View from a headteacher

How can schools use assessment to reduce teacher workload?

Headteacher Kieran Scanlon explains the key role effective assessment has played in turning around a struggling school in West Sussex

When headteacher Kieran Scanlon first joined Sir Robert Woodard Academy five years ago, the school wasn’t in great shape. The school had drifted in and out of special measures for five years, student intake was falling and staff morale was low. But this wasn’t because colleagues didn’t want to improve or were unwilling to put in the effort to make improvement happen. On the contrary.

“People were working extremely hard,” says Kieran. “The problem was that there was a very directive approach about how to teach, what to teach and when to teach. I think a kind of paralysis had set in.”

Kieran believes that schools that are Requires Improvement, like Sir Robert Woodard, often make the mistake of focusing on rapid progress that isn’t sustainable, doesn’t work and runs staff ragged. As a new head, he realised that he had to adopt a long-term vision, which acknowledged that a student’s time at the school was a five-year journey rather than an exam-focused sprint which neglected Key Stage 3.

Kieran knew that if the school was to get on a sustainable path to recovery, he had to go back to essentials – “to go back to what we were teaching and why we were teaching it”. “We had a group of talented teachers teaching in a very restrictive way and we weren’t allowing them to be as creative as they might be or allowing them to really enjoy their subjects.”

Before the school grappled with the ‘how’ he decided they had to discuss the ‘why’. He encouraged colleagues to discuss why they taught, “the moral purpose of the job, the self-belief, why they liked their subjects”. It was pretty abstract stuff, he says, but it was essential to get under the bonnet, to understand what we wanted to achieve and why. “That started the ball rolling,” he says. “It signalled to everybody that we were going to take a different approach.”

Kieran Scanlon

We are as excited about seeing the names of those who are doing well at the end of the lower years and as equally motivated to do things for those who aren’t doing so well. In some respects, it’s even more rewarding because you get to do something about it.

Why assess?

Asking ‘why’ was particularly pertinent when it came to assessment. “I think a lot of the workload issues are around how schools do assessment,” Kieran says. “Where it’s done well, where it has a genuine impact and gives teachers good information about who they’re teaching, everybody appreciates that. But where you are doing something that doesn’t have an obvious benefit to anyone other than external accountability systems, I don’t think people are interested in it.”

Kieran says he’s not surprised so many teachers in GL Assessment’s YouGov poll agreed that addressing data issues would have a positive impact on their workload. Most teachers, he says, are prepared to put in a lot of work if it means they get better as a teacher and their students do really well. “But where teachers are being asked to do things that aren’t about improving things in the classroom, that is hard work.”

Kieran says another key step in making data work for the teacher rather than vice versa was to define clearly what assessment was and to allot separate tasks to different people. “Assessment is such a big word; there’s so much in it. We spent a lot of time breaking assessment down into its various forms – ipsative, evaluative, formative or summative. We wanted absolute clarity about why we were assessing students and what it was for.”

As headteacher, for instance, the information Kieran needs most to communicate with governors, with his Trust and with Ofsted, is evaluative data. “And I don’t need that much of it. I just need to know start and end points and something in between to see how well we’re doing.”

Light-touch summative assessments were made the responsibility of the school’s curriculum directors and he gave the ownership of pretty much every other type of assessment back to the classroom teacher, “where it belongs”. Kieran says the school tries to avoid duplication where possible “but just by separating the different types of assessment we’ve become much clearer about what it’s for and why we’re doing it.”

Getting ahead is also crucial. When he first joined the school, Kieran says, there was a culture of very fast-moving assessment cycles “but they left no time for re-teaching, no time for genuine moderation – they just hadn’t got far enough ahead of themselves”. Now, the school is a year ahead. “Assessment for next year is done. We know today in every year group, probably in every subject, what the assessment looks like for the whole year.

Highlighting the red flags

Kieran points out that all data at Sir Robert Woodard is shared live and is available to all teachers. Focus, however, is key, particularly on those children who have been ‘red-flagged’. The school compares Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) data with Progress Test Series data to spot any discrepancies, which tend to be around 10% in any cohort.

“If you’re a typical classroom teacher and you’re teaching a foundation subject, you might be seeing 400 or 500 students a week, especially at KS3 – so just really highlighting those students helps. Even if you aren’t teaching in a core subject, you’ll be teaching 200 students. You need the red flags there, you need to know who those students are.”

He says the school has sometimes just focused on one specific student, and extrapolated the lessons learnt to children who are similar. “In our Inset days we will look at the 10% we’ve identified in Year 7. We will look at what they have done over the summer and what we need to do to make sure they’re successful in Year 8. And we’ll just keep checking in on them.”

When it comes to data, Kieran says, “the biggest difference is always going to be that a classroom teacher has clocked if a kid has an issue and made an adjustment. That’s the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference. Good assessment just ensures the teachers have the necessary information.”

Good, thought-through assessment has played a big part in reducing teacher workload and changing round the fortunes of the school.

We’re very classroom teacher focused – they are the most important people in the school – they are the ones we want to invest in.

Reaping the rewards

One of the biggest benefits of changing the way the school approaches assessment, Kieran says, is that he and his colleagues are now as motivated by what the data at Key Stage 3 is showing them as they were in the past about data around GCSEs and A levels. “We are as excited about seeing the names of those who are doing well at the end of the lower years and as equally motivated to do things for those who aren’t doing so well. In some respects, it’s even more rewarding because you get to do something about it.”

What he likes about GL Assessment’s digital tests is that they are “very quick, very tidy”, that comparisons can be made across all years and multiple subjects, and that they are statistically robust and benchmarked to national standards. He says adopting them has made a big difference, especially at KS3, where assessments tended to be teacher-led rather than nationally benchmarked.

Kieran cautions, however, that embedding change takes time. “It doesn’t happen very quickly. Just being honest about where this information is going to be most useful and to make sure that everyone was coming with us probably took us at least a year. A year fixing assessment and another two years to change the schemes of work – so three years in total.” The secret, he advises, is to get a year ahead. “Once you’re a year ahead that works.”

The future

Thanks to the changes he and his colleagues have made, Kieran says the future for Sir Robert Woodard Academy is bright.

“We’ve had a huge increase in student enrolment. In Year 7 we’re going to have 295 compared to 161 in Year 11. And people are staying, we’re now fully staffed.” Reducing teacher workload, has been key, Kieran says. “We’re very classroom teacher focused – they are the most important people in the school – they are the ones we want to invest in.”

Kieran thinks that good, thought-through assessment has played a big part in reducing teacher workload and changing round the fortunes of the school. But he says schools can easily get it wrong.

“We talk about being an evidence-based culture but doing it is a different thing.” Basing performance on evidence requires schools to take a look at several years-worth of data and compare it to the national average. “You actually have to have the numbers,” he says. “If assessment is feeding though to a culture that’s evidence-based that’s great, but if you’re not showing people where you are making those links, then it feels like a waste of time.”

Once you’re a year ahead that works.