An open letter to a Year 2 or Year 6 teacher worried about assessment

Dear Colleague,

I understand why you’re anxious about assessment. You want to get it right and you know how important it is.

I have some terrifying, but reassuring, news for you: no one can be more expert at assessing your children’s understanding and progress than you. It’s as simple and as complex as that.

Let’s be honest. Current assessment practice is far from perfect; your practice is far from perfect but it’s not a complete mess unlike national assessment policy which needs a radical rethink.

How have we got in this mess? Why are you understandably anxious? Is it the fault of politicians who are completely out of touch with classroom reality? Partly. Is it the fault of the Department for Education staffed by civil servants who have never taught, let alone assessed, real children? Partly. Is it the fault of Ofsted who place too much reliance on performance data in their overall judgments when they try to categorise schools? Yet again, partly. Or, finally, is it the fault of head teachers (perhaps not yours) who fail to challenge the unrealistic demands made on classroom teachers by politicians, the DfE and Ofsted? The answer is, yet again, partly.

But underlying all these partial answers is a fact that no one is really prepared to acknowledge publicly, though you intuitively recognise it. Despite years of national testing we have no firm, absolutely reliable, systematic or fool proof way of assessing children’s understanding and progress. We can’t get inside children’s heads – thank goodness – I would worry if we could. Like us they can’t fully articulate what they are thinking and learning to help us assess where they are, though they can give us clues. The way they develop their understanding is fearsomely complex, often idiosyncratic and far from fully or even adequately understood even after a century or more of research. Tests are of limited use; they don’t tell us much; they can’t ‘measure’ understanding; they can’t ‘measure’ progress except in a very crude way.

The best the most we can hope for is a partial and inevitable subjective form of assessment borne out of working closely with children- talking with, not to, them; observing them on a day-to-day basis in class;- and sharing perceptions with the children themselves, with their carers and with fellow professionals. That is all, though in some ways it’s a great deal. That reflects the complexity of learning, the idiosyncratic nature of children and the limited extent of our knowledge. This may be uncomfortable but it’s the reality. We, the government, civil servants and Ofsted, need to recognise it.

But recognising it does not mean that we can’t get better at assessment or that we can’t share some important principles and some interesting practice from initiatives such as Learning without Levels.

Let me extract some principles from a real-life example. It’s from a class of 20 odd Y3-6 children being taught by a teacher near retirement. John in Y6 is saying : “I’m having problems with long multiplication Miss Roberts; can I explain and perhaps you’ll give more some more examples to do? What follows a prime example of principled assessment?

Margery Roberts welcomes the child’s request , praises him for his initiative in coming forward with an assessment of his own learning; listens to his concerns; questions him gently and sensitively; probes his understanding, observes him at work with some multiplication examples; encourages him to talk through the process as he engages in it; suggests strategies for him to pursue; gives him examples to work on; provides him with feedback and asks him to reflect on his learning at the end of the process. In all this she respects his viewpoint and individuality, sees him as a fellow learner and works with him to take his learning forward. To summarise, she uses her professional judgment honed by experience.

What doesn’t she do? She doesn’t label him, doesn’t level him; doesn’t pretend to ‘measure’ the extent of his understanding; doesn’t give him a mark or numerical grade; doesn’t rush to consult the latest assessment specification; and doesn’t compare him with other members of the class or with Y6 children nationally.

No one’s more expert at assessing her children’s understanding and progress than her since she works with her closely observed children day-in day-out.

There’s more expertise on assessing her children’s progress and understanding in her classroom and school than there is in the whole of the DfE and Ofsted

The same applies to you and your practice.

Please remember: no one can be more expert at assessing your children’s understanding and progress than you. It’s as simple and as complex as that.


Wishing you well,

Colin Richards – “an old-fashioned HMI”.

Small council maintained schools should be exempt from apprenticeship levy, councils say
Schools and parents must work together to protect children online
Categories: Guest Post.


  1. Comfortable words, but, not evidence-based.
    Assessment of pupils learning by their teacher is notoriously inaccurate [as is assessment of a teacher’s skills by lesson observation].

Let us know what you think...