I feel like a butterfly: finally free. No more wriggling around eating nothing but green leaves. (Or, one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake and one slice of watermelon…if you’re a very hungry progressive caterpillar.) No longer am I constricted by a cocoon of my own making. I have stretched out my wings and I now fly unfettered.
I put this new sense of liberation down to two key things:
- Life after levels.
- The new curriculum.
Life after levels has been an absolute gift to the education profession. I’ll admit, I had my doubts at first, but on reflection, I think it may well be the saviour of ‘professionalism’ within the education community. The reason for this is that it has allowed us to think deeply about what assessment really is. What’s more, we’ve been allowed to think about it at a time when no one knows any more about it than we do.
I began my own level-less journey by immediately buying an assessment tracking system and implementing it across the whole school. Cue endless staff meetings with me saying things like ‘…and when you’ve triple clicked on the appropriate statement this will give you an indication as to what level, sorry, I mean ‘assessment step’ the children are currently performing at.’ I would meet with governors and reassure them that we would still have accurate progress data, broken down by groups of pupils, that we could analyse in order to hold teachers to account for ensuring their pupils were making expected progress towards an end of key stage assessment that no one knew anything about yet.
Me: So, our Year 6 boys have made 18 steps progress in maths.
Governor: Does that mean they’ll pass the test?
Me: No idea.
Governor: Good job.
Pretty quickly, I began to see that trying to equate successful teaching and learning based on ‘rates of progress’ was a farcical endeavour. And yet, I still found it hard to quit. I used to smoke, a lot, for over ten years and one day quit without any trouble. But I couldn’t kick my addiction to colourfully printed progress reports. The trouble was, they were no longer getting me high. In fact, they were getting me down because, as each term passed, we seemed to be getting further and further away from the ‘expected’ linear journey of progress that I was used to seeing. And yet, I knew the quality of teaching was great. I knew that the children were learning, consolidating, applying, and testing out their knowledge in ways that outstripped the state of things three or four years ago. So why weren’t my data packs showing that?
The answer was the new curriculum. In the olden days, children were pushed through the curriculum. Progress was something that everyone could do more of. Regardless of age and ability, you could do better and you could make more progress than you ever had before. And even when we thought we knew what we aiming for, someone smashed through that glass ceiling and made us realise that children should be aiming for ‘Level 6’. Under the old curriculum, and the old assessment system, the sky was the limit.
But that’s all changed. There is a limit. Yes, the expectations are incredibly high, but we are no longer teaching a ‘progress’ curriculum; we are teaching a ‘knowledge’ curriculum. And as such, there is no infinity when it comes to how much progress can be made. Children now hit their head on a glass ceiling and, instead of being told to head-butt it until it smashes allowing them to go to the next level, they are invited to spend time exploring what it’s like up there. This has been dubbed ‘mastery’. I never thought I would say this, but, I quite like the glass ceiling. I like the move away from vertical progress. I think the opportunity to play around with the highest level of knowledge you currently have – challenging it, stretching it, strengthening your understanding of it – is rather liberating.
We have been given patience. We can take our time. We don’t have to rush. And that means that progress data, for some children, is irrelevant. They won’t technically be moving on; the little bar charts that they represent will not shoot upwards. Instead they will grow outward: strong, chubby little bars, getting fat on consolidation until they move to their next class. Of course, getting children to that glass ceiling is no mean feat in the first place. And, let’s be honest, some children’s heads will not so much as brush the ceiling before it’s time for them to move on. But, the endless race without a finishing line is over.
So we don’t fret over the termly progress graphs. We don’t hold teachers to account over nonsensical data. Assessment, at the ground level, is no longer data driven. It is a complex beast that requires nuance – on the part of the teacher – and trust – on the part of senior leaders – if it is to make a difference to children’s achievement. Data-chasers are a dying breed. It’s not about pace of progress anymore, it’s about appropriate and purposeful teaching. This is much harder to judge whilst sitting on a high horse looking down at attainment trackers and progress targets. In fact, the only way to really see how things are working is to, well, see how things are working. Observe the learning, listen to teachers and children, engage in a professional dialogue about what is working, care about everyone’s best interests, and invest in trying to make things better.
Once you do this, you start to see the ridiculousness of splitting up children’s achievement into tiny incremental scores. You will begin to loathe the formulas that dictate illogical and petty reasons for determining why child A is a better writer than child B. You will begin to tire of tedious systems and policy that benefit the monitors over the practitioners. You will become more cynical of people who claim to know more about education than you. You will appreciate the work that goes on in your school. You will have more knowledge about your school than any other document could possibly contain. You will no longer feel it necessary to put in place anything that does not benefit the children or staff in your school because you are too invested in making things better.
And then, my friends, you will be a butterfly.