Ever wonder what an MA in Education Assessment does to your brain?

Hello all!

This post is part one of a two-part 'why, oh why did I do an MA?' series.  It's an interesting read about the history and development of education policy in the UK (it's more interesting than it sounds) and, for all you behind-the-scenes fans, it is also the out-takes of my dissertation Literature Review, which is why it might seem a little dry in places.

I am planning a post around the idea of 'So, you're thinking of an MA in education?' because it seems that more and more teachers are looking into it.  Having some experience in that area, I feel like I should share my views.  But that's a coming attraction.  This week is the history of policy reform.  Next week is the story behind how the SATs became so highly staked (I know it is WAY to early to even mention the 'S' word but it has been my life for the past nine months and I need an outlet that isn't going to be graded!).  

I'm also going to put my usual sign-off here because I've included all the references (if any of you want to fact-check me).  So, get a cup of tea and some garibaldis; I can be reached at the usual places: mrmorristeacher@gmail.com; @Mr_M_Musings; Carl's Learning Place.  Stay safe; hands, face, space; see you on the other side!

Policies are intended to keep everyone on the same page.
There was no unifying National Curriculum before the late 1980s
The policies that exist now are vague and open to interpretation

The Magical (abridged) History of UK Education Policy!

In its purest form, a policy is a statement of intent with a desired outcome.  Policies and policymakers are generally considered to be ‘fixers’ (Bacchi, 2009).  This definition carries the implication that, for there to be the need of a policy, something must first be a problem in need of fixing.  However, some argue that policies exist merely to recognise that there is a problem, with no particular expectation of addressing or resolving it.    

Public policies then, those written by governments, are written in response to a problem in society.  As such, perhaps a stronger definition of the term could be expected: are they suggested fixes to the problem, or merely acknowledgements that the problem exists with no real call to arms to deal with it?  The UK government has stated that, while ‘policy’ should be a well-understood term, there is no written definition of it (Waller et al., 2009).  They do agree that policies are a process through which ideas and visions are acted upon to deliver outcomes as changes in the real world, and that, as a concept, they are a continuous loop of suggestion, implementation and improvement (Secretariat & Blair, 1999).  Interestingly, it has been suggested that, while this is a fine definition of what Government Policy is in the UK, few civil servants were likely to have read it or to have even been aware of it ten years after its inception (Waller et al., 2009), let alone in 2020.  This is going to become very interesting when we explore local educational policies later on.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, thirty-second President of the USA, once said that, when faced with a problem, it was important to try something.  Even if it failed, the act of trying suggests affirmative action for positive change (Callander, 2011).  Policies allow governing bodies to call attention to (Bacchi, 2009) and experiment with solutions to problems (Callander, 2011).  Policies set expectations and deadlines for action and evaluation.  They can promote accountability among leaderships and, perhaps most importantly, they allow everyone to understand what is expected of them in a given situation (Bond & McCracken, 2005) (even if we cannot agree on the ephemeral definition of policy, we can understand the intention of one once it is in place (Waller et al., 2009)).  Essentially then, policies are the agreed approach to a perceived problem with a view to, if not fixing, then perhaps improving a given situation and the subsequent understanding that it could be merely one of several evolutions of a multi-step strategy consisting of a conception, implementation, evaluation loop (Little, 2010).   

Education Policy in England

Before 1988 there was no National Curriculum and schools were free to teach what they deemed appropriate for their children.  This freedom extended to assessment, which was neither centralised nor under the control of a central government (Wyse & Torrance, 2009, p. 213).  Local Education Authorities would overlook standards and coverage but at a regional level.  By the time the National Curriculum was introduced (1988), assessment in Primary schools had been largely focussed on selection for grammar schools via the 11+ (Wyse & Torrance, 2009, p. 214).  This process had been criticised for some years with elements such as coaching (Floud et al., 1958) and a bias towards the middle classes (Kelly et al., 1962) being cited as motivations towards a different kind of secondary school, which required a different kind of assessment and, importantly, an accountability framework that ensured all children in England had access to the same level of education (Wyse & Torrance, 2009, p. 214) (this criticism of coaching and middle-class bias has not gone away, nor has the 11+, possibly because one of the reasons for the new government control of education was value for money (Wyse & Torrance, 2009, p. 215)).  

It was not without its detractors, with some Local Education Authorities feeling unfairly usurped of responsibility and control (Gorard et al., 2002, p. 31), and others expressing concern that the intentions behind the new national assessment tests were contradictory (Haviland, 1988).  As far back as 1988, there were concerns over the tests being used both as a measure of schools’ ability to deliver the new National Curriculum, as well as a tool by which to judge accountability through ‘floor standards’ (the number of children expected to achieve a passing grade) (Hutchings, 2015).  There was also a concern in these initial stages of curriculum constraint, which would later become known as curriculum narrowing (Berliner, 2011).    

An independent task group was established to explore how best to establish national testing and avoid these predicted pitfalls.  The task force returned advice that Standard Assessment Tasks would be a good idea.  Externally produced and based on the National Curriculum, these SATs (not the SATs; not yet) would be internally marked and administered by schools when the children were ready (Wyse & Torrance, 2009, p. 215) (italics added).  So we have an identified problem - a need to unify national education and keep the system fairer for all - and a proposed solution in the Standard Assessment Tasks.  All the makings of a very strong Public Assessment Policy.  Except it was interpreted a little differently by the government when they received the report (Wyse & Torrance, 2009, p. 215).  

To save money, it was decided that the national tests would focus solely on the core subjects of Maths, English and Science.  To allow for a more timely administration and a better national picture of standards, the tests were narrowed and adapted so that all children had a better chance of achieving a passing grade; also the timing of the administration became fixed.  Finally, to allow for better monitoring of a school’s ability to effectively deliver the curriculum and thus prove to be value for the public money that was being spent, league tables were created to provide feedback for the government, the parents and the children (Daugherty, 1995), making the tests both a measure and a target.  Also, the name was adapted, dropping the more friendly ‘standard assessment task’ and opting instead for the very definitely judgemental, Statutory Assessment Tests (Whetton, 2009).    

Almost a decade later, the New Labour government devolved government responsibilities in relation to, among other things, education, resulting in England having different National Curriculum and Assessment policies from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (Hill, 2002).  This, along with the introduction of the National Numeracy and the National Literacy Schemes, possibly as a result of international comparison tests, is one of many effects of the new globalisation of education (Tatto, 2007).  With them came changes to the National Curriculum to include ‘standards’ and ‘targets’, changes which made their inevitable way to the SATs.  The implementation of the national strategies (essentially, policies under a different name) was intended to ease the pressure on teachers by providing a national framework on which to pin the learning (Wyse & Torrance, 2009, p. 216).  However, the ‘top-down’ approach to policymaking had the opposite effect, disenfranchising teachers and not making allowances for local anomaly cases. 

Top-down policymaking is being challenged more and more by the growing voice of those who have to implement the policy.  This is giving rise to more 'bottom-up' decisions where local voices are being considered at the decision stages of policy change and reform (Viennet & Pont, 2017, p. 9).  There are currently 32 statutory public policies in place for local-authority-maintained schools and academies in England (Department for Education, 2019).  While these are statutory, they are not a legal requirement (Department for Education, 2019) but are linked to associated legislation.  Most of these are reviewed annually but some can stand for four years before a review is required.  A great deal of them (30/32) are approved locally by the school’s governing body (an elected body consisting of teachers, school leaders, local authority representatives, parents and any other member of the community who is willing to uphold the school’s values (Department for Education, 2014b)).  The governing body, as well as deciding how a school spends its budget (including how much to spend on teaching staff and training) is responsible for ensuring that the headteacher performs adequately to maintain the educational performance of the school (Department for Education, 2014a).  Most importantly for this research, the governing body has a duty to know the ‘importance of a broad and balanced curriculum (Department for Education, 2015b).’  Part of this expectation involves having read and understood the Commission on Assessment without Levels (Department for Education, 2015a) document, which suggests what a good assessment policy should look like.  

This means that the UK government has noticed a potential problem related to assessment within education.  They have written a policy intended to fix this problem. That policy is then delivered to the school and expected to be implemented by the teaching staff.  However, before it gets to the teaching staff, it goes through the governing body who, with the consultation of potentially only one active teacher, interpret the policy against the vision, ethos and strategic direction of the school (Department for Education, 2014a).  So, just one step removed from the policymakers’ original intent, we have a potentially subjective interpretation.  This step has benefits as well as drawbacks.  

In writing new policies from afar, essential implementation practices (like, do teachers have the necessary skills to teach this?) can be overlooked (Viennet & Pont, 2017).  Local interpretation allows for this and, theoretically at least, implies that adequate training would be in place to ensure the successful implementation of the policy.  However, there is evidence to suggest that schools and local authorities, both nationally and internationally, are resistant to change and that this resistance to policy reform, coupled with the subjective interpretation, can lead to failure of implementation (Viennet & Pont, 2017).  For this reason, it is vital for the policymakers to ensure that the message and intention of the policy are understood not just at the local but also the classroom level.    After all, it is in the classroom that these changes will be implemented on a daily basis, so teachers need to not only be invested in the results but also aware of the intention, time scale and scope of the policy (Viennet & Pont, 2017).   It has been suggested that truly effective policies are created with built-in flexibility to adapt to unforeseen problems in its implementation.  In this sense, any benefit, intentional or otherwise, is the result of effective policymaking (Cerna, 2013).  However, unless the classroom teachers are members of the governing body, or have taken it upon themselves to read the original policies for themselves, they might not be aware of the policy’s original intention, time scale and scope.  

For this reason, the implementation of education policies should be viewed as a stand-alone process.  They rely on a three-way relationship with formulating and evaluating.  This is another reason why a 'top-down' policy is becoming archaic and more horizontal or 'bottom-up' structures are being used.  Of course, these newer approaches also involve more people, larger committees and take longer to progress, which impacts on the time it takes to see results and further exacerbates the implementation process (Viennet & Pont, 2017, p. 16).

None of the current 32 statutory policies mentions assessment, however, the document, Primary Assessment in England: Government consultation response (2017) details a proportionate assessment system for schools in England.  The document mentions statutory teacher assessment of areas such as writing, but officially removes the reporting of subjects that are assessed using data from national testing.  Statutory assessment for Reading and maths at the end of Key Stage 2 is a legal requirement for English schools (Standards & Testing Agency, 2016) and is recognised as being important not only for capturing information about pupil attainment but also to ensure schools receive the appropriate credit for good work (Standards & Testing Agency, 2016).  This wording is echoed in the test frameworks themselves, although the positive edge is lost slightly, with schools being informed that they will be held accountable for attainment and progress based exclusively on the results of the tests (Standards & Testing Agency, 2014).  Echoing the original conflict from 1988, this creates a situation where schools are required to teach a broad and balanced curriculum that does not focus on testing, nor bias itself towards achieving a high score in a national statutory test, despite knowing that a judgement of the ability of the school and staff to deliver the curriculum will be based on said statutory test.

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