Six simple ways Leaders can improve primary assessment

Today I read an interesting article on TES, it was about the recent School Leaders event in Sheffield. The article particularly focussed on assessment (find it here). I agree totally with the outcomes of the day, and would like to add my thoughts (and how we look at assessment, within our framework for creating high performing cultures in schools). The conference was arranged by Dame Alison Peacock, headteacher at Wroxham School in Potters Bar.

1. Listen to Children

This was definitely the theme for most of the conference. I wholeheartedly agree. For all assessment, the student should be at the centre of the circle. The whole point of assessment is to help them learn (better/faster/stronger) - the fundamental question I pose to leadership teams at the start of our programme is, ‘why assess?’ Most responses elicit, ‘to help students progress, learn’. Generally we find that most schools use written feedback, or possibly the less easy to evidence ‘verbal feedback’ to assess and inform student progress.

The difficulty I have with this is two fold

Time - From my ten plus years in the classroom, writing good quality feedback (bespoke if you will) to each learner takes time. In most cases schools ask the student to then write a return comment to the teacher...why…? explain they understand and have learnt something... (in the words of one of my ex students GEEZ!)

Personal - it is quite difficult to personalise this kind of feedback, written feedback requires the ability to not only read the text, but also relate to it.  Face to face feedback is great, but typically difficult to record (VF stamp anyone?) Why not tap into what we as teachers do so well… talking face to face and simply record it?

Here is an easy solution that ticks every single box:

Use a system that is easy to record clips of sound, stores them net to each student, allows SLT access should it be needed, and gives potential access to parents. Use something that is quick and easy to pick up, that tracks interactions, and means I can give one (or one to many) students feedback at once.

Is this a utopia? No. It is available right now. For free. Cross platform. Mobile and desktop based. You dont need loads of devices, just one will do!

The best system I have used for this is Showbie. A simple, straight forward app, that once deployed to staff can literally save HOURS a week...and engage students beyond a paragraph written in a book (in green). With a few simple tweaks to your team / staff working practise you too can save your staff time and workload!

2. Don't worry about Ofsted...too much

Having met Sean Harford on a few occasions, and spending a little time talking to him personally, I truly believe his intentions are right. He attended the conference to listen, and having seen him do the same at several conferences I agree with him that, ‘ if your principles are right you should be all right’.

Ofsted is concerned with seeing schools do awesome things, having spent time with Sean it is obvious he is keen to dispell the ‘old school’ Ofsted misconceptions. From what I have seen of new framework assessments with regards leadership, if the school is working towards systems that put the learner in the centre, and aren’t preoccupied with box ticking or making the staff/school ‘shine for a day’, then you have little to worry about. For me its making sure teachers do what they do best, and use systems (like assessment ones above) that enhance learning, not stifle it.

3. School leaders must be accountable

Damn right. Summative assessment is necessary, as well as teacher appraisal. But I question the need for report writing. The days of parents only attending one parents evening once a year/term have gone. Why shouldn't schools and leaders tap into social media and systems that allow for transparency? Why cant school leaders and staff share their awesome work quicker? Using a digital feedback system like Showbie (there are others), means students, teachers AND parents can see live feedback or respond quicker to feedback. It makes the whole thing more transparent. Yes, there could be ‘issues’ with this, but for me its a case of looking at the reasons WHY there night be perceived issues… training parents as well as staff and students on these systems is paramount.

4. Levels have gone, don't reinvent them

This one alone is bigger than this one blog post. But we see this time and time again. Numbers are replaced with letters, replaced with colours, replaced with metals, replaced with (in some cases) fruit. I have seen a wealth of assessment frameworks that still create ‘slots’ or ‘boxes’. One method that is interesting is the idea of Threshold Concepts. We use this within our framework, and with some really interesting results.

5. Growth Mindsets & Mastery

Or as we like to call it - wanting to keep learning. Most schools that approach us WANT to do things differently, but DON'T do things differently. The main reason is because talking about a growth mindset is one thing, to actually bite the bullet and do it is a totally different ball game. I'm not saying they don't because they cant, but because they don't yet know how.

We focus on a few simple steps to encourage a change in culture, in thought, in mindset.

As someone who is like a magpie with hobbies and activities, growth mindset seems to come naturally. The only reason is because I want to find out how things work...and that's it really. Having staff, or a few key staff who have this can help fire up culture shift in your schools.

6. Sparkly pens are for students only

Its time to change the way we approach feeding back to students, and in some cases staff. Getting back to the root of what makes teaching great, its the interaction, the rapport with individuals. Put the bloody pens down, and pick up a camera and a Dictaphone. Quite simply, recording a conversation with a student, recording a demo on video (and putting onto YouTube - really easy) can mean your staff don't have to keep explaining the same things. They can explain it one way, create that video in the time it takes to explain it, then record a different way. If all your team are doing this, then students can tap into EVERY video or recording and understand the topic way more than just with a written comment in a book. Students and parents can SEE and HEAR your teachers explaining a technique or idea at home, on a tablet, or mobile phone. Why wouldn't that be a great thing?

Showbie markets as 'the paperless classroom', but it does so much more than fact so many more awesome things like; saving your staff time collecting evidence, sharing with parents, reducing workload and repetitive tasks.

Showbie markets as 'the paperless classroom', but it does so much more than fact so many more awesome things like; saving your staff time collecting evidence, sharing with parents, reducing workload and repetitive tasks.


Quite simply, this conference was about getting leaders to look at the challenges differently, approach the tasks differently. Its time to give something else a go? And as I said earlier, why wouldn't you? I you as a leader in school could free up staff even 30 minutes a week, wouldn't you? If you could reduce some of the stress of assessment would you? If the answer to these is yes, then give it a go! If you want help, or to talk this through, please get in touch! I want nothing more than to talk to headteachers and leadership teams who are willing to give it a go and see what can happen! Drop me an email if you would like to talk to some leaders who have tried it out!


Jay Ashcroft

Entrepreneur. Author. Speaker. Cofounder of LearnMaker