Are we clear about what we are assessing?


In some schools this remains the dominant form of assessment

In some schools this remains the dominant form of assessment

Providing fair access and accommodation for all students in conducting assessments and in examination situations is clearly a topic of critical importance to students, teachers and parents and one that needs to be regularly revisited. This is not simply a case of seeing how access can be provided, but also requires an understanding of what is to be assessed and why. In my experience, when teachers talk about making reasonable accommodations they are usually concerned with how examination arrangements can be changed rather than giving much thought to the questions of the purpose of the assessment to be applied.

It was with a degree of apprehension that I agreed a couple of days ago to make a presentation on developing assessment for learning to promote more inclusive practices, to a gathering of school principals and other teachers at the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) conference in Bangalore. CISCE is an official body with responsibility for overseeing the examination system for a large number of schools, and has a responsibility making judgements about which students are entitled to receive accommodations. At the beginning of the day I was unsure of how my views on the lack of equal opportunities which has plagued examination systems for so many years would be received. A couple of trusted colleagues had told me to anticipate some opposition, so my plan was to ensure I had identified escape routes that would enable me to get out of the building relatively unscathed.

As things turned out, any misgivings I may have had were quickly dissipated by the warmth of reception I was given and the positive responses from my audience. It immediately became clear that when I suggested that students may play a part in self-assessment, and that they should additionally have opportunities to evaluate the teaching that they received, there was a good deal of agreement in the auditorium. Similarly when I gave examples of how written examinations may obstruct the ability of some students to demonstrate their learning I noted a general nodding of heads and was pleased to see that even the psychologists, many of whom have a major role in assessment appeared to see the point.

Two further presentations from Dr Neena David and Ms Navaz Hormusjee confirmed that CISCE are sincere in their commitment to defining more equitable access arrangements, and that there are already good examples of the application of more inclusive assessment approaches in schools. Whilst there was a certain harmony achieved between our three presentations, without a doubt the most constructive part of the event came in the form of a question and answer session with a thoughtful and lively series of questions and comments from participants which certainly challenged those of us sitting on a panel.

Many issues were discussed, but the most animated debate concerned the ways in which students who struggle with reading and writing should be enabled to exhibit their understanding and knowledge. There was a general consensus that a significant number of students have acquired good subject knowledge, and have a command of all the issues required by the examination. However some of these students are invariably destined to fail an examination that makes demands upon their use of the written word. If the requirements of a history examination are to assess a student’s understanding of historical events and concepts, should he be prevented from showing his prowess in this area as a result of an examination dependent upon the skills of writing? Would an oral examination be appropriate in this situation, and might this not better enable the student to demonstrate his historical knowledge?

This issue is, of course, far from straightforward and demands a consideration of whether this student might be given an unfair advantage over his peers. What level of reading difficulty should a student have before such arrangements are allowed? Who would make this judgement? Under what conditions should such an examination be conducted? As I would expect from a group of dedicated professionals who have made the effort to attend such an event, there were many positive suggestions and no lack of commitment towards finding a solution. Beginning discussions on these issues may be as important as reaching conclusions.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of today’s discussion was the supportive nature of the responses from colleagues who have some authority in issuing guidance in this area. They not only listened, but also engaged positively with the debate, noting suggestions and discussing how changes could be made. With such complex matters under consideration it was always going to be difficult to come up with answers that would suit all parties. But the willingness to share ideas and listen to a range of opinions was certainly an indication that much may be achieved.

At the end of the event there were many positive comments being made by departing delegates, some of whom approached me to tell me of the actions that they are already taking towards ensuring that pupil self-assessment and the use of formative approaches were becoming a feature of their schools. On the evidence of today’s sessions there are increasing numbers of teachers here in Bangalore who are willing to share their ideas and work towards a more inclusive approach to planning, teaching and assessment in their schools. I will observe future developments keenly.

Tell me, have you reached your full potential yet?


I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his "full potential?"

I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his “full potential?”

I have just been struck a dreadful blow – it is just possible that I may have reached my full potential! On the other hand, there is a vague possibility that I may yet have untapped resources, that will enable me to achieve greater things in life.

Of course, I don’t actually regard either of the statements made above as having any currency. Both are completely meaningless and speculative, but they are used here to illustrate the vacuous nature of an expression that I have heard throughout my career in education, the use of which can serve either to limit or create putative expectations of children.

I recall when I was appointed as headteacher of a school in the 1980s being informed that my principle task was to ensure that every child reached his or her full potential. A few weeks ago I heard the chief inspector of schools for England commenting that too many secondary schools are failing to enable children to attain their potential, and this weekend, a report in the Independent newspaper informs me that mainstream schools are failing to enable children with special educational needs to reach their full potential. This last observation is based upon a report recently published by Mencap, a national charity supporting children with learning disabilities and their families. I will return to this in a while, but firstly let me ask you a few questions.

Do you personally feel that you have achieved everything that may have been possible in your life? Have you reached your full potential or fallen short of this? Might it be that you are still striving to reach this ultimate goal? More importantly, no matter what answer you may have given to these questions, I wonder how you came to this conclusion? Who decided what your potential might be? Has that which was regarded as your potential been exceeded, or inhibited through the expectations of others? Perhaps the most contentious question of all (if you work as a teacher) might be, how well equipped are you to judge the potential of others?

The history of education has not always reached the highest of standards in the art of prediction, as excerpts from a number of school reports reveal:-

“She writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar”, wrote one of Charlotte Bronte’s teachers who clearly could not have anticipated the success of the novel Jane Eyre a few years later.

Equally wide of the mark was the observation made in 1895 that “He will never amount to anything.” A comment that must surely have been a later source of some embarrassment, to the teacher who uttered these words in respect of a young Albert Einstein.

It is, of course, easy to mock those who have made such wayward comments or made predictions that have proven false with time, but there may equally be an important message here to which we should take heed. I am sure that not all students possess the determination and tenacity of Charlotte Bronte or Albert Einstein, and that for some, the setting of a low benchmark may have an inhibiting effect upon the progress that they could make.

Returning to the Mencap report based upon a survey of 1,000 parents of children with learning disabilities who attend mainstream schools, I find that it contains much useful information which deserves careful consideration. In particular, it is apparent that many parents feel that teachers within mainstream schools are inadequately trained to address the needs of pupils with complex needs. Some of these parents express their frustrations with a system that has low expectations of their children and provide limited opportunities for them to interact with their peers. Examples of children who spend most of their time with a teaching assistant, working on separate tasks to those set for the rest of the class are provided. Is this inclusion would seem to be a legitimate question to ask.

I feel fairly confident in stating that low expectations have hindered learning for children with disabilities and special educational needs for as long as there have been schools. However, I still have some reservations with regards to the language that is used in debating this situation. The article in the Independent newspapers reports that Jan Tregelles, Mencap’s chief executive stated:-

“Parents feel the education service is woefully ill prepared to properly support children and young people with a learning disability to reach their full potential,”

It is that term “full potential” which, having read this far into these ramblings you will have appreciated is giving me cause for concern. I am wholly in accord with the suggestion that we need to raise expectations and to provide the kinds of resources and training that may enable all pupils to succeed in schools. I am however concerned that in using this term “full potential” we are instilling in teachers a belief that we can set targets for children, which if achieved will enable us to feel content in both their and our accomplishments. Is there, I wonder complacency here, based upon a spurious notion that we can determine what an individual should achieve, according to their age or ability? How does this differ from the now discredited belief that we can set our expectations of the potential achievements of pupils on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or social class?

Like Jan Tregelles, who has given an immense commitment to improving the educational opportunities for children with learning disabilities, I have concerns that many schools are not addressing the needs of all their pupils. Unlike the authors of the Mencap report, I feel that there are significant dangers from teachers or policy makers who believe that they have the ability or right to determine the potential of others.

I have no doubts that some who read this article will say that this is simply a matter of semantics. However, I would contend that the language we use about children can be powerful. We are well aware of the negative influence that placing a label on a child, such as “learning disability”, “dyslexia” or “autism” may have on the achievements of the individual. Might it not be equally dangerous to believe that we have the right or the ability to sit in Judgement on the potential of a child?


A role reversed


Is it as a student or teacher that I embark upon the latest round of marking.

Is it as a student or teacher that I embark upon the latest round of marking?

I’m quite sure that every teacher in all kinds of schools, colleges and universities knows the feeling. You have identified a period of time in which you simply have to get down to doing the marking. Looking at the pile of scripts, you brace yourself, take a deep breath and reach the first from the top with a determination to do justice to work that represents the hard endeavours of a group of students. Over the past week this is a ritual that I have followed on several occasions, fitting in the marking between all of the other tasks that have quickly filled my diary since returning from India.

Teachers display differing reactions to marking, which can be seen as either a chore, or potentially an opportunity for learning. Without a doubt the worst experience of marking that I ever endured involved 150 undergraduate examination papers, each providing the opportunity for an individual student to make their own interpretation of the same few questions. This was my one and only experience of examination marking and I sincerely hope that it is one that I never have to repeat. By the time I had marked the first ten I was beginning to look forward to a single paper that was in any way different from those that had gone before. After fifty I was beginning to lose the will to live, and by the time I had reached the hundredth near identical script any remaining semblance of sanity had completely deserted me.

Marking doesn’t have to be like this and my most recent experience has been a total contrast to the mind numbing process of assessing examination scripts. Whilst in Bangalore we collected the dissertations written by our first cohort of student studying for the MA in Special and Inclusive Education. A 15,000  word report of an independently conducted research project along with an associated review of literature related to the chosen subject. This represents the final major assessed component of two years of hard study, and an opportunity for our student colleagues to demonstrate their expertise as researchers and subject experts. Just as I had predicted they did not disappoint and from the comfort of the sofa in my study I have enjoyed several hours of learning from the work that has been produced.

The topics selected by the students have been varied and challenging. The research conducted has been original, well constructed and thoughtfully applied, and the knowledge and understanding in evidence is a clear indication of the expertise that these enthusiastic professionals have gained. But one of the most important aspects of this assessment process for me is the reversal of roles in which I become the learner, gaining new insights and knowledge from the work submitted for this final part of the course by students who have now assumed the role of my teachers.

Some of the issues discussed in this work are those with which I am familiar and draws upon literature that I know quite well. But in some cases I find myself reading work related to subjects that are at the periphery of my knowledge, and that provides me with insights into topics that I had not expected. A study of the experiences of children who have gone through processes of adoption raises questions about their social needs and how these may be addressed by teachers and families. A critique of processes of assessment, and a study of the impact of family breakdown on the educational experiences of children both afford opportunities to enable teaching colleagues to reassess their practices. Studies about the ways in which specialist teachers support their colleagues and disseminate their expertise and about parental expectations in relation to the education of their female children identify the difficulties experience by families and professionals. And two highly original projects, one focused upon the life experiences of a disabled young woman living in a rural community and another considering the preparation of students with learning difficulties to work in the retail industry are just some examples of the diversity of research undertaken.

As this final hurdle of the course is taken I cease to become a tutor and revert to the exciting role of being a student. Whilst I retain the responsibility for assessment of this work, I am conscious of the unique opportunity I have to become a learner from the students with whom I have worked over the past couple of years. This reversal of roles is not only an indication of the route that we have travelled together, but also of the opportunity that these colleagues now have to move the inclusive education agenda ahead. I look forward to seeing the smiling faces of these excellent students and their families as they celebrate their graduation, but I am especially relishing observing the differences they make to the lives of children and teachers in the future.

Establishing principles before embarking on practice.


Examinations appear to rule education systems across the world. Not only do they dominate, but they are largely limited to an unimaginative written format that often fails to assess what they claim. Many of the assessment methods adopted in schools today do little to encourage learning, and some are a major obstacle to providing more inclusive approaches to teaching. This theme was to the forefront of our minds today, as our latest group of students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education here in Bangalore, got to grips with considering the relationship between assessment and the provision of an equitable education system.

Assessment is obviously an important part of the teaching and learning process and the summative measures used at the end of a period of teaching can be useful in providing an overview of attainment and progress. However, when schools use only these summative approaches they miss an opportunity to really understand what is happening in the classroom and in the learning experienced by children. With this in mind today, Jayashree, Mary and Johnson have each challenged the thinking of our students, presenting them with ideas and encouraging them to debate principles of assessment alongside the mechanics of how this can be applied.

A series of activities based around those principles of assessment articulated by, amongst others Tim Loreman, Joanne Deppeler and David Harvey, enabled our student colleagues to reflect on their own practices and those of their colleagues. As an observer of part of this session, on my return from visiting a school across the city, I was immediately impressed by the way in which well-established assumptions and ingrained practices were being challenged. Having been given the space to think and debate issues in a supportive environment, our students were soon developing innovative ideas of how the assessment procedures in their schools might change to become more inclusive. As they presented their ideas to their classmates it was easy to see that they have a high commitment to developing their own practice and experimenting with approaches which they hope will benefit both pupils and teachers.

What we assess, how we do this and how the information from assessment is used were all questions considered. The formative processes of using assessment information and alternatives to simplistic pen and paper approaches found favour with all the class, and the examples they provided of how this might be further developed were greatly appreciated by all involved. The concept of assesment as a celebration of learning may not have been debated by teachers everywhere, but here in Bangalore was discussed with considerable flair and enthusiasm. As I listened to what our students had to say and the ideas that they articulated so effectively, I appreciated that I was probably learning as much in this class as any of the them. The importance of starting from a set of principles, rather than simply following established assessment practices was an important part of the message that everyone took away from today’s sessions. If this applies to assessment, then surely it is equally critical in all other aspects of what we do in schools.

This is a theme that we will revisit later in the week on this course, as we consider the role of children in the assessment of their own learning, and in appraising the teaching that they receive. With such reflective teachers, the delivery of this module is proving to be a real pleasure and I am sure that we will all continue to learn from each other.

As I sit here writing, awaiting the latest downpour of rain that is most certainly on its way, I cannot help but think that if all teachers were given more opportunities and time to reflect upon the practices in their schools, it would be far easier to establish a more inclusive education system. This freedom, of course, is unlikely to happen and therefore we will continue to be dependent upon the professional commitment of small groups of teachers, such as these to ensure that progress will eventually be made.


Let not the facts get in the way of a “good” story.


Rachel Tomlinson - a head teacher both praised and under fire for taking a holistic view of the needs of her pupils.

Rachel Tomlinson – a head teacher both praised and under fire for taking a holistic view of the needs of her pupils.

A few days ago I wrote about Rachel Tomlinson the head teacher of Barrowfield School in Lancashire who sent a letter to each member of  a year group of her pupils praising them for their personal achievements beyond their examination results (Thank You for a Letter of Appreciation July 16th). This seemed to me to be the act of a caring professional eager to take a holistic view of learning and achievement and keen to show her pupils that she valued them as individuals with a diverse range of talents. It would seem, however, that my interpretation of this head teacher’s approach has not found favour with everyone.

Several friends and colleagues, directed me towards a mean spirited, poorly written and inaccurate portrayal of Rachel Tomlinson’s actions which had found its way on to the pages of the Daily Mirror ( an English tabloid newspaper, under the headline David Cameron should sack soppy, hippy teachers not gutsy former Education Secretary Michael Gove. This piece written by the journalist Carole Malone describes Rachel Tomlinson as a “soppy headteacher” and suggests that she had told her pupils that “their exam results didn’t matter because being a nice person and being able to dance and paint a picture was more important”.

The freedom of the press in the UK is something that I hold dear. Having visited countries where the right to express an opinion that challenges authority or the status quo can result in imprisonment or even worse, I believe that journalists in my own country generally serve us well in encouraging debate and questioning our view of the world. However, there are times when poor and inaccurate reporting do a disservice to the readers of newspapers and the simplistic need of journalists to draw attention to themselves gets in the way of informed debate.

Carole Malone in her brief journalistic rant is guilty of placing her own opinion before a presentation of the facts. Furthermore, her mischievous reinterpretation of the words contained in Rachel Tomlinson’s letter to her pupils does a grave disservice to the headteacher and also to the image of good journalism (which this piece certainly isn’t). My discomfort with the journalist’s piece is not with the expression of her opinions, which I don’t for a minute doubt to be sincerely held, but with the way in which she has chosen to misinterpret both the tenor and presentation of the words that appear in Rachel Tomlinson’s letter. At no point in her message to pupils does this head teacher suggest that examination results don’t matter. Rachel Tomlinson praises her pupils for their commitment and personal endeavour in undertaking these statutory assessments. She most certainly does not suggest that being able to dance or paint a picture is more important, but does point out that these accomplishments are worthy of praise. As Rachel Tomlinson states, the results of tests tell us something about pupils, but cannot tell us everything.

Carole Malone concludes her article by stating that:

“to be told by teachers that being a nice person is more important than exam results, is stupid and dangerous”.

I am unsure whether she personally feels in danger from this perspective or whether she believes that those who achieve high performances in examinations are likely to pose less of a threat. Perhaps it has not occurred to her that it is possible to pass examinations and also to be a “nice person”. It certainly appears to have escaped her notice that schools have a responsibility beyond that of cramming children to pass tests (this despite the fact that at various times the Daily Mirror has harangued teachers for a failure to address the social and behavioural education of children). She has certainly missed the fact that there are many talented people who make a rich contribution to our country through their ability to dance or paint despite possibly having had limited success in other aspects of their education.

I recall when I was at school being given what were usually termed “comprehension exercises” where the requirement was to read a passage of text and write an accurate interpretation of its content and meaning. Teachers (none of whom in my experience warranted the appellations of “hippy” or “soppy”) instilled in us the importance of avoiding misrepresentation of the facts. My issue with Carole Malone does not relate to her right to express an opinion, even when it is one with which I disagree, but rather with her sensationalism for effect based upon a poor reading of a simple and sincere letter.

Of course, Carole Malone has every right to suggest that her interpretation is valid and that my reading of Rachel Tomlinson’s letter is inaccurate. The letter is published in full on my earlier posting on this blog and I am more than happy to let you decide for yourself.

It was George Orwell who wrote that:-

“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper”.

Orwell was a great journalist with a commitment to fair and accurate reporting. He recognised that a failure to provide a balanced interpretation of information was one of the greatest dangers to a free press and was indicative of lazy journalism.

I concluded my earlier piece about Rachel Tomlinson’s letter by hoping that she and her staff enjoyed a well earned summer break. I now extend this wish to Carole Malone in the hope that she gets a summer holiday and returns refreshed to her work and possibly in a more generous frame of mind.






Thank you for a letter of appreciation.

Teachers generally entered the profession to support children. Sometimes this means looking beyond their academic achievements.

Teachers generally entered the profession to support children. Sometimes this means looking beyond their academic achievements.

I always find it heartening to read about teachers who stand by their principles, especially when this is in support of their students. Teachers often work in a pressured situation where the agenda for schools is set by politicians and the expectations upon children are framed in terms that, in some cases can be intimidating or seem beyond their reach. Yet there remains a strong commitment within the teaching profession to maintain a focus upon the needs of individual learners and to celebrate their achievements and individuality.

A few days ago on this blog I wrote about three lads from a local school who had spoken to me in gloomy terms about their impending school reports and examination results (It’s a school report – not a crystal ball! – July 8th). I had tried to be positive and reassure them that there was more to life than end of year reports, but unfortunately it seemed almost impossible to shift their negative outlook. At this time of year, when there is an expectation from parents, teachers, pupils and inspectors that schools will laud their academic achievements, it is all too easy to lose sight of the other ways in which children can demonstrate their learning. This is why I was delighted to hear of a head teacher from a school in the north of England who has taken an initiative to demonstrate how much she values a holistic approach to learning in her pupils.

Rachel Tomlinson is the head teacher at Barrowford Primary School in Nelson, Lancashire, who as the school academic year is drawing to a close decided to send a letter to her pupils who had recently completed formal assessments . I reproduce it here in its entirety as I think it should be read by every exhausted teacher, anxious parent or concerned student facing the end of year results.



Barrowford Primary School has just over 300 children on roll, and it seems to me that being part of a school managed by a head teacher who takes such an initiative must be a terrific learning experience. The school has adopted a motto which states – “Learn to love, love to learn”. Such sentiments can often be tokenistic, but here we clearly have, in Rachel Tomlinson, a head teacher determined to live up to this ideal.

In recent years teachers in schools in England have often worked in a state of anxiety, in the knowledge that at any moment inspectors may descend upon the school and pass judgement upon the quality of their work and the attainment of children. The perception, one that has been sadly perpetuated by some head teachers, is that the only achievements that matter are those related to academic standards. To stand against this regime and celbrate the learning and broader achievements of  children has demanded courage on the part of teachers, such as that demonstated by Rachel Tomlinson and her colleagues.

This letter certainly made my day, and hopefully had the same impact upon those children, teachers and parents who make up the Barrowford School community. It says so much about the values of the staff who work in the school and issues a challenge to those who fail to see children beyond the end of year results which schools are obliged to issue and report upon.

As the end of term approaches I do hope that Rachel Tomlinson and her staff enjoy a relaxing well-earned holiday. They should do so secure in the knowledge that their commitment to recognising and celebrating the achievements of every child at Barrowford Primary School is appreciated well beyond the boundaries of Nelson in Lancashire.

Do please vist the school website, available through the link below.

It’s a school report – not a crystal ball!

Could do better? Couldn't we all?

Could do better? Couldn’t we all?

It was a beautiful morning as I arrived at the university campus this morning. I had ridden from home through gently rolling countryside, the sun warming my back, the air clean and a gentle breeze to cool me on my way. Having deposited my bike in the cycle shed near my office I walked towards the building encountering three school students sitting on a bench in the sun. Many such students take a short cut across the campus on their way to a local secondary school, some stopping to kick a football around one of the playing fields, others simply putting off until the last moment their arrival at the school gate.

As I was passing the three lads, one of them, very politely wished me good morning and asked about my ride. I was happy to engage in some light hearted banter with them, but a few minutes conversation revealed that this was not a week that they had looked forward to with any great affection. Just a couple of weeks away from the end of term and with an approaching summer holiday I had anticipated that they might be cheerful enough. Sadly, this was not the case. What, you might ask, was the source of their despondency? Apparently during this week there will be two major and unwelcome events in their young lives. Firstly, the presentation of internal school examination results and secondly, the distribution of end of year reports to be taken home and discussed with parents.

“Cheer up”, I said, “the results might be a pleasant surprise. I’m sure you will all have done ok.” My young companions did not appear convinced. “Anyway, the school holidays will soon be here and you will be able to put examinations and reports behind you for a while.” This last comment likewise appeared to have little impact upon their gloomy demeanour.

Leaving these erstwhile scholars to ponder their impending fate I made my way to the shower and found myself reflecting on my own school days all those years ago.

It occurs to me that somewhere at the bottom of a drawer at my parents home, and hopefully long forgotten and never again to be discovered, may be a copy or two of my school reports. Although these could well now be classified as historical documents, I would certainly hope that they might be destroyed before they could be used as evidence against me! What I wonder, might a brief scan of these documents reveal? Can I recall how I felt about these annual missives which constituted an interrogation of my performance over the course of a school year? Like the young pupils who I encountered on campus this morning, I suspect that I watched my father open the sealed envelope containing my school report with something less than a happy countenance.

What would my school report have revealed to the reader? I’m sure I would have been quite happy with the comments from my English teachers, and likewise with those reflecting on my performance in history, geography, French and physical education. In the sciences I like to think that my enthusiasm would have been acknowledged, even if my marks did not always represent my attitude towards the subjects. Similarly, my art teacher would have given me a sympathetic hearing – absolutely no talent, but tries hard. But then we come to mathematics. Always my bête noire, in part because of what I suspect was my personal lack of regard for a series of teachers, who similarly did not appreciate the argumentative boy who they had to endure in their lessons. I’m sure when my maths teachers said ” could do better”, they really meant “we wish he would go away!”

Thinking back in this manner serves no real useful purpose. However, as I shuddered at my recollections of standing before my eager parents, as they tore with undisguised enthusiasm at the sealed brown envelope containing the judgement upon my performance, I can relate to the depression that has descended upon the boys with whom I conversed earlier.

Recording and reporting on the school year is undoubtedly an important ritual and one that parents and teachers have accepted as an annual event. I wonder to what extent the school report can be regarded in any way as a predictor of future performance? Is this in any way an exact science or is it simply a reading of the runes with which we try to disguise the inadequacy of the process? Simply out of curiosity I sought out the comments from the school reports of a number of successful individuals – they make for interesting reading.

“He will never amount to anything”. – Albert Einstein, scientist.

 “Certainly on the road to failure… hopeless . . . rather a clown in class…wasting other pupils’ time.” –  John Lennon, musician.

“Judi would be a very good pupil if she lived in this world.” – Dame Judi Dench, actress.

So, though I doubt that it is of much consolation for those anxiously awaiting the fall of the executioner’s axe over the next couple of weeks, I would suggest that whilst the school report is a useful device for recording progress, it is a somewhat blunt instrument in terms of the overall scheme of things. It is certainly important to take heed of the comments made by the teachers writing on these documents; after all they are keen that you should do well. But perhaps for some receiving their reports over the next couple of weeks, the greatest pleasure may be in looking back in a few years’ time and recognising that they are not necessarily the greatest instruments of prediction.

Cheer up, the summer holiday will be upon us very soon.

Making a distinction between attainment and achievement

These children want to show me their work because they are, quite rightly, proud of their achievement. But I wonder if their teachers are mostly concerned with their attainment?

These children want to show me their work because they are, quite rightly, proud of their achievement. But I wonder if their teachers are mostly concerned with their attainment?

Yesterday my good colleagues Mary and Julian asked me to do a short session with a group of special educational needs co-ordinators attending a course at the University of Northampton. Special educational needs co-ordinators (usually abbreviated as SENCos) have a statutory duty to manage provision for children described as having special educational needs in schools. In recent years teachers holding this post have been encouraged to take an accredited course focused upon providing them with the knowledge, skills and understanding required to manage the job efficiently.

Mary and Julian, along with other excellent colleagues provide a popular course based upon their years of experience and focused upon the ever changing demands made of teachers in schools, so to be asked to contribute to their course was something of a privilege. The session I delivered appeared to be well received, despite the failure of the projector, which meant that I had to proceed without the use of power point (a crutch upon which I feel sure we have all become too dependent). Whilst the teaching seemed to go well, as is often the case with sessions of this nature some of the best learning took place through the discussion at the end of the period.

During the session I had suggested to the SENCos that a critical part of their job was to assist teachers in considering the achievements of all pupils rather than simply concentrating upon their attainment. The distinction between achievement and attainment is one that I feel to be important, but does not always receive the attention that it might. Indeed, in some circumstances I have seen these terms used as if they have the same meaning, which they most certainly do not. There are, I would suggest, pupils who despite their attainment being well below age expectation, may be achieving far more than their most able peers. I have experienced this situation many times over my years of teaching. I have witnessed children who make far more progress in the development of, for example, their reading skills over a year than others in the class, but at the end of the year, because of the way we conduct assessments, their attainment remains behind that of their peers. They have made progress but not “caught up” and are therefore still seen as poor learners. The obsession of our education system with comparison of results across national and even international cohorts of similar aged pupils does a disservice to these learners and to those who teach them.

Similarly, in England, in common with many other countries, we have become fixated with academic attainment in a limited number of subjects and in particular mathematics and English. Sadly this means that some pupils who perform below average in these subjects, yet demonstrate outstanding performance in other subjects such as physical education, art or cookery, are not valued for their achievements when compared to their more “academic” peers. This denies the importance of these subjects and those who teach them, and also gives a message to children that being an accomplished athlete, artist, or cook is of no real significance.

I was however, heartened yesterday by one of the SENCos on the course who told me that her school had moved from the use of individual education plans based around targets to address learning weaknesses, to the introduction of a system that is focused upon pupil strengths. This means that a pupil who may be struggling in mathematics or English, or both, but who is an excellent swimmer or actor or musician, or who contributes through voluntary work in his community, has these achievements noted prominently in this new form of pupil assessment and recording. This does not prevent teachers setting targets for improvements in learning but does begin with identifying their strengths and enabling them to feel good about what they have achieved. A recent visit by inspectors to this teacher’s school had commended them for the attention given to the strengths of their pupils and the impact this has upon their self-esteem.

Listening to this SENCo talking about her experience and to the assent given to this approach from her colleagues was uplifting at a time when so many teachers feel that pupils with special educational needs are being placed at a disadvantage by bureaucratic assessment and reporting systems. I am quite sure that the actions taken by this school were seen as possibly high risk by the head teacher and staff, and they are to be commended for having the courage of their convictions to go against current trends in focusing solely upon academic attainment. This enables me to continue as promised, with a few days of optimistic stories demonstrating the progress being made towards a more inclusive educational approach.

Not yet a parting of the ways

Here is an outline of the project for my assignment

Here is an outline of the project for my assignment

Bangalore is never quiet. Traffic creates a steady din throughout the day and late into the night. I fall asleep each night to a discordant symphony of bleating horns and awake in the morning to a very similar grating tune. And these, all accompanied by a masala of barking dogs, screeching squirrels and men shouting from the streets form a typical backcloth to the starting day in Jayanagar. This morning was further marked by the call of the muezzin from the minaret of the mosque across the way. Real voice or recording I wonder? Who will respond to this early call to prayer? I glance at my watch 5.35am. The choice to roll over and return to sleep has gone, might as well get up, shower and start the day.

The early Saturday mornings of the modules we teach here are times for quiet reflection, seated on a balcony overlooking trees and beyond these the ever increasing high rise buildings that mark the Bangalore skyline. I always enjoy the wheeling acrobatics of the kites, an ever present feature of the skies here as they tumble and glide in an airborne ballet on eye level with my vantage point. The temperature in the early mornings so pleasant for an English visitor, is described as cold by Indian friends who wrap  shawls around their shoulders until the sun rises higher in the sky.

In some ways the day feels disjointed. We have so many little tasks to complete, feedback on recently marked assignments, tutorial support to ensure that students are ready for the next, reminders of the essential procedures of referencing and, of course, the inevitable module evaluation sheets. By far the most interesting part of the day is the time devoted to student presentations of their projected assignments for this module. Their task is to develop an intervention or procedure for use in their school, to apply this and evaluate how it goes over the next few months. This action research, focused upon their own teaching situation encourages them to apply the learning we have shared together throughout the week and to evaluate its application in the real world.

The planned actions are wide ranging and provide insights into the challenges that our students face in school. The encouragement of handwriting skills in a child with poor motor co-ordination; understanding the implications of inappropriate sexual behaviour in pubescent boys with learning difficulties; evaluating teaching attitudes and expectations in respect of inclusion; helping teachers move beyond teaching concrete operations in mathematics and towards more abstract learning. The diversity of topics represents some of the issues that are prevalent not only in schools here in India, but throughout the world. The opportunities that our students have to investigate an issue and develop approaches that can have a real impact in their schools is one of the most exciting aspects of this course.

Parting at the end of these intensive blocks of teaching is an emotional experience. Students and tutors alike have been united in an inclusive venture towards increased learning and understanding. There has been a definite frisson about many of the sessions this week as we have travelled together on a mission to explore inclusive teaching. Now will follow a period of individual tutorial support both here in India and at a distance, as each course participant is supported and challenged towards completing their assessed work. In April we will reconvene, not so much as students and tutors, but rather as fellow explorers trying to discover how together we can make our schools a welcome haven for all learners and their families.

A few more tasks need to be completed here before in a few days we will leave India. Parting is always tinged with sadness at saying goodbye to so many friends. But I will be happy to be reunited with my family who I always miss so badly during these times away and look forward to settling back into my home routines. But I also anticipate with joy returning here to strengthen old friendships and make new ones, to explore the promotion of inclusive schooling with teachers and students and to renew my efforts to understand this country, its culture, its peoples and its many contradictions.

It is 6.25 pm and the muezzin is renewing his call, thus the cycle of life goes on.




Could do better!


The school principles produced by one of our student groups

The school principles produced by one of our student groups


“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Sign hanging in the office of Albert Einstein at Princeton University

I wonder if I am the only person who ever has days like this? As I sat today observing my good colleagues Mary and Jayashree working with students I was in awe of their knowledge and enthusiasm. Furthermore I was stunned by the quality of information and the depth of perception coming from our students. Why, I asked myself, does it seem that everyone in this room is far cleverer than me?

Today’s topic was assessment in inclusive classrooms, an area guaranteed to provoke strong feelings and one which we hoped our course participants would debate with vigour. We were not disappointed. Indeed their thoughtful critical responses indicated the many frustrations and challenges that they experience with regards to assessment in their professional lives.

Semantics are important and this is apparent whenever issues of the assessment of learners are discussed. Assessment for learning, or assessment of learning? Assessment of the pupil or assessment by the pupil? So many complexities to explore and no wonder that this is a subject that gets teachers so animated. Writers such as Dylan Wiliam and my colleague Knut Roar Engh have emphasised the holistic nature of effective assessment and have encouraged teachers to see this as an embedded part of the teaching process rather than an addendum to the main activity. Yet it would appear that many schools still place an emphasis upon assessment as a summative process with little regard for how it may shape teaching and celebrate the accomplishments of pupils.

Inclusion is essentially a democratic process that recognises the rights of individuals and marginalised groups and celebrates diversity. For assessment to support this process it too must adopt democratic principles. Where it becomes an activity solely undertaken by teachers and school managers and remains focused upon narrow academic outcomes it acts as a barrier to the inclusion agenda. For this reason Mary and Jayashree in their sessions today emphasised the need to place the pupils’ interpretation of their own learning at the centre of the assessment process and conveyed the message that we start from the strengths of the learner. Working in inclusive teams was emphasised and respect for families reinforced with consideration given to how assessment information is conveyed with empathy.

Within very little time our students, many of whom work in schools with a “traditional” view of assessment were voicing their opinions and demonstrating their innovative ideas for how assessment might inform the development of inclusive teaching and learning. The means by which assessment might provide us within insights into the impact of the teaching environment and a shift of focus to provide a consideration of the assessment of teaching styles, were just two of the ideas keenly contested today. Arguments were plentiful and the debate fierce, but all in good humour and deftly refereed by tutors!

The ideas emerging from the discussions and workshop activities of students today were highly original and creative. Now I think I understand, the reason everyone in this room seems cleverer than me, it’s simple really – they are!

Ah well, in the words of Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. – (Samuel Beckett – Worstword Ho 1984)