As pupils across Wales feel the heat and prepare to sit important end of year examinations that impact their future, the Welsh Assembly continues to debate further school assessment reform and attempt to balance the need for both accountability and an approach focused on school improvement. Trainee solicitor, Andrew Rees, explains in his latest blog. 

Since the Welsh Government published guidance on how to develop a new assessment technique in 2010, there has been a call for change in the way pupils are assessed.

The Welsh Government acknowledged the need for change as the system was confusing and no longer fit for purpose. The assessment technique put forward was that of Assessment for Learning (‘AFL’); an ongoing use of assessment as a core element of teaching, rather than assessing pupils at the end of an academic year. AFL is responsive teaching that bridges between teaching and the way in which we discover whether activities and experiences within the classroom have brought about the learning that was intended.

In 2015, Professor Graham Donaldson completed a review of education reform in Wales which included 19 recommendations in relation to assessment. The recommendations supported the Welsh Government’s initial guidance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, AFL has gained policy traction over recent years as it focuses on assessment to inform teaching (therefore benefiting the learner) rather than contributing to the evaluation of school by school performance and accountability measures. The Welsh Government accepted the recommendations and promised to publish a National Assessment and Evaluation Framework by September 2018.

During her recent statement in the Senedd, Kirsty Williams, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, was quick to bust several myths and reiterate that many of the national tests currently taken by pupils in Wales are not used to make judgments on school performance but actually support the new formative approach. She went onto highlight that these tests are completely different to those in England, where results are published and schools ranked on that basis. She confirmed that the results are not used by the Welsh Government to judge school performance, but are implemented to support teaching and learning.

However, some stakeholders remain sceptical. They argue that the Welsh Government uses the outcomes of assessment as part of a matrix to measure schools. The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) have criticised an over reliance by national, regional and local government on accountability measures that focus purely on pupil outcomes. Many school leaders are convinced of the need to disconnect accountability from an outcome only obsessed framework and, instead, fully implement the recommendations of Professor Davidson.

Kirsty Williams concluded her statement by reinforcing that both assessment and accountability is critical to the ongoing reforms and the delivery of the new curriculum in Wales. She acknowledged that the lines between the two had previously been blurred and that AFL was not always well understood or embedded across every school. She has pledged to focus on improving confidence in its use, and deliver an education system that is a source of national pride and national confidence.

Time will tell if there is a real commitment to this approach with the National Assessment and Evaluation Framework expected to be published within the next 18 months.