Guest blog by Sam Johnson – Deputy Head Teacher (Quality of Education)
In a world with no summer GCSE or A Level exams for the past two years assessment remains as, if not more, important than ever. But why? There is a call from some nationally to totally reform the exams systems in the UK but there is even greater drive from the vast majority across education to ensure exams go ahead this year. In a world turned upside down by a global pandemic, why is assessment so important? Aren’t there more important things we should be focusing on? At FBS we have been relentless in our focus on education and we believe assessment goes hand in hand with that; let me explain why.
Assessment is a part of life. From the moment a child is born we are assessing them: when they can talk, walk, form simple sentences, start to add up, read… the list goes on. A friend of mine had a health visit for her daughter recently and was asked ‘can she form a sentence with more than 3 words?’ Ellis promptly said ‘mummy, I’m hungry, can I have a biscuit please, the one with chocolate on’. I think the answer was Yes! From the moment children start school they are assessed in one way or another and at secondary school that is amped up further.
At FBS we schedule two exam sessions for each year group; these are GCSE or A Level style exams, sat in formal exam conditions in the hall, and not just that; we assess in class too; at least two more opportunities during the year when boys are given an overall grade for their work. This system does so many things; it prepares boys for their external exams, it trains them to revise, plan their time, and cope with stress. The results give teachers valuable data about where their classes are at and how future teaching might be adapted. As senior leaders we can identify strong and weak departments, areas where we may need to intervene, boys who need extra support and those who need greater challenge.
Assessment also creates competition. Another part of life. We are constantly competing against one another; on the rugby pitch, across a table tennis table, in a virtual gaming world, a Maths exam or Drama essay. As a boys school this competition is very real and we don’t shy away from it. As a Politics and History teacher I see boys competing with one another in debating, in their grades, in their opinions; it’s constant and quite often brilliant to see. But, it isn’t what I strive for. Yes, it’s true that at FBS we are aiming to be amongst the best in the country and we are very proud of what we have achieved in our first seven and a half years. We rightly celebrate the boys who achieve grade 9s or A*s, we are thrilled that some of our Year 13 boys have been offered places at the best universities in the country. It’s brilliant, it’s exciting and it’s a wonderful achievement. However, it’s not the be all and end all; for us this lies in aiming high.
During, and since, the first lockdown almost two years ago, we have been unapologetic in our approach to assessment. During lockdown we had high expectations of the work our boys were expected to complete online and how frequently our teachers would mark it. When we came back into school we scheduled internal exams at the earliest opportunities. Why? To help the boys see that hard work pays off. Throughout the course of this pandemic we have prioritised pastoral care; looking after our boys and their families in such uncertain times has been the priority. I am so proud of the care we have provided; from cooked meals, taxi services, daily phone calls and online events the list goes on and on. We have, rightly, prioritised our boys’ physical and mental health but that doesn’t mean we have gone soft on education.
Assessment makes education. Not because of league tables or so that we can tweet about our boys’ remarkable achievements but because it creates the best competition of all; with yourself! We set the highest aspirational targets for our boys because we believe in them and most importantly we want them to believe in themselves. Each assessment isn’t about beating everyone else; it’s about beating yourself, getting a grade higher than before. We teach the boys that the most important form of discipline is self-discipline; you behave not because someone is watching but because you know the difference between right and wrong and you hold yourself to high esteem. I expect the same in terms of assessment; you aim high, not to beat an opponent but to prove something to yourself; that you matter, that hard work pays off and that there is always something to strive for. What better way to embrace the enterprising spirit and ‘can do’ attitude of FBS?
Our Year 11 boys have just finished their second set of mock exams and I am so excited to be marking them. I am so proud of the boys who have achieved such high grades but at any level, the real excitement comes when I see the improvement made through determination and pure grit. I will reflect on the grades, I will adapt my teaching, set specific ownwork, plan intervention sessions to fill the gaps but most of all what I am hoping for is that this round of assessment makes a difference to the boys. If we are doing our jobs properly the boys will have a lifelong love of learning, they will be curious and engaged in the world around them and they will always strive to better themselves. True assessment never ends; school assessment is just one small part of it and if we can get it right we will be setting our boys up for life.