Helen Angell, Director of School Improvement, Cabot Learning Federation, UK

It is another extraordinary year. As leaders and teachers in schools and academies have grappled with the complexities of COVID-19, assessment has once more become central to education discourse. The memory of the centre assessment grades (CAGs) process last academic year and plans for teacher-assessed grades this year continue to cause anxiety for students, families and their schools. And so, reflecting on our learning about assessment is timely. We all continue to provide for our students; Year 11 and 13 students returned in September with varying levels of lockdown learning and we welcomed them with care and enthusiasm. We are tackling examination courses with truncated time and have planned for formative and summative assessment to enable all students to access their awards and next steps. We now, of course, face the challenge of teacher-assessed grades (TAGs): assessing all of our students in as fair, accurate and rigorous a manner as possible.

With this in mind, at the Cabot Learning Federation (CLF), we are seeking to further exploit our collaborative behaviours and strategies. One facet of this is the distillation of our collective understanding of quality conversations to ensure exceptional provision and planning.

So, what are quality conversations? Conversation is defined as ‘talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information is exchanged’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2021). In our trust, we use this term to describe the activity undertaken by teachers and leaders in small and large groups within academies and across our trust, as they embed the organic subject curriculum and assessment and pursue subject pedagogy. It particularly describes our standardisation–moderation–planning cycle. In simple terms, this asks colleagues to consider together these questions: Where are your students? How do you know? Where will you take them next? How will you get them there? We know that there are inextricable links between curriculum, pedagogy and assessment in any subject, and we want to utilise them.

The concept of quality conversations has developed for us over a number of years and gained particular resonance during the crucible of challenge and activity with CAGs. This places teachers and students at the centre of learning and strategy; discussion and debate between teachers, subject leaders and senior leaders become levers for improved provision.

Trust, empowerment and conditions for collaboration

Collaboration has variously been defined as ‘joint practice development’ (Hargreaves, 2012, p. 8; Hill et al., 2012, p. 67), working ‘in partnership’ (Atkinson et al., 2007, p. 5), ‘participation in networks’ (Little, 2005, p. 77) and being part of a community (Wenger, 1998).

We place high value on collaboration: it resonates in everything we do at all levels – in this instance, developing curriculum, assessment and pedagogical expertise. We know that collaboration is a helical process. It demands time and attention at a strategic level to ensure that its value is understood, as well as staff whose purpose is to facilitate and evaluate collaborative activities.

As educationalists, we want all stakeholders to have trust and faith in us as a profession and, most importantly, we want our students to receive exceptional provision. Collaborative practices and – importantly for assessment – the use of quality conversations ensure professional integrity. Collaborative approaches to assessment are an opportunity to showcase our rigour at all levels: teachers, leaders and governance.

However, the challenge for collaboration is, as described by Andy Hargreaves, the avoidance of contrived collegiality (Hargreaves, 1991) to create something meaningful and an accepted cultural undertaking. Our school improvement practices make deliberate space for and ask colleagues to flexibly build and use networks; teachers need to feel ownership of their classrooms and the progress of their students but also ownership of their effective working with others. This is the foundation for the quality conversations that we are seeking. We are seeking the ‘positive movement’ described by Michael Fullan, where ‘peers will influence peers with respect to both moral will and technical expertise. In short, motion leadership increases intrinsic motivation and identity that results in collective ownership commitment to keep going.’ (Fullan, 2010, p. 41)

We describe this as empowerment, and in particular the empowerment of networks of teachers who share the same subject discipline. When helping colleagues to understand their collaborative roles, it is interesting to remind them of their original desire to teach. When we ask our teachers this in various networks, they describe their love of their subject and a deep sense of social justice. We foster these two areas with clear direction to improve provision at subject level through the intertwined elements of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. We ask these communities of subject specialists to describe what subject brilliance looks like and what matters most at subject level. This inevitably includes descriptions of how students showcase their attainment and expectations for this.

Subject communities

Collaborative culture includes the desire that practitioners have to improve their practice and understanding, to talk about the beautiful work their students produce, and to explore and debate why work is successful. Our subject specialist networks have enabled rich discussion for this process. Etienne Wenger-Trayner describes these as ‘communities of practice’, which are ‘groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’ (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015, p. 1).

For us, alongside embedded subject-specific support, this has developed a sense of peer accountability, whereby colleagues hold each other to account at every level and do not want to be perceived as lacking in professional expertise or skill. Michael Fullan (2010, p. 35) describes collaboration as an essential component of school improvement, empowering staff: ‘it turns out that the best way to tighten things up is to get peers to do it.’ He counsels that teaching and learning will be better if staff are involved in developing each other through planning and evaluation. Wenger describes this as colleagues standing with each other as they develop a ‘shared repertoire’ (Wenger, 1998, p. 82).

For assessment, this includes an understanding of the standards expected by the exam boards and awarding bodies at subject level. In our subject communities, discussions and debates about the relative quality of pieces of work are a rich resource for developing what Thomas Levine refers to as ‘participating in practices and having thoughts that would be impossible for us if we were on our own’ (Levine, 2010, p. 127). Shared practices for standardisation, moderation and then future planning are seen by teachers not as ‘an addition to their workload but as their work’ (Uhl and Pérez-Sellés, 1995, p. 261).

Of course, when we encourage rich debate among specialists, there are strong emotions around the relative merits of curriculum content and the perceived successes of students’ work. We embrace these challenging conversations as an essential aspect of collaborative activity. Patrick Lencioni describes colleagues who trust one another as able to ‘engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas’, thereby avoiding dysfunction and being truly cohesive as ‘they focus on the achievement of collective results’ (Lencioni, 2002, p. 189).

Collaborative practice invests in each subject community, shining a light on the importance of subject and utilising both the passion for subject and the moral determination for equitable provision.

Quality conversations as the cornerstone of assessment

So, collaborative culture involves challenge and interrogation too, including questions such as how and why. For all of our trust-wide assessment, colleagues are asked to explain their assessment decisions and expose themselves to questioning from their peers and line managers at every level, developing the ability to articulate: ’I know this is right because…’

This is supported by the embedded nature of exam board specifications within our curricula, which are developed by our subject communities. The different awarding bodies define their subject ethos, explaining what it means to be an expert in the subject at the age of 16 or 18. The language around states of being is helpful, as well as an understanding of what we can really expect of a student at this age. We have aligned our deep specification knowledge within our work upon curriculum: what does it mean to be a geographer, writer, scientist, linguist, artist…?

Our teachers know their specifications well, access the support of awarding bodies through training and materials, and are able to tell us what the exam board values at subject level. This deep-rooted knowledge of what constitutes success in a subject is always pulled back to the ethos of specification and the illustration of the standards for progressive success. Senior leaders take this further by asking: How does the specification define success? What evidence of success can be gathered? Is this the best evidence to use? How do you know?

Our knowledge and expertise as specialists in our awards is better than ever. In our subject communities, we have developed and shared materials and opportunities to help us understand the standard of each level of the mark scheme and each grade. We can use these materials now to help us formatively assess, feed back to students, predict and plan. Our shared understanding helps us to judge how our students are currently attaining and where they are likely to improve over the remainder of the year, allowing us to predict and plan with accuracy.

These are the challenging and supportive conversations that we expect all senior and middle leaders and teachers to engage in at all times. They are both qualitative and quantitative and seek to triangulate what we know about a subject, a specification, the standards and the students. We ask ourselves: What processes have we developed to allow for debate and challenge? How do we know that assessments are fair, unbiased and accurate?

An essential condition for successful quality conversations is dedicated time – the time to reflect and fine-tune thinking, and to openly talk about the role of gut instinct in assessment. It is cognitively, emotionally and logistically challenging work. It is what Meirink et al. would describe as ‘instructional problem-solving and planning’, which has ‘rich learning potential’ (Meirink et al., 2010, p. 164).

Settling into uncertainty

Teachers and students are still contending with what is ahead, but these developing conversations will surely serve us well. Tom Sherrington describes this as the relationship between comfort and strategy for teachers and students alike (Sherrington, 2020):

‘A strategy-orientated mind set… This kind of approach, this mind set, also offers comfort and supports well-being because it shows students a way forward. It doesn’t ignore or soften the challenge; it doesn’t reinforce self-doubt or create obstacles out of fears and anxieties. Being strategy-focused channels the need for a response into something productive; getting out of the pit, not sinking further into it.’

When we assess, it is to help students understand where they are and what they might do next. Within the current crucible, collaborative activity remains a lever for us: it gives us further impetus for change. Colleagues talk together with passion and expertise so that provision is planned, challenged and supported, enabling all children to see a pathway to their success and next steps. For us, we seek what Robert Macfarlane describes from Suzanne Simard’s work (Macfarlane, 2019, pp. 89–90):

‘Beneath the forest floor there did indeed exist what she called an “underground social network”… trees could move resources around between one another… The fungi and trees had “forged their duality into a oneness thereby making a forest”. Instead of seeing trees as individual agents competing for resources, she proposed the forest as “a co-operative system”, in which trees “talk” to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence she described as “forest wisdom”. Some older trees even “nurture” smaller trees that they recognise as their “kin”, acting as “mothers”’

Challenge, debate and discussion should lead to a shared understanding and a mutually supportive system where all teachers can develop their assessment and their curriculum and pedagogical expertise. These ideas will underpin our approach to TAGs: teachers and leaders developing together the most appropriate provision for exam classes and engaging in careful and clear assessment decisions so that our judgements are accurate, fair and robust.


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