Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Working Smarter - not harder

Hand and cog

Assessment for learning is one way schools are responding to the personalised learning agenda. David Corden says that at Haybridge High School, what's been good medicine for the pupils has also helped staff work "smarter not harder". Here he tells how a group of four department heads got the whole staff on board.

Our interest in assessment for learning (AFL) arose from the teaching and learning agenda, specifically boys' underachievement and language for learning. Our 2000 Ofsted inspection highlighted good practice in these areas and growing awareness of AFL in supporting both issues.

In the summer of 2001, four department heads attended a conference by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of King's College on their work 'Inside the Black Box'. This fired us with an enthusiasm to develop the ideas further.

Back in school, our developmental work was based on four rationale. First, we were convinced by the research evidence. The work of Black and Wiliam, the Assessment Reform Group at Cambridge University and others provided a highly persuasive argument that this was something worth pursuing.

Second, there was a clear link with our previous emphasis on literacy and boys' underachievement. We believed AFL could be the next stage of development.

Third, we saw AFL as a vital component in raising achievement and developing more independent learners.

Finally, there was the very practical belief that AFL would lead to more effective use of both student and teacher time - to quote our head's favourite mantra, "working smarter not harder".

Two-year rule

The first thing to emphasise is that AFL is a change which cannot be hurried. Dylan Wiliam advised that any attempt to introduce school-wide AFL in less than two years would almost certainly fail. We took him at his word.

For a number of years, the school has had a collaborative approach to setting and implementing school improvement plan (SIP) targets.

Four key whole-school targets are identified and all teachers are expected to sign up for one of the associated working groups. These groups meet each training day and in between as and when members see fit.

It was, therefore, regarded as the norm when in April 2002 we formed the AFL working group.

The AFL group attracted large numbers - a sure sign of its perceived central importance - and after setting out targets for the first year, the group began organising a major input for our September training day.

This was led by two teachers from a school involved in the King's-Medway-Oxfordshire action research project. They shared their own experiences and enthusiasms based on the work they had done. It was a most valuable 'starter' for our staff.

During the next term and a half, members of the working group took it upon themselves to try out a variety of AFL techniques, about which they had heard or read, within their own departments.

We decided to restrict our action research at this stage to Years 9 and 12. At the time we were a 13-18 high school and felt that these two entry year groups would make a good starting point.

In conjunction with the other SIP working groups, we fed back findings to the whole staff at the end of spring term 2003 and it was agreed that the work would continue into 2003-04.

Finding good practice

By this time there was a clear need to share this more widely and to extend ownership throughout the school.

Therefore, the working group's targets for year two were to collect examples of good practice, both from within and outside of the school, and prepare a series of key documents.

At the same time, it had become obvious that the school's marking, assessment and recording policies were in need of a major overhaul. The working group took on this task also, supported by a deputy head.

The outcome was the 'Haybridge Guide to Good Practice', a 13-page document covering the theory of AFL, guides for students and parents, and guidance for staff on 'comments only' marking.

Most significantly, it contains a distillation of good ideas from every departmental area structured around the six strands of 'AFL in everyday lessons' found in the 'black box' research and reproduced in the 2003 Key Stage 3 strategy materials.

Although the working group wound up at the end of spring term 2004, key members of the group remain at the heart of the current phase of the implementation: embedding.

Last September, Haybridge became an 11-18 high school, incorporating not only two new year groups but some 26 teachers who had not been through the learning curve of the previous two years.

AFL was therefore a main item on the training agenda at the start of the new year. It's currently being followed up by a whole school self-evaluation of the extent to which AFL is truly embedded in the curriculum and classroom practice.

The outcomes of this review will, of course, inform our ongoing CPD agenda. It looks like AFL may just be here to stay.

David Corden is head of geography at Haybridge High School and Sixth Form, an 11-18 comprehensive in Worcestershire.

Bringing staff on board

The last two and a half years have been both exciting and constructive in trying to introduce and embed AFL. We have, of course, learned a number of lessons about bringing staff on board. Here are the key issues:

  • Take time to master the brief. Staff must be convinced of the worth and validity of the research and theory.

  • An innovation on this scale cannot be rushed. Remember Dylan Wiliam's two-year rule.

  • Get key personnel on board at the earliest possible stage. Able and enthusiastic subject leaders are the driving force of change and must be supported all the way.

  • Adopt a model that is founded on the current practice of the school. This cannot be bolt-on innovation.

  • Use the SIP to place AFL at the heart of the teaching and learning agenda. Not only will this ensure it remains high profile, but it will also guarantee funding to enable training and action research.

  • Be prepared to take risks. Encourage an environment in which colleagues are able to experiment without fear of criticism or perceived failure.

  • Share the vision with the whole school community. This means students, parents and teaching assistants, as well as the teaching staff.

  • Share good practice and celebrate success. Nothing breeds willingness to move forward like confidence and congratulations.

Getting started - Further reading on AFL

The last two and a half years have been both exciting and constructive in trying to introduce and embed AFL. We have, of course, learned a number of lessons about bringing staff on board. Here are the key issues:

  • Take time to master the brief. Staff must be convinced of the worth and validity of the research and theory.

  • An innovation on this scale cannot be rushed. Remember Dylan Wiliam's two-year rule.

  • Get key personnel on board at the earliest possible stage. Able and enthusiastic subject leaders are the driving force of change and must be supported all the way.

  • Adopt a model that is founded on the current practice of the school. This cannot be bolt-on innovation.

  • Use the SIP to place AFL at the heart of the teaching and learning agenda. Not only will this ensure it remains high profile, but it will also guarantee funding to enable training and action research.

  • Be prepared to take risks. Encourage an environment in which colleagues are able to experiment without fear of criticism or perceived failure.

  • Share the vision with the whole school community. This means students, parents and teaching assistants, as well as the teaching staff.

  • Share good practice and celebrate success. Nothing breeds willingness to move forward like confidence and congratulations.

AFL in practice: Giving feedback

Haybridge has put together an assessment for learning good practice guide for all staff, taking examples from throughout the school and from Key Stage 3 materials.

One of the sections in the guide looks at 'assessment for learning in everyday lessons'. This excerpt looks specifically at ways to provide feedback which leads students to recognise their next steps and how to take them.

  • Teaching and learning strategies

  • Emphasise the value of (and use) oral feedback as well as written comments.

  • Ensure feedback is constructive rather than merely positive.

  • Write comments on work identifying what has been done well, what needs to be done to improve and how to do it.

  • Avoid the use of grades except in the marking of summative tests (end of topic, 'mock' examinations etc.).

Ideas for the classroom

  • Give students three boxes:What you did well (positive)What you did not do so well (realistic)Ways forward (constructive).

  • Year 13: discuss each piece of work with students which they have already marked; Year 9-11: give constructive comments on all marked work.

  • Write comments on homework: emphasise on good points and how to improve.

  • Only give grades in common assessments or exams.

  • Use critical study pages and homework sheets to tick progress.

  • Give two targets to pupils on a monthly basis.

  • Discuss errors in class - have students correct each others' work.

  • Provide a list of things to do after a piece of work.

  • Coursework allows the best one-to-one feedback opportunity - the very best kind of feedback - but the rest needs to be on task.

  • Years 10 and 11: give individual termly progress reports with specific targets for improvement.

  • Work on grading criteria, e.g. have to meet E criteria before moving to D.

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