The Woodard Academies Trust is responsible for six state schools, the majority of which were in special measures when the Trust took them over, says Maria Roberts, Director of School Improvement, but which are now improving. The schools are spread throughout the country from the North East to the South Coast, but Maria says Sir Robert Woodard Academy in West Sussex is typical.
“It serves a mainly white, working-class coastal community. Sixty per cent of the students are boys, attainment on entry is lower than average and aspiration can be low. It’s a very tough demographic,” she says. And improvement takes time, “quick fixes aren’t fixes”. But Headteacher Kieran Scanlon is turning the academy around – the quality of teaching is stronger, recruitment of staff is less challenging and numbers on roll are increasing - “all the metrics are going in the right direction”.
Staff retention and recruitment have been key. “Previously, no one wanted to go and work at the school,” Maria says. “But Kieran has made the school somewhere where NQTs and other recruits want be in and to stay. Young teachers know that you will be supported and your workload will be manageable.”
Smart assessment has played a crucial part in that strategy, she says. “As a Trust we’re conscious that we have to make sure staff workload is manageable, and that involves ensuring no one feels obliged to do things or processes just for the sake of it. You have to be absolutely ruthless and cut out any superfluous system that doesn’t give you good or useful information.”
Maria said this entails doing “sensible assessments that mean something, less frequently, which in turn means we now have more teaching time”. The Trust now collects performance data centrally three times a year (it used to be six) – “but even though we have less it tells us more”.
As a Trust we’re conscious that we have to make sure staff workload is manageable, and that involves ensuring no one feels obliged to do things or processes just for the sake of it. You have to be absolutely ruthless and cut out any superfluous system that doesn’t give you good or useful information.
At a Trust level, she says, her colleagues and trustees need to know the bigger picture as far as assessment is concerned. Is the assessment system a school adopts sensible, useful and manageable? And if it is, are children making the progress they are expected to make, and if they’re not, which specific aspects need addressing?
What’s more, she says, that process has to be rapid and ‘nimble’. “We need to have that assessment information quickly, so interventions happen before the gaps grow even bigger. We have to be reactive at KS3 – because at KS4 it’s too late.”
“For us knowledge about how well pupils are doing at KS3 is crucial, especially since national curriculum levels became non-statutory. We have had a range of systems across our schools, some of which are confusing for colleagues and parents, overly complex and quite subjective. The beauty of a standardised test is that it shows clear evidence of progress in aspects such as literacy, Maths and Science and also allows schools to benchmark students nationally, as well as allowing the Trust to compare schools within the group.” Maria also points out, that data on behaviour and attitudes can be just as illuminating as progress data – “especially when you link attitudinal PASS data with academic outcomes”.
Maria says she completely agrees that schools should explain – to teachers, to parents and to students – what they are using assessment for and why, but also that explanations shouldn’t be necessary. “If you have to clarify what an assessment means, it’s not working. It’s got to be so simple it doesn’t need explaining.”
Maria says that GL Assessment provides data which is more targeted and user-friendly in aspects such as Maths, reading and spelling.
“Life is a lot easier now, because teachers have a common understanding of what they are doing and what assessments are for. A few years ago, schools that were in challenging circumstances tended to assess everything all the time – often in a very subjective way. Staff were on a hamster wheel of repeat assessments and had almost lost the ability to ask what it was they were for or what the data was telling them.” Because teachers didn’t own assessment, she says, they too often felt that they weren’t required to think about whether assessment was useful.
Nor, in Maria’s opinion, did the constant drumbeat of frequent assessment – the revising, testing and post mortems on those tests – help students who were struggling. “Children who weren’t learning well would get another affirmation six weeks later that they weren’t learning well – and then often nothing would happen. So weak learners just got confirmation they were struggling.”
Ultimately, she says, assessment cannot be bolted on, and getting it right is essential. “What Kieran has done at Sir Robert Woodard is to grasp that what we teach and how it is assessed is at least as important as how we teach.”
The beauty of a standardised test is that it shows clear evidence of progress in aspects such as literacy, Maths and Science and also allows schools to benchmark students nationally, as well as allowing the Trust to compare schools within the group.