Meaningful assessment: my conversation with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director of Education


10th July 2018

Meaningful assessment: my conversation with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director of Education
Meaningful assessment: my conversation with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director of Education

If you’ve just received your SATs results, or have gathered end-of-year assessments, you’ll no doubt be pondering – even questioning – the role of testing and assessment over recent times.

As a former headteacher and now Managing Director here at Cornerstones, the subject is often in my mind and I am keenly aware of the current, lively and important debate around testing in our profession. We find ourselves in a time of change in primary assessment; leaders now have the opportunity to grasp the nettle, influence practice and – dare I say – outcomes for many years to come.

I was therefore pleased to have the opportunity to raise the subject with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director of Education, when I met him at Westminster recently. We also discussed the primary curriculum – listen to the podcast here.

My conversation with Sean was frank and to-the-point, and I’ll attempt to unpick his answers in this short blog. You can also listen to the full interview in our latest podcast here.

Meaningful assessment

I begin by asking Sean his opinion of the term ‘meaningful assessment’. He stresses that assessment has to be useful; it should not be spreadsheets of meaningless data ‘based in a previous world’ or done simply for the benefit of other people or authorities. Instead, Sean advises that schools ask themselves: Is this assessment useful and will it be used to help teaching and learning? If not, it is probably not meaningful.

Summative vs formative?

As a former primary headteacher, I believe that all assessment has to be formative and that even national summative tests should be used in this way where possible. So I ask Sean about this and, in response, he reinforces that tests can be formative if used to identify and ‘plug’ gaps, and help teachers plan future learning. He wants a shift in attitude: ‘People need to see beyond the idea of tests = bad, other forms = good. We need to be careful about how we think of these things.’ As an example, Sean explains that multiple-choice tests can be an effective formative assessment tool.

Broadening the curriculum

I dig a little deeper to ask what role he thinks tests have in primary education and whether they have played a part in a narrowing of the curriculum. His response is, for me, an important acknowledgement that tests only assess certain aspects of individual subjects rather than across the whole domain: the entire curriculum. Sean stresses the point in his familiar ‘risk getting into hot-water’ manner, floating the notional idea that if we tested across all subjects, we might broaden the curriculum. Although not advocating this, he highlights that if we place too much value on what is tested, rather than the whole domain, the curriculum will be narrow.

As a headteacher, ‘teaching to test’ was always a bugbear of mine. Accountability has undoubtedly fuelled its prevalence, especially amongst Year 6 teachers in schools who may feel pressurised to eke out every extra SATs mark from their children. However, this narrowing down approach has major drawbacks – all of which have been on Ofsted’s radar.

Sean expands further: ‘Learning deeply in other subjects, like history, like geography, like RS, like drama, these subjects help with the others. Reading itself is not a narrow part of the curriculum. If you read across all subjects, then reading becomes ‘sticky’ and you start getting better at it.’

I agree. Connections in learning are essential, and I know that in developing our curriculum, Melanie (our Curriculum Director) and her team ensured that these sometimes visible, sometimes invisible threads run throughout the Cornerstones Curriculum.

The big picture

Sean’s final comments sum up nicely what’s important, which is getting back to helping children learn what we as a society feel is important, assessing where the gaps are, then trying to plug them. He finished by stating that we need to ‘raise our expectations that lots more children could learn lots more things if you get the curriculum right.’

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