Tag Archives: assessment

School Accountability and the entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum

I’ve been a teacher a long time, since 1994 in fact, and over the years, I have been witness to the things that Amanda Spielman, new Ofsted chief, spoke of yesterday – you can read her speech here – a speech which I finally found time to read in the evening, while I was supposed to be watching the telly (I still have no idea, really, what the whole Terminator Mark Million was supposed to be about, and how old is John Connor supposed to be these days, anyway?), and, such is my irritation that I find myself cranking up the laptop on the train, as I whoosh through the early morning countryside on my way to work.

You see, what annoys me is not that the Chief Inspector has noticed that the curriculum (you know, the one that has cost so much money over the years), for a lot of children, is not that thing that we all hoped it would be. It is not a ‘treasure house of riches’ (that’s a quote from the foreword of the latest iteration), but a narrow, dry diet that in my view, and I am sure I am not alone in this, instead of opening up new opportunities and new ideas, widening horizons and just being interesting and, dare I say it, fun, for its own sake, puts children off education and makes school the very last place that they want to be.

For seven years, ever since I stepped away from domesticity and back into my professional life, I have been aware that my expertise in music, in history, in DT, in curriculum planning (yes, I am one of those who are increasingly rare in the system), is not valued. It might help you get a job in the first place, if you happen to get an old-fashioned head teacher reading your application, but in the end, in a today when the ability to play the piano in assembly isn’t valued, because you may as well use the CD so that you can use your assembly time for something much more valuable, I don’t know, like marking, or interventions, or catching up on your emails or whatever other job that teachers find to do in their precious non-contact time and after all, what we mostly teach is maths and English, and what do you know about that?

We know this; this story of narrowing and dryness and maths and English in the morning and again in the afternoon, the lack of access to the arts, to PE, to DT and all the other interesting things there are to learn in school, and which I notice children, my own included, enjoying so much, to such a degree that they chatter about what they have been doing in the evening, over tea, and skip off to school in the morning because looking at their timetable, today is their favourite day, is no longer one that belongs only to teachers (and you can concentrate and multiply this effect for children with SEND – the ‘lower attaining – let’s call it what it is). Parents, politicians, journalists and now inspectors have got wind of it.

I’ve written about it lots of times before, such is my consternation. Here’s a description of my daughter’s recent experience.

But this is not why I am irritated, annoyed enough to sit typing here, worried that my fellow travellers might spill their coffee on my new computer. Working as I do, for an educational charity with a national voice, I have the opportunity, unlike many of my former colleagues, to escape the powerless trap and feel, at least, as if I am doing something about it.

I am cross because of blame. In her speech, the Chief Inspector doesn’t just draw a picture and reassure the profession that she is going to do something about it – that would be a welcome pronouncement. She refuses to take, for the organisation she heads, one jot of responsibility, but instead points the finger of blame at teachers and schools.

Now, I know that schools aren’t perfect. They are human institutions made up of human people who make mistakes, just like me. But I do know this. The actions they take on curriculum, and ensuring that children have access to the things we, as a society, deem important, are driven, not by the curriculum itself, but by fear. The fear of our punitive inspection system, all in the name of accountability.

And here’s the thing. Here’s the thing that hurts: when, as the parent of a disabled child, you really need your school to be accountable, to you, in the interests of your child, they aren’t.

Recipe for Success

There’s nothing quite like the successful student in the successful school to give all the adults associated with them the satisfied glow of a job well done.  Follow these simple steps, and you, too, could be bathing in the reflected glory of your progeny.


One ten-to-eleven year old child
One teacher
One set of end of key stage tests
One set of standards (variable)
Advice/guidance (to taste)
One league table
One performance management tool, named, ‘performance related’



  1. First you must persuade the ten-to-eleven year old child that the end of key stage tests are important, the culmination of everything they have worked towards for the last seven years, and will have long-reaching ramifications on their lives. You can do this by mentioning it at every given opportunity, together with reminders about behaviour and admonitions to work harder*.
  2. Next, you must impress upon the teacher the importance of the end of key stage tests by engaging them through the skillful mixing of league tables and performance management.
  3. Finally, season with standards (variable) and advice/guidance (to taste) until you have your preferred mixture.
  4. Set the temperature to early summer, place all ten-to-eleven year olds in the same room at different tables and make them work in silence all morning and all afternoon.
  5. You will know when you have achieved success when the ten-to-eleven year old child has a dead-eyed expression, a sulky mouth, displays no enthusiasm for reading or writing at all, and cries at the mention of fractions. If you are particularly successful, they may even have the slow, tired demeanour of one who is not sleeping due to worry.
  6. If your ten-to-eleven year old child is not quite ready for success by the second week in May, you can try holiday and/or Saturday school/catch up sessions. Make sure you do these in advance of Easter for best results.


Remember, we all want the best for our children, and nothing quite beats the experience of success.


*see compliance recipe

On diagnosis, parents, teachers and clinicians

A couple of summer holidays ago I wrote a book. I enjoyed writing it a great deal, it was a strangely cathartic process, and it was published last May.

You can find details of it here, and buy it if you like.

Over the course of that summer I found myself asking a question – should I include the bit about specific labels, or would doing so blind readers (labels can be a bit dazzling), and get in the way of them finding out about the child?  Or, should I leave it in, as information about the sort of diagnoses that teachers are likely to come across is useful in that it demystifies them? I debated with a number of my teacher friends, and in the end I compromised. I left them in, along with a largeish section on the problem with labels, the different kinds of meaning they hold for different people (adult and child) and how a teacher needs to be aware of this and bear it all in mind when teaching.

The other thing I thought was important to put into the book, bearing in mind that being the expert in the classroom can give a person the impression that they are the expert in everything (or at least, that’s how it can be perceived from the outside – there is also a section on saying sorry and how to manage mistakes), was clear and unequivocal guidance on what a teacher is able to diagnose – or not.

Here is a quick taster:

Autism Spectrum Disorder : a teacher cannot diagnose

Attachment Disorder : a teacher cannot diagnose

ADHD/ADD : a teacher cannot diagnose

Down’s syndrome : a teacher cannot diagnose

I’m sure you get the picture. These things are diagnosable, not by teachers, but by clinicians, that is, medical doctors and psychologists (who may also be doctors).

You can find a reflection on a medical diagnosis and what it looks like in practice here.

What this means is that the problems a child is facing in the classroom are problems that they face everywhere – down the shops, in the swimming pool, in the home, all the time. Aside from Attachment Disorder – and even then, when a child is adopted, this is not the case – these diagnoses, or labels, have nothing to do with parenting, style or anything else.

But to get back to my list, next up:

Dyslexia – can be diagnosed by specialist teachers (the specialist bit is important –  you need to complete further, demanding qualifications in order to be a specialist dyslexia teacher with the ability to diagnose), parents/schools (does a school ever do this?) have to pay around £500 for a full assessment of dyslexia

And then we come to yesterday. Yesterday there was a report published (you can read it here), based on a survey commissioned by an assessment company, GL Assessment, that claimed (in a nutshell) that teachers think that labels of SEN are obtained by the pushiest of parents (and by default, the wealthiest and most middle class), and that this means that some children, who need and deserve support (presumably the children of the poor, or JAMs), aren’t getting it. Sounds like truth, doesn’t it? The squeaky wheel and all that. Except when you contrast it with the statements above, and the fact that we have (for now) a National Health Service.

Are we teachers really saying that we don’t believe in clinical diagnoses? (see press release here)

Now personally, I don’t think anything of the sort, but I do think, because I am a teacher and I know how difficult it is to balance a class and to understand the sort of SEN that doesn’t come with a diagnosis (the sort that is most common in classrooms), that questions about teacher perceptions of labels of SEND need to be very carefully framed. Firstly, because SEND does not mean some sort of group of children where each one is the same, facing the same kind of difficulties: homogeonised. And secondly, because, if you are not careful, what you actually get in answer to your question is something completely different.

If you look at the survey (link here) I think what you find are two things:

  1. A lack of understanding of the reality of SEND by the questioner.
  2. A neat exposition of teacher attitudes towards a certain set of parents (mothers, let’s face it) who are exhibiting anxiety about the educational progress (or not) of their child/children.

I’m not going to go into the reporting of the results of the survey (although the Guardian – what were you thinking??), I’ll  save that for another day, except for one thing – a press release is an important document.  Read an excellent exposition of the dangers here.  You can see two contrasting reports on it here, from TES and here, from the Guardian, and draw your own conclusions.

Needless to say, if I was writing it up, I’d have written it very differently, because guess which SEND assessments (among others) GL Assessment sell? Dyslexia.

The Rochford Review : A Review

One of the things I get asked, every so often, is what Sam’s mental age is.  I understand the question, I really do.  It comes from a desire to understand him, to give the asker a framework upon which to build a relationship.  All of us have had contact with children, in one way or another, at some point in our lives.  When we talk about a three year old, we have an image in our collective imagination.  We think of Thomas the Tank Engine, or digging and making mud pies in the garden.  When we talk about our ten year old, we know it means Minecraft and stories, falling out of tress and a growing sense of the world around them, and their place in it.  To ask someone’s age is a way to understand a person, or an attempt at it, anyway.

But the thing is, when I am asked this question about Sam, I can’t really answer.  He is fifteen (not sure how that happened), and in many ways he is typical of his age group.  He plays terrible music far too loud.  He slams the bedroom door.  He is slowly and steadily eating us out of house and home.  He is that weird mix between independent and vulnerable.  He says, and does, things that are both annoying and endearing, thoughtless and hilarious all at the same time.

In many ways, though, he is anything but.  It is terribly easy, when one is engaged in a bit of Down’s syndrome advocacy, to infer that there are no real, no substantial differences between his development and that of his typical peers – but that wouldn’t, to be totally honest, be honest. It’s a complex and contradictory thing to try to explain (thank goodness I like a bit of nuance and paradox), but I’ll give it a try.

He likes loud music, but it could just as well be the musical times tables  he’s had for years, or Christmas tunes (I have to admit they get on my nerves a bit when they are blaring out over the July garden), as the latest pop tunes to strut the hit parade, by bands/artistes I don’t know, and have no desire to know either.

He is interests in cars, but he doesn’t want a poster of a red Ferrari on his wall.  He’d rather play with his collection of toy lorries and line them up in intricate patterns on the floor.  When you ask him what he wants to do when he grows up, or who he wants to be, when he says, ‘Eddie Stobart’, it isn’t clear whether he means he wants to be a lorry driver, or star in  YouTube video and sing the Eddie Stobart Twelve Days of Christmas.

That’s the funny thing about Down’s syndrome.  In many ways it’s a magnifier, a slow motion lens that allows you to see the details you would otherwise miss.  It throws the things you already half-knew, the thing you felt in your gut into to relief; you can get them out and examine them in detail.  When I look at my other children, my younger two, or I think about the classes I have taught over the (ahem) twenty or so years I have been a teacher, I can see that they, the typical and the not so ordinary, are not so different after all – but not in the way you might first think.

At first, when you meet them, the massed ranks of Year 4, you could reasonably assume that they are broadly similar.  For a start, they are roughly the same size.  They (usually) fit the furniture.  The stories we tell them appeal to their age group, the things we teach them fall into a similar patter, year on year.

And yet, when we get to know them, just like Sam and my younger two, you realise that the boxes you had assigned to them don’t quite fit.  Lego, and interested in girls.  Voracious reading, disappearing into the imagination, and an interest in the world that surrounds; endless chatter, but no capital letters or full stops when it is written down.  A desire for independence, with cuddly toys and bedtime stories.

I’ve been looking at the way we assess children in school for work, you see.  I’ve been thinking about how we have moved away from the broad brush description of development that the levels used to be and into an age of expected standards for year groups, regardless even, of the month of birth.

It’s a difficult thing to describe, a child’s journey through a national curriculum, in the same way that a mental age is an inadequate way to talk about my son, because despite their similarities (and yes, we are more alike than different), they don’t all meet developmental milestones all at the same time and all int he same way on one morning in the May when they are seven, or ten years old.  And the new descriptors in the Rochford Review, pushing the possible standard met in Year 6 to six, for me, rather begs the question of whether the expected standard is to be, well, expected.

And I suppose this is the thing.  It is all well and good to summarise, to quantify at the end of a school career (or at specified points within it – and for Sam, this is once a year at an Annual Review), what a child can do.  But, accountability aside, when we turn the language of progress into one of expectation related to age, and there is more to be said about what a child cannot do, about the way that they have not met expectations, I am disturbed.

I wrote about the removal of National Curriculum levels here: https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/filling-in-forms/

I’ve written about assessment in my book, Inclusion for Primary School Teachers, available here : https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inclusion-Primary-Teachers-Outstanding-Teaching/dp/1472921143

I wrote about assessment and SEND here : http://www.specialneedsjungle.com/honest-and-useful-assessment-for-children-with-send-is-not-just-about-attainment/

Filling in Forms

One of the unexpected side effects of having a baby with Down Syndrome was that I spent the first eight or so years insulated from the kind of playground competition that is the bane of many parent’s lives. I don’t know if it was that Sam was particularly cute (he was), whether I am blessed with especially wonderful friends and family (I am) or whether I give off the kind of vibes that stop people from boasting about the achievements of their progeny in case I either burst into tears or punch them in the face (possible), but whatever it is, there is a tacit acceptance around him and me that making comparisons with his ordinary peers doesn’t work.

I really enjoyed being in this protected space, partly because it made such a refreshing change to the world I inhabit as a teacher. Education operates within what we call a ‘deficit model’, you see. We teachers have in mind a set of skills we want to teach our charges, a destination towards which we are journeying, and, in order to get there, we constantly assess what the children can’t do yet. When we mark their work, we always point out the things that they got wrong, or could change to make their work even better; very little unalloyed pleasure and celebration in their achievements is allowed.

When I had a baby who needed me to teach him almost everything, I found that, all of a sudden, I wasn’t working to this model any more. Anyone who has ever held a little baby in their arms, regardless of disability, knows instantly that they are an empty book, an unwritten page – there is not a lot of point in listing what they don’t know, because they don’t know anything yet. When I learned that my baby had a serious learning difficulty, correcting mistakes wasn’t part of the equation; celebrating the small steps along the journey of child development was.

I think that’s one of the reasons why I quite like the ‘levels’ we use as teachers, in order to describe the stage at which our charges have reached in their educational journey, even though Sam has spent most of his educational life on P-scales (they are a set of descriptors used by teachers to assess the learning of a child who hasn’t made it onto National Curriculum levels yet). In the day-to-day work of a classroom teacher, we can get very bound in tracking the progress that children make in their learning, but when it comes down to it, when the children we have nurtured throughout their primary years leave us, we give them a number, something that indicates to them, their parents and their next teachers, in broad terms, what they can do.

It’s all set to change, though, along with the new national curriculum in September 2014. Instead of levels, we will be working with ‘below’, ‘at’ and ‘exceeding’ ‘age-related expectations’. In a way, I can see what the Department for Education (or whatever it is called these days) is trying to get at. Most parents want to know that exact thing that my friends so sensitively refrain from discussing with me – how are their children doing in relation to their peers. This is all very well when your children are at the top of the class (who doesn’t like basking in a bit of reflected glory?), but my heart aches for those who are bumping along at the bottom.

As a teacher, I have always known that kids with SEN know very well where they sit in the class pecking order, and that the very last thing they needed was to have it shoved down their throats all over again that they were well below where they should be. It’s one of the reasons I detest those beautiful little wall charts that many teachers spend so long creating that aim to show the progress the children are making, as they shoot up into the stars, or over the rainbow; because there are always the same little faces who never reach the crock of gold, there, for all to see. Sometimes they don’t even make it off ground zero.
So when I hear that the new way to measure the progress our kids make in school is to put them into some sort of public ranking order, I feel disturbed.

One of the first things I discovered, when I started on my journey towards being a fully-fledged teacher, was the power of self-belief, of motivation. I vividly remember the little girl, who, according to her reading level, shouldn’t have been able to tackle the book of bible stories she determinedly read to me, because someone had forgotten to tell her that she was working at well below the expectations for her age. I took this lesson with me (along with a lot of other ones, I freely admit – maybe one day I’ll write about those too) when Sam was born. If he believes he can, if he really, truly wants to, then he can, as far as I’m concerned. (I would put whatever it is here, but I am wary of making such a broad statement. He might want a tattoo.)

Many people will accuse me of living in a state of perpetual denial, I’m sure. But when the future is a scary place I find it a much safer thing to live in the present, and take each day as it comes. Which is why filling in forms like the application for DLA (Disability Living Allowance) is such a difficult thing to do. In it, I have to put down in black and white all the things that my son can’t do, all the times I have to help him with something his peers can do, all the ways in which our lives are made more difficult by that tiny little extra chromosome. Instead of joyfully celebrating the fact that he can read the instructions on the Wii, or the Sky+ menu, I must engage fully with that deficit model. I must broadcast to all and sundry that my son, my beloved boy, is far exceeding his peers in his lack of progress towards, well, everything.

So that’s my big problem with the new way of assessing children, of assessment without levels. To hell with the fact that we teachers will have to invent a new language with which we can speak to each other, another layer of obfuscating jargon so that we can understand what we mean when we pass a child along to the next in the line. To hell with the parents who insist on engaging in a pissing contest in the playground over which colour label book their child is on, or which spellings they are doing, or which classroom they go to for Maths. At the heart of my disquiet lies the child who will be told that they are not good enough, that they are below the norm; the child for whom below expectations is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because, as I once said to the late John Peel, there is no such thing as a normal child.