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BESA in conversation with GL Assessment

Sarah Haythornthwaite, Director at GL Assessment, explains how they provide assessments and support for academies

Posted by Lucinda Reid | October 03, 2017 | School life

Since you specialise in assessment, the new GCSEs and A-levels must have had quite an impact on your work. Could you please tell us about that?

Academies use our assessments in a range of ways. We provide national benchmarks that show how students of exactly the same age have performed in our tests across the country, practical advice for teachers on how they can support different learners in their class, and dedicated reports for parents that provide ideas for supporting their child at home.

In some of our assessments, we also provide indicators for Key Stage 2, GCSEs and A levels, which are used to inform target-setting. In secondary school, they also provide information that can help teachers and students make the right choices in options. With the new KS2 SATs, GCSEs and A levels, we have had to ensure that both our assessments remain up-to-date and our indicators reflect the new grading systems. We have published a new series of progress tests that reflect the new curriculum in English, maths and science in Key Stages 2 and 3 (trialled and standardised on over 90,000 students, so no mean feat!) and our statistics team has updated our indicators to ensure they remain accurate. They’ll continue to refresh our indicators once the new GCSEs are rolled out.

You recently started a partnership with nasen, which shows your commitment to SEN-specific assessments. Why did it feel important to do so?

Information from our assessments can be used in a number of different ways – for benchmarking students, monitoring their progress and, importantly, identifying any barriers to learning they may have. This is, of course, where nasen is a great partner.

Both organisations believe that the accurate identification of barriers to learning needs to be built into a school’s overall approach to monitoring the development of all pupils, and we’re pleased to be working together to promote good assessment practice for everyone involved in supporting children with SEN.

What are the differences between working with local authorities and MATs? And do you think it is easier for academies to manage their assessments if they are part of a MAT?

All our customers have different needs and requirements, whether they are MATs, LAs or schools. One of the most noticeable differences between customers is the number of people involved in the decision-making process; it can range from one Director of Education, data manager or CEO through to a multi-tier process with groups of decision-makers and approvers. Often the decision-making process can be quicker when working with a MAT, however the same rigour in procurement is expected from both a MAT and a local authority.

We work closely with all our customers to provide the assessments and support that is right for them. With some, we may need to start by explaining what a standardised test is, whereas others may have already experience of external benchmarking and they want more support in helping them make the most from the data. 

One of the advantages of managing assessments within a MAT is how it can be easier to share ideas and good practice. To take one example, one MAT we work with identified an aspect of English which seemed to be weak across one academy and strong in another. By working together, they shared their skills so everyone could gain.

With the number of small to medium sized MATs increasing, what do MATs need to think about as they grow?

As everyone knows, MATs come in all shapes and sizes. Even with small to medium sized MATs, some are geographically concentrated while others are spread widely across the country. There is also the debate around whether horizontal or vertical integration is preferable, with the latter gaining ground. Either way, the sheer diversity of the sector means that each leadership team will have its own set of unique challenges.

Many MATs take a moderate view of their growth, giving each school the attention it deserves with a view to securing long-term stability. The NET Academies Trust offers some good advice here – to introduce the systems and processes you want from the start, facilitating the strategic decision-making that’s needed to secure improvement at school, cluster and trust level as the MAT grows in size. And of course, having a common language – in assessment and in other areas – helps the process, too.

What do MATs need to consider as they take on new schools?

Paul Smith, the CEO of Future Academies Trust, put this well when he said that when it comes to due diligence, a trust often looks at buildings, contracts and finances, yet it’s assessment information that can truly diagnose where help is needed.

There are, of course, a whole host of decisions MATs need to consider as they welcome new schools into their fold, and identifying prior attainment is an essential part. Ultimately, to measure any impact that a MAT will have on a new school, even one that is good, requires some measurement of pupils’ learning and progress. Using SATs and GCSE results is looking backwards, but if they undertake formative assessments as a school joins, this can help MATs plan the way forward.

To help MATs in this process, we have created a Due Diligence Digital Assessment Solution, which provides trusts and academies with a snapshot of reading ages and attitudes to learning within an hour. MATs are then provided with an instant report that can give a good idea of where most focus is required. To take an example, when one trust completed this recently, they found a group of girls with exceptional reading skills but also very low attitudes to themselves and their school. This provided clear pointers for the trust on where to start focussing its efforts.

What are the main challenges that MATs face when they consider a common assessment framework?

A perennial issue for MATs is how much they should mandate to their schools versus how much freedom and autonomy is desirable at the academy level.  

Reliable assessment data is often considered to be one of a MAT’s fundamental building blocks. After all, it’s much easier to compare apples with apples when teachers and senior leadership teams speak a common assessment language. As the Academy Transformation Trust explains, “With a large group of academies under our wing, we need to make certain the support we are offering is proportionate to need. Without a common language for assessment, this would be almost impossible to organise.”

A common approach for many MATs is to ask their schools to use standardised assessments to provide them with a robust, reliable benchmark, while giving them the freedom to choose the day-to-day assessments that suit them and their curriculum offer best. We’ve seen this model work very well but it’s still essential for everyone to be on board throughout the whole process.

How can MATs take schools with them on their assessment journey?

In our experience, it’s essential for MATs to bring everyone with them on the assessment journey from the start – their data managers, teachers, middle leaders and principals. Training is essential. Each school also needs to see the benefit of a common assessment framework and how the data can support them in their own goals.

A few good principles to follow are to share data and good practice across the trust; communicate the data clearly, providing teachers with the just the right amount of information they can use; dedicate enough time to quality assessment training; and make sure the data translate into plans for improvement whether at pupil, group, class, year group, whole school or trust level.

Sign up for GL Assessment’s guide, Growing pains: Considerations and best practice for successful Multi Academy Trusts, via their website.

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