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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.




Time to use our heads

We want school leaders to step up and help us create an assessment system that works.

Our current government has a marvellous knack for throwing the baby out with the bath water. National curriculum levels were not perfect, but the idea that each school should create its own assessment system is extremely dubious. Do we need 22,000 wheels reinvented? To take just two examples: how well will inspectors be able to use the school’s data to make judgements? And how will secondary schools cope with different data from each of their primaries?

My instinct, whenever the government creates a vacuum, is that the profession should fill it without seeking permission. We need a nationally consistent system of assessment, yes, but no one said it has to be a government-led system. What about a profession-led approach? I am sure we could do a better job. As an association of leaders, if we believe there is a better way it is up to us to create it – as we are already doing with Aspire and Instead, for example.

A profession-led approach

For this reason, the NAHT has established the Commission on Assessment without Levels. It will work in the autumn term to produce a report around Christmas time. The commission contains our own officials as well as a broad range of policy makers, practitioners and academics. It will invite evidence from all interested parties – including a survey of our membership.

The commission has three aims, which are to:

  • agree a set of principles, which should underpin approaches to assessment across the country, creating consistency;

  • identify and highlight examples of good practice that meet these principles, saving time; and

  • secure the acceptance of officials and inspectors, building confidence.

If the commission achieves these aims, schools should have confidence that, when they invest in developing or acquiring an assessment system, it will be used and accepted by officials, recognisable to other schools and genuinely effective in supporting teaching and learning. It is also a good chance to measure what matters in ways that help schools plan learning and spot need.

Ditching levels is not the only dubious idea on the horizon, and NAHT will certainly have a full programme of activity this autumn. We can cope with the end of levels, because we can fill the gap ourselves; we can cope with the new curriculum, because we can continue to teach what matters. However, we cannot put up with proposals for ranking 11-year-olds according to their performance in Sats.

Let’s be clear, you have to be honest with people, and sometimes those messages are tough. But these rankings are not honest. They are not an accurate measure of pupils’ performance and they are not an indication of their future potential, although – despite the government’s protestations – they will be regarded as such by many. I do not think this is right. What possible definition of ‘secondary readiness’ involves arriving believing you are in the bottom 10 per cent of students in the country?

My view is that we can actually take higher floor standards, if a reasonable level of progress is a genuine alternative to attainment, with certain clear conditions: that they are based on measures that command the confidence and respect of the profession; that schools are accountable only for factors within their control, rather than becoming scapegoats for society’s failings; and that we are given space from the constant tinkering to focus on building the skills and capacity needed.

If you would like to get in touch about this issue, or anything else, please email me at generalsecretary@naht.org.uk.


Russell Hobby is NAHT general secretary


23 September 2013