Published on: 05 Sep 2016

Getting assessment and the way you use data right from the start is imperative, with some common pitfalls to avoid and a growing amount of good practice to follow.

How should new schools use assessment?

Mike Crowhurst, Director of Education, New Schools Network

If you could design a school from scratch, what would it look like? That’s the exciting question that hundreds of teachers have been answering since the free school programme started in 2010.

But just as opening a school means having to decide which books to put on the curriculum and how long the school day should be, it also offers the chance to rethink the way that assessment is used and what to do with the data this produces. 

With almost 350 free schools now open – including more than 150 that have been inspected by Ofsted and dozens that have recorded their first exam results – we now know much more about what new schools really need to think about when designing their approach to assessment.

Most have been very successful, with more than three quarters rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. But their experience shows that getting assessment and the way you use data right from the start is imperative, with some common pitfalls to avoid and a growing amount of good practice to follow.

Here are the questions you really need to be able to answer when thinking about assessment in your new school.

How will we know that pupils are making progress?

All schools need to monitor the progress of their pupils across the school year. But this is particularly important for new free schools without a track record. Since most will start with classes in Reception or Year 7 only, it may be several years before they record outcomes at the end of a key stage, which makes it vital that they know what trajectory pupils are on.

An effective understanding of this progress should be underpinned by a reliable assessment of the pupils’ abilities when they enter the school. New free schools may find this difficult to obtain, particularly in their early years of growth, when pupils may join them at a relatively late stage or come from settings which they haven’t shared data with before. Using internal assessments can therefore help to build up a rich and accurate ‘baseline’ of achievement, from which progress can be measured.

Since many free schools have a vision which goes beyond academic achievement, it is also important to demonstrate progress towards this too. Whether it’s learning a musical instrument, developing character traits or improving behaviour, a systematic approach to establishing a baseline, setting targets and recording progress against them is the best way to know whether the school is having an impact on pupils’ personal development.

How we can make sure that our judgements are accurate?

Recording accurate judgements about pupils’ progress is particularly important for Ofsted, which usually inspects free schools in their third year after opening.

The experience of ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ free schools is that independent validation of these judgements is essential. Without some form of moderation, it’s much harder for schools to convince inspectors that their claims about pupil progress are secure and can be used as evidence for a strong inspection outcome.

If your school is doing something especially innovative or distinctive, which inspectors may not have seen before, then it’s even more important that you are able to back up your judgements. Inspection reports for have a sharp focus on the impact, or lack of impact, that it is having. Using standardised assessments that are devised or assessed independently and that are familiar to inspectors is one good way of ensuring that your judgements about progress are robust.

How can we make data clear and simple for everyone who interacts with it?

With so much attention surrounding a new school, being able to demonstrate its impact is crucial. Prospective parents, staff and the local community all need to be convinced that the school is successful but may have to wait several years for exam results or an Ofsted rating.

Sharing data – on pupils’ academic progress and other indicators – can be an effective way of developing the school’s reputation.  But this needs to be done using systems that make it simple for everyone to understand how the children and school are doing.

Within the school, it’s important for senior leaders to ensure that systems are clear and easily accessible, as all staff will be new to them. This is a great opportunity for free schools to be smarter in the way they use data.


These insights should give you a sound foundation for your approach to assessment, but running a free school successfully is an ongoing challenge. New Schools Network provides advice and resources on every aspect of opening a new school, so please feel free to get in touch with us if you’d like to discuss this topic further or if there’s anything else we can do to help.

Follow New Schools Network on Twitter @TheNSN

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