Friday, October 30, 2015

Thinking out loud: assessment

In amongst my roles at school is that of assessment coordinator. It's in the back of my mind a lot and as a county moderator I am acutely aware that we need to produce a system for our school, grounded in our curriculum, before I go out and act as a critical friend to others. For that's all I can be at the moment. With so many different systems, questioning a school's rationale for the systems they have in place may be the best I can offer.

 The confusing aftermath of the removal of levels has been captured brilliantly by @theprimaryhead in his blog post, Who Needs Levels Anyway? If you need a good chuckle, it's a must read! (Don't read whilst drinking tea. Spitting it out could seriously damage your tech!)

So how can we develop an effective assessment system?

As an advocate of all things formative, I agree with many of the messages in the Final Report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels and of course Dame Allison Peacock's Learning without Limits. I have written about this before, but having seen fleas in a jar it captures beautifully (scarily?) what happens when you put a ceiling on children's learning i.e. by levelling them.

 I have questioned my own practice considerably over the last few weeks, particularly in maths, and wonder if I have unintentionally been putting some of my children in a jar. That is another blog post, but some superb maths CPD and a relective moderation meeting have challenged my ideas and are helping me move forward. Although I heartily agree with much of what Tim Oates says, I have blindly followed some assessment systems without questioning them. Carry on learning eh? 

So here is what we have done so far at East Harling. It may not be perfect (yet), but it's our story and therefore we can redraft and tweak it as and when necessary. This will be essential over the next couple of years as we adapt our curriculum and aim to create a seamless system whereby assessment is an integral part of teaching. (When I say 'we' I am not elevating myself to royalty, but referring to our SMT, which consists of my HT, English, Maths and curriculum coordinators. Four of us have been deputies. It is an experienced team).

We use Pupil Asset at school, which I quite like. Under the new curriculum it takes the NAHT KPIs and allows you to click beginning, developing, embedded and not achieved for children. It then provides a DNA strip that will quickly show you what a child is able to do and where they struggle. For maths the KPIs are clumped into 'domains', though in the National Curriculum it is made clear that rich connections should be made between them, to develop fluency. 

At school we acknowledge that not all teachers are as familiar with this. We haven't had a staff meeting on it yet and you can't assume that everyone will have had a play with it. Equally, some teachers prefer to work on paper. Because of this, at the beginning of the year I created paper based tick lists for Maths (tweaked by our maths coordinator), based on the KPIS, and today have spent time creating them for English*. They need to be used in conjunction with the National Curriculum and the NAHT assessment frameworks and it is important that, especially for maths, you are not just assessing content, but fluency, reasoning and problem solving. Our expectations must exceed the NAHT descriptors so that learning is not limited (especially in writing where they seem low for some children). Because of this, our assessment sheets identify where an objective has been seen, (the child is) secure, (the child is) fluent and can reason and problem solve- the greater depth part. The latter may not be 'tickable' until the end of the year as children would need to show that they have mastered the skills across different contexts. I think it may prove hard to measure - and could be very subjective. This itself causes problems as schools may differ in their expectations as to what fluency and greater depth look like. 

I think that the Rising Stars assessment progression frameworks could prove invaluable. Why? Because it reminds us that we must not just focus on the things we are assessing (fleas in jars?), but all the things that will help make our children competent, confident, inquisitive, creative and expressive mathematicians, readers and writers.  

This is particularly important for new teachers who will not have the knowledge of the breadth of the curriculum, or those missing objectives. Likewise, they may not understand all the components that would make a child fluent with concepts such as place value, that the KPIs are only the big ideas that save us assessing countless objectives. And that's what we need to decide and tweak for our school by asking questions, like: What are the big ideas in our curriculum, the things that children must know at the end of each year? I anticipate that our method of assessment will be tweaked continously until it fits us. What we are desperate to avoid is the limiting of learning that Tim Oates and Dame Allison have attributed to levelling. Can we find an effective system that doesn't do this? If you have any thoughts or ideas, I'd love to hear them!

If you want to reflect even further on this, read (or re-read) @michaelT1979's 'Have we forgotten the rationale for scrapping levels?' or hot off the press, 'Updated assessment journeys' by @tim_jumpclarke. 

I'm still wondering how many schools are doing the same thing, creating systems, questioning what they are doing, becoming confused and going round in circles ...

* I will share these via google docs if anyone would like a copy

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants - reflections from inspiring CPD

Today I was fortunate enough to attend a free conference at the UEA about maximising the impact of teaching assistants*. The presentations centred around the very helpful guidance document, 'Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants' from the Education Endowment Foundation, which does what it says on the tin. I used snippets of it in teaching assistant meetings during the last school year, but know that more needs to be done (there's always more to do isn't there?!) This report provides 7 recommendations for maximising the impact of TAs and provides guidance on effective deployment. The conference today reminded me about what this report says - and it is always good to have opportunities to refresh your memory. I highly recommend it to anyone working in the classroom.

The impact of teaching assistants has received mixed press over the years and the role has changed significantly. I don't think anyone can disagree with the guidance that they should not be used as substitute teachers for low attaining children - our least able children need consistently high quality teaching if the gap between them and their peers is to be reduced. Jonathon Sharples and Rob Webster talked about how TAs are effective when interventions are structured, high quality training is provided and TAs are prepared. Simple, common sense ideas that we aspire to at East Harling. Most of our TAs have received Read, Write inc training and our great phonics results are testament to the impact this has had. Equally, the impact of 1st Class@Number has been significant. With both of these interventions our TAs receive ongoing support and high quality training. They have guidance to refer to and although the structured lessons may make some teachers grind their teeth, they provide appropriate scaffolding for TAs to deliver high-quality lessons. When I have a TA in my maths lesson, I try really hard to give them a written plan, such as Numicon activities, so that they have something to refer back to whilst supporting a group. Quite often TAs are expected to follow a stream of verbal instructions, without being shown expectations. No wonder they sometimes get it wrong. To ensure that our support staff don't inadvertently confuse children, objectives and activities need to be clear, through appropriate guidance and careful monitoring.

Another important message was reiterated at the conference: we must ensure that TAs realise that they are not judged on the amount of work a child has completed. We are probably all guilty of thinking that children haven't done very much, but actually the conversations, thinking and experimenting that has taken place will have a greater impact in the long run. We were introduced to the concept of the 'snow plough TA', who pushes the child through the activities by providing answers and not really expecting the child to think or problem solve. We are aware of the minimal time that teachers give children to answer a question, hence the use of strategies such as think, pair, share, talking partners, popcorn etc. We were told that the average time a TA gives is 1 second ... It is our responsibility to do something about this, by training TAs appropriately. Questioning techniques are paramount too, which is why we use the Q-Chart at school - it reminds us about open and closed questions and those that promote deeper thinking. Things like this are not just for teachers, they need to be shared with everyone who works with children. A deeper understanding of the importance of this must be made explicit through training and discussions in the classroom.

Marc Rowland gave the analogy (taken from a fiction book) of people being taken up Everest with a guide, who falls to his death. Because he has not equipped the people with skills, he has merely 'pushed' them up the mountain, so they all perish too. This story got a shocked laugh from the audience and was a great way of demonstrating what happens when we don't promote independence or deep thinking. How true that many of our children develop a kind of learned helplessness because they have not been expected to try, think or struggle. 

Schools are accountable for how they deploy staff and the DISS project made it clear that it is our responsibility to fundamentally rethink how we use them, to ensure we are getting good value for money. Whilst it feels wrong to talk abut people in this way, I do agree that we need to work with the strengths of our staff. I was a TA for four years and I think I was deployed effectively for about 50% of this time. I'm sure that given the chance, most TAs could reflect on their own value in a school, and maybe there are cases where the SLT and the TA know that best use is not being made of them, but for many reasons things cannot change. One of the things that I did shortly after becoming a SENDco was to compile a TA register that showed training and skills. I believe that we deploy our TAs as well as we can, but I am also aware that there are skills that are not being used, because there are not enough hours in the day - and because sometimes it's the same children who need access to specific interventions, but how many times can you take them out of whole class activities. Incidentally, we were encouraged to do this - pick some children on the SEN register and count how many hours they spend outside the classroom. Juggling time and trying to do the best for each child can mean they are missing out on other important things in the classroom. It is a huge dilemma at times. 

There are things that I will do as soon as possible as a result of this course (purchasing the book and reading it) and some things that I haven't got round to doing, that need to be done, such as auditing TAs and trying to find ways of making time for TAs and teachers to spend more quality time together. The headteacher of St Andrew's Cof E school in Stockwell has developed some innovative ways of doing this, such as fortnightly meetings where the whole school has a music lesson whilst the TAs and teachers have CPD sessions together. The TAs are given a gap task - something to complete before the next session - which is supported by senior leaders. This culture of shared practice is having an impact, though the head acknowledges how fortunate they are to have the funding to do so. With almost 50% pupil premium, funds can be used creatively for the benefits of all children.

The Maximising TAs website has some great resources  for auditing the use of TAs, such as a deployment survey questionnaire and working in the classroom

As always, after CPD like this, I came back buzzing. Now I just need the magic fairy to whoosh a few more hours into the day!

*Where I have used TAs in this post, I am referring to all support staff in school.