OECD Report: Reflections Part III

9 May

As part of this mini-series looking at the OECD report into Wales’ education system I have been working through the documents recommendations. You can find links to part I and II, as well as some other posts relating to the report, at the end of this blog. Today I am looking at recommendations that the OECD suggest will ‘create a coherent assessment and evaluation framework.’

Ensure that student assessments support learning for all and align to national objectives. Ensure objectives and targets are inclusive for all students and reflect the country’s focus on quality and equity. Investigate the impact of national tests on narrowing the curriculum. In the longer term, consider reducing the number of years covered by the Reading and Numeracy Tests, and consider the use of sample-based assessments to measure wider skills.

It is timely to look at this recommendation given it is this week that schools in Wales are undertaking the annual standardised literacy and numeracy tests for 2014. NUT Cymru launched a survey of members following last year’s tests and the results were not encouraging. The minor changes that the Welsh Government have brought in may have an impact but we won’t necessarily know how much until the teachers survey is replicated at the end of this test cycle.

The OECD are perfectly right to warn that the tests risk narrowing the curriculum. More and more the focus on literacy and numeracy, as valid as it may be, is driving out support for other subjects. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the time for teachers to develop the social, emotional and creative elements of the school curriculum. More than just the tests this is an impact of the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) in general. Between the tests and the LNF we are seeing the fundamental ethos of the Foundation Phase eroded. Many schools have admitted to re-introducing formal literacy and numeracy sessions in the morning to ensure children are able to perform well in the recently introduced Year 2 reading and numeracy tests. It is therefore clear to see that the tests are changing the very nature of the well received and respected Foundation Phase. You can hardly blame those schools when so much importance is being placed on these high stakes tests in evaluating school performance in the primary sector. Furthermore, moves to introduce assessment against the LNF in the Foundation Phase will only add to the marginalisation of the ‘learn through plan’ approach to education in our early years.

I also think the OECD are correct to suggest that the number of years covered by the tests should be reduced. I would argue that the age at which students start the tests should be increased. Again, referring back to the NUT Cymru survey, teacher’s feedback suggests that these tests had an absolutely terrible impact on the wellbeing of pupils. Children, who through the Foundation Phase should not have undertaken any ‘formal’ education, are being tasked with sitting in an alien environment and placed under high pressure. The very concept of sitting at a desk is new to those pupils who are extremely young taking the tests, yet they are put in a sterile environment with no support from their teachers. What does that achieve other than damaging the pupil-teacher relationship and disengage pupils with school.

The statement about ensuring student assessment supports all learners is also a very valid one given the concerns that were raised with the first round of testing last year in relation to their accessibility for pupils with special educational needs.

Simplify professional standards. Simplify and reduce the number of professional standards and base them on a vision of the Welsh teacher and leader. Revised standards should cover all career stages, beginning, intermediate and advanced, and be extended to teaching and learning support staff.

As with most things in education less if very much more. It feels as if with every review we have added things into the system without either taking things out to make space or considering the consequences of that action. Simplification should really be the mantra of any Welsh Government when looking at changes in policies in future. That certainly is the case with professional standards. The Welsh Government’s revised standards of 2011 had 55 separate areas for teachers. This is not only far too prescriptive it is time-consuming and does not benefit teachers or pupils. A more streamlined set of standards will give greater focus while not changing the fact that teachers will undertake the additional expectations on their own performance. That the OECD suggest the standards should be looked at in the prism of what we want a Welsh teacher to look at across the length of their career is also positive. Hopefully this will lead to professional standards being far more aligned with the requirement for career long continued professional development.

Build school evaluation processes that support school improvement. Ensure the two external school evaluation systems (Estyn’s and the school banding system) have greater coherence. In particular, consider making the school banding calculation method more transparent, reducing the frequency with which schools are banded and judging schools on mutually agreed criteria for quality.

This is a recommendation that should be extremely high on the Welsh Government’s agenda. No one is opposed to parents, or for that matter teachers themselves, having information about school performance. Accountability is crucial in any walk of life and education is no different in that regards. The major problem we have at the minute is that we have far too many indicators and often they are competing and inconsistent with one another. We not only have School Banding and Estyn Inspections but a host of other data driven evaluation models. Now the Welsh Government are also proposing the introduction of categorisation while the other forms of performance indicator prevail. Quite frankly something has got to give.

Realistically how can any parent honestly make an informed decision about their local school within the current confusion of the system? Ignoring the many faults that exist with banding as a performance indicator, how can a parent seriously decide if a school is doing well on banding scores when in many cases those scores are completely undermined by Estyn inspections, and vice-versa.

What the OECD has said here about the need for greater coherence between banding and Estyn, which you could easily add other indicators to, was echoed by Robert Hill in his review of the system. What we need is a far clearer picture of performance focused on a fair and transparent assessment of the facts and ideally in a single format. The evidence banding looks at is not necessarily wrong but the way it is presented, boiling down a host of different data into one single figure, certainly is.

The report is absolutely correct to say that what evaluation processes must aim to achieve is a structure that supports school improvement. I have written previously about how banding is currently hindering that ambition. If it is to stay, and with the introduction of categorisation I do believe that is a real question that needs to be addressed, banding has to change. The Welsh Government has recently announced it will be reviewing the implementation of the banding policy. As the OECD suggest, and as I have previously argued, reducing the frequency of the publication of banding is a starting point to that review.

Strengthen evaluation and assessment competencies at all levels. Develop teachers’ capacity to support students by assessing them against learning objectives using a range of formative assessment methods. Develop data-handling skills among school leaders to inform their school improvement efforts and to appraise school staff, as part of their school development planning processes.

I do wish to excercise a little caution at the idea of “Develop(ing) data-handling skills among school leaders.” Yes let’s help schools interpret data better and CPD on that as well as any issue is always welcome.  However we don’t want to marginalise the creativity or professional judgement of the workforce at the same time. It is important that teachers still see children in their class not just numbers and targets.  Equally when assessing students, at least at the very early years, it is important to retain the stage not age principle.  Not all learners develop at the same pace or in the same way and we need to be mindful of that.

I welcome the proposal to “appraise school staff, as part of their school development planning processes” if what that means is identifying how CPD can be utilised in a development plan.  There is currently a Welsh Government consultation open on school development plans and it is positive to see that they believe identifying CPD is an integral part of that process.  If this recommendation is viewed in that context then it can potentially be a good thing.

The final part of the mini-series looking at the OECD’s recommendations will examine how the Welsh Government can ‘define and implement policy with a long-term perspective.’

You can click on the following links to read my initial response to the report, comparisons with the 2007 Dougherty report , part I and part II of the mini-series looking at the reports recommendations and my article in the Western Mail on the importance of this piece of work.


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