool doesn’t cover practical elements.

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The ‘yellow box’ areas don’t help for practical work – how could a ‘diagnosis’ of books pick up the improvement in a girl’s ball skills in football or a boy’s vocal quality in drama unless it is written down? The point is the writing down of these things interrupts the teaching of these things in the subject, slows them down,  and, in all likelihood, lowers the standards of teaching and learning in the practical element of practical subjects. By writing about your practical work, you cease to truly understand it. It would be like teaching a child to walk by insisting she wrote all the stages down, set targets etc. when, in real life, the understanding of how to do these things is quite mysterious to us. Each child is different, they respond, in practical work, to coaching in real time, not to stopping and starting and writing about it.

That this check seems to expect teachers to spend a lot of time giving written feedback, and what is assessed will be what is done, I think the above book checking tool will mean that staff will have to spend more and more effort and time with written work and feedback and reduce the time and the quality of verbal feedback. This excellent blog by Andy Day reflects on how these checks distort education. What a pity  to put all the effort into written feedback especially if verbal feedback is a far more effective method of raising standards.

Ideas nurtured in the stillness of a senior leader’s study could destroy the quality of education in a school. Unnecessary writing of targets etc. is the bane of practical work please stop it happening in schools just so that a leadership team needing something to do can check it and Ofsted inspectors needing to justify their consulting business sidelines can tweet about it. Hopefully the book look tool will ignore practical work and, maybe, ignore books.


Discrimination, Assessment and the Making of the Classroom Culture


“Discrimination: The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex: victims of racial discrimination; Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another: discrimination between right and wrongThe ability to judge what is of high quality; good judgement or taste: those who could afford to buy showed little taste or discrimination.”

Oxford English Dictionary Online.

We need more discrimination in our schools. Discrimination is a necessary component of assessment and the building of a strong, reflective classroom culture. It is the unfortunate consequence of a lack of discrimination that leads pupils to think that their individual ‘opinion’ counts, that if they think or feel something then so be it. “It’s my opinion!” is the get out of jail free card for a moment of challenge from a teacher or fellow pupil who is playing devil’s or, indeed, God’s advocate. If political correctness were to ‘go mad’ and stop children and teachers seeing the importance of discrimination then no useful assessment could take place.

I’m NOT talking about discrimination that results in the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people this type of discrimination is abhorrent and as a result of much argument and struggle over years the vast majority of people in our society agree that it is wrong – this has become part of the ‘sense we make in common’ and laws have been put in place over my lifetime which have been a glorious and notable change to the way we all live. As time continues battles will probably continue and more unjust or prejudicial behaviour will be challenged in all sectors of society and this is to the good but this doesn’t mean discrimination itself is a bad thing because recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another and the ability to judge what is of high quality; good judgement or taste is an essential part of the conversation of the classroom, where we build a ‘sense in common’.

Assessment is, in many cases, subjective, especially in the arts. Assessment is essentially unfair, if by fairness we mean that everything ever said, made, done or thought by anyone is as worthwhile as anything said, made, done or thought by anyone else. Yet we need to embrace this very unfairness in order to understand its intrinsic importance to how we co-exist and make our culture in common.

In his memorable phrase: “We need always to remember that any system of assessment is an attempt to map a mystery with a metaphor,” David Didau uncovers an inherent problem in assessment and that is where we believe our own hype… “You, child, have a target grade of ‘B’ and your rather dishevelled piece of work is a ‘D’ go away and redraft/redo/re-perform it at the required ‘B’ standard…” The teacher as the objective gatekeeper to the highest grade is of no use to anyone apart from petty bureaucrats.

The teacher has an important role to play in the teaching of discrimination and discernment, we need to teach pupils how to judge and judge well. This means that the teacher as ‘expert’ in a domain, in which she stands on the shoulders of giants, needs to initiate children into the tradition of the subject enabling them to get to know what quality has meant in the past and that it was likely to have been a complex history of agreement and disagreement over time. In order for a child to be informed about this history they need to be taught to refrain from making their own judgements too early, until they too have been introduced to the quality of the conversation through time. As pupils become adept at discriminating and judging work based on the tradition, as taught by the teacher, then their opinions should be sought more and also challenged more by the teacher and other members of the class who can then act as critical friends to each other.

Self and peer assessment are sometimes seen as the ‘be all and end all’ of formative assessment but they’re a dangerous idea if they’re used too early and without any guidance as to ‘taste and judgement’. Dangerous? Yes, if any child is able to think that: ‘well, it’s my opinion so it’s all right’ then we are doing them a disservice. If I may bring you back to what I said earlier: good judgement or taste is an essential part of the conversation of the classroom, where we build a ‘sense in common’ and this thoughtful ‘agreement’ or ‘disagreement’ through well argued reasoning is an essential part of a positive scholastic, collegiate, classroom culture.

If we want our children to be fully conversant with the wider culture outside of the classroom we have a wonderful opportunity within the classroom to model how to take part. We need to teach judgement, discernment and discrimination and help children to become sophisticated in the understanding and use of these by opening their eyes to the difficulty and importance of assessment.