Formative assessment and reading spaces

With the other head teachers from the Academy Trust, I was lucky enough recently to attend a conference with a man called Dylan Wiliam who is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education and a man worth listening to (see  If Educational Policy was defined by people like him as opposed to politicians with short term agendas and their own (possibly inaccurate) pre-conceptions, I firmly believe education would be in a better place than it is. He does not ‘pull his punches’ when discussing politics in education. He spoke about the National Strategies for English and maths which were designed to radically improve achievement in this country. They cost ½ billion ponds to implement but actual levels of attainment went up very little. He said it would have been cheaper to offer every child in the country a £1000 bribe to try to improve their exam results! Wiliam is unconvinced by many other expensive solutions that have been seized upon over the years. He says there is little empirical evidence that many initiatives have had any significant impact on pupil achievement including curriculum reform; how schools are structured (for example small schools, large schools, middle schools); computers, interactive whiteboards and workforce reforms.  And yet, he says, there is more need than ever to get this right because the world is changing at such a pace. There are many traditional skills that are disappearing fast from the workplace and being replaced by technology. Essentially there is a race on between education and technology and unless we are clear about what children really need from their education, we are going to fail them hopelessly. Education (despite the age old claims by one generation that the next is ill-educated and theirs was a golden age before it all went wrong)- has continued to improve steadily. The average IQ of the population has gone up by 3 points every decade for the last 80 years. Schools and education have got better but unfortunately the price of admission to the workplace has also gone up. Wiliam says there is only one 21st century skill worth worrying about- ‘We need to produce people who know how to act when they are faced with situations for which they were no specifically prepared.’ (Paper 1998).

Wiliam claims there are only three areas of teaching practice that are empirically proven to have impact on children’s learning- formative assessment, metacognition and philosophy for children. We have been weaving more and more formative assessment into our practice over the last few years and now we intend to make it better still. Formative assessment is nothing new- it is what good teachers have always done. Good teachers establish where the pupils are in their learning. They identify the learning destination and then carefully plan a route to get there. Along the way they make regular checks on progress and make adjustments to the course as conditions dictate. This all sound terribly simple but at its heart is a really strong commitment to each child’s needs, a fine and subtle appreciation of learning and an excellent level of interaction between teacher and pupils so not so simple then. We need our children to take responsibility for their own learning- to understand themselves as leaners and to be constantly evaluating their learning and the learning of their peers. We want the children generating their own ideas and questions and we often take these as the starting point. Wherever possible we want them to use their initiative and think creatively, exploring different possible solutions to the same problem. We want them to be resilient and persevere when faced with a challenge. Again, not so simple, but definitely worth spending our time and energy on.

I’d like to say a word quickly about our ongoing project to develop our reading spaces in school. Our thanks must go out to Mrs Webb for all her inspirational work. Over the last two years Mrs Webb has built up our impressive stock of books both in the library and in each classroom. She runs whole class sessions in the afternoons, promoting the very best new books we have on offer; she manages the school librarians who help to organise, maintain and promote the library; runs book clubs with groups of children and produces arresting and exciting displays. We must also say a very big thank you to Mr Knowles, Mick Orr and Meg Mclaughlin who have  very recently created our reading pods (or caves as they seem to now be known) outside my office window. The children have taken to these immediately and at lunchtime or during guided reading sessions, there are reliably a huddle of them happily tucked up inside, pouring over books. The Water Garden has always been a space where some children like to go and read as well as act out their oral re-tells. We aim to encourage this further by providing them with chests full of dressing up clothes (hence the request later in this newsletter)  and building cabinets to house ‘outdoor’ books- these being some of our older books, past their best and ready to be put out to pasture. Lastly we have an artist coming in this next term to work with children and parents to create little ‘borrower- style’ installations of scenes from stories. These will be found all through the library and other shared spaces and will each come with a QR code. You will be able to scan the QR code with a mobile device; this will then links you to a video of a class re-telling of that story or perhaps also some artwork, drama or writing by the children.