Church Cowley St. James is an Oxford primary school with nearly 500 pupils. With a mission to provide a positive learning experience for all its pupils, helping to develop their confidence and reach their full potential, that can sometimes be a challenge, given there are 45 different languages and 48 different nationalities represented in the school.
And given that approximately 30% of Church Cowley St. James children are on a Special Educational Needs register, for the school’s Head, Steve Dew, anything that can help deserves to be looked at… and if such a solution could also ease the burden on his teaching staff, all the better. As he affirms:
We want our pupils to succeed and ensure they are prepared for the next steps in their learning and development journey. We are also committed to providing a healthy, happy working environment for our teachers, and strive to help them become the best teachers they can be.”
Dew says he initially started on the path to address his issues via looking for a better way of assessing written work so as to support improvement in pupils’ writing:
I wanted the process of formative assessment for written tasks to become more meaningful for both pupils and teachers alike, and to give them a clearer understanding of what good work looks like. While each teacher would bring examples of written work, they were all from different writing tasks, so it was hard to conduct a genuine comparison. I wanted to be able to compare pupil responses to the same written tasks on a regional scale, so we could understand the standard within our own school and what aspects of writing we needed to put more emphasis on in our lessons.
I also wanted to reduce the time our teachers spent marking, so they could spend that time more strategically, planning and delivering high quality classroom learning. Traditional book marking is incredibly time consuming, and as a return on that time investment, it has very little impact in the classroom for children; traditional marking is a huge drain on time and resources: a recent YouGov survey found that over 30% of teachers spend 44 days per year marking, and spend more time on this than lesson planning, which is counterintuitive to the process of learning.
These factors led him to participate in a special tech project that ran from June 2018 to July 2019 bringing together 14 Oxfordshire primary schools to assess the written work of Year 6 (between 10 and 11-year old) pupils. Organised by a company called RM Results, this was a way to see what software called RM Compare could do to help - this being a new product offering based on input from a group of assessment scientists aided by input from education experts at Cambridge and Goldsmiths (University of London).
In the trial, teachers were shown two student responses to the same written task from across all 14 participating schools. The mission: decide which best met the needs of a simplified assessment criteria, and provide justifications for their reasoning in preference to marking each in isolation according to a complex mark scheme.
That’s good, says Dew, as the comparison process is inherently more natural, teachers are able to use their professional judgement easier, and the amount of time spent assessing pupil’s work goes down. The algorithm also intelligently selects and pairs pieces of work based on previous judgements, generating new pairings where the standard of work is deemed to be similar - which encourages teachers to really consider, he is convinced, which is better and why, leading to a more detailed comparison and helping to create a more precise professional consensus rank order.
Gold stars all round
So that was the idea of the trial. Did the tech deliver? For Dew, it's a tick:
We have already seen an improvement in attainment, because the technology helps to deliver a clearer understanding of what comprises good work – meaning teachers can hone in on that in the classroom. For example, attainment in written tasks has improved, as teaching has become more targeted to focus on areas that need developing. Comparing paired pieces of pupil work encourages teachers to conduct a more granular analysis of performance, and get sharper at identifying skills that generate a better result, which trickles through directly into lesson plans, helping pupils hone those skills so they can succeed.
This approach has also enabled our teachers to leave work at 4.30pm, and not take marking home with them. At our school, we think that has saved each teacher at least three hours of additional marking per week, just on written assessments - equivalent to a day and a half working time per month, or almost three weeks saved per year.
Specifically, Church Cowley St. James has decided to adopt RM Compare for written assessment across every year group in the school:
We have scrapped traditional book marking for writing tasks, which saw teachers marking papers weekly and taking books home, and instead will be using this software ten times a year.
Dew expects this software will deliver “significantly enhanced assessment capabilities”, enabling his team to connect with schools nationally and internationally to track the standard of work from his pupils:
I also think it will help us to work in a very collaborative way to raise the standards of writing across our schools, while I also think we’ll see happier and less overstretched staff – especially as we roll the technology out across all year groups, and use it for other forms of open-ended assessment.
Less time spent marking means more time to spend planning lessons. It also means we can concentrate more on the things that will have a real impact on pupils’ learning experience.
Really, the only thing that surprised me about this is why we still persist with marking and moderating writing in the old way.