Essay on Current Issues in Education – ‘Does Weighing a Pig Make It Fatter?’

Published: 2021/11/08
Number of words: 6424

The analogy of whether weighing a pig makes it fatter seems to refer to the debate over if assessment is an effective way of raising standards. This seems to induce the dichotomy of whether summative or formative assessment is the most useful tool for raising standards. There may also be variables which impact on the success of assessment procedures: one of the central factors is be the role of the subject leader in assessment policies, although the ethos of the school and socio-demographic factors of the area in which it is situated in may also be influential. ‘Weighing the pig’ seems to be polysemous in that there are multiple ways of raising standards, some of which do not use any kind of assessment. This essay will examine the above factors and come to a tentative overall conclusion about the best way to raise standards.

One viewpoint on raising standards refers to the fact that intelligence can be achieved in and measured through summative exams and tests. An alternative, more balanced perspective could be that intelligence can be developed and observed, often by using formative assessment strategies. It could be conjectured that synthesising these viewpoints to produce a model, where formative and summative assessments are used simultaneously, could be more beneficial. However this ‘measure’ of a standard, does not account for the informal, hidden curriculum where a child’s Spiritual, Moral Social and Cultural (SMSC) development is fostered through the teacher modelling positive values to their pupils. Ofsted (2004; 2012 a) further recognises the significance of a child’s pastoral development and well-being by highlighting the importance of helping children grow into confident individuals who will make a positive contribution to society (DfES, 2003). Arguably, standards could be holistically raised if all of these viewpoints were amalgamated together in the approach to assessment; this may in turn induce an environment where pupils are developed as individuals, even in a subconscious manner (Martin, 1983, p.125).

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Ofsted (2012 a) promotes the notion of schools being critical and reflective of their own practice and advocate using the results of their inspections as a strategy to do this. The summative grade a school receives from the inspection could be used to make a formative assessment of their progress. Ofsted (2012 b) highlights performance management of teachers and a heavy accountability in terms of pupils’ attainment as being the main measurable factors in making such an assessment. However, OECD (2005) identifies that teachers experience a lot of stress and that retention rates in the profession are decreasing. Such a focus on teacher performance may have a negative impact on teacher morale and attainment. A strategy to overcome this could be good and decisive leadership. DCSF (2008 a) emphasises the role of the Head of Department (HOD) in establishing good working relationships with staff and having the responsibility of monitoring the success of teaching and learning.

Nevertheless, Ofsted (2012 a) articulates the value of the subject leader having the necessary rigour and subject expertise to undertake such tasks. An absence of this knowledge could result in more subtle subject-specific improvements being overlooked (Ofsted, 2012 a). Arguably, it is the HOD’s responsibility to foster effective working relationships with staff as part of their job specification (House of Commons, 2012). It seems a balance of good working relationships and effective monitoring from senior staff is crucial to raising standards. DfE (2010 a) surmises that this could have wider significance and initiate enhanced professional collaboration. It could also facilitate cross-curricular themes and initiatives, although teachers may not be sufficiently prepared emotionally or pedagogically to do this (Saunders et al., 1995 as cited in Savage, 2011, p.59). A contributing factor to the success of this approach could be the teacher’s ability to make links between topics and develop a connectionist orientation (Askew et al., 1997). Analysis of the use of the inspection evidence seems to indicate an extra dimension that affects progress: the school’s ethos. Pring (2005) suggests that the moral and altruistic aspect of education is of great importance: if teaching is seen as a vocation and staff are intrinsically motivated through a sense of altruism, where they give of themselves to help the pupils, then productivity and thus standards may increase (Grant, 2008, p.50).

Stagnation may occur even if standards are good. Ofsted (2011) concluded in their Annual Report of Education that over 1000 schools of the 6300 they inspected had consistently achieved ‘satisfactory’ in inspections with no sign of progressing to ‘good’. This seems to indicate that some brighter pupils are not being sufficiently stretched, particularly in key subjects such as Mathematics and English; more than 60% of pupils who achieved a Level 5 in primary school in those 2 subjects failed to gain an A or A* at GCSE in either of them (Ofsted, 2008; 2012 b; 2013).

Identification of Gifted and Talented (G and T) learners may be both formative and summative. Students may have an enthusiasm to learn and an intellectual curiosity as well as having exam results in the top vigintile (5%) of the school population (DCSF, 2008 b). However, Leslie and Mendick (2013) cast doubt over the validity of formal examinations as being a tool for measuring intelligence. If children are identified as being able early through summative exams such as Statutory Assessment Tests (SATS) and Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs), then provision for these types of learners may be more effective, with the possible additional benefit of easing the transition to secondary school which sometimes places considerable stress on pupils (DCSF, 2008 c). The CAT test may be particularly useful in identifying G and T students as it is independent of the classroom and tests students’ reasoning abilities (Strand, 2003). A high CAT score may indicate the ability to think in an abstract or logical manner and may even highlight whether a child is an independent thinker, both of which are key characteristics of a G and T student (Tunnicliffe, 2010). Furthermore, CATS can also be utilised as an estimate of future progress in examinations like GCSEs. However, the weak relationship between the CAT and the National Curriculum may mean other factors such as SATS results and strong leadership are more important in recognising G and T pupils. Furthermore, the attitude and well-being of the pupils may need to be considered; CAT tests are normally administered at the start of a child’s secondary school career when they may be more vulnerable and prone to stress, which could result in a below-par test score (GL Assessment, 2008).

DCSF (2008 d) advocate giving able learners detailed constructive feedback as they are likely to display atypical response behaviours by analysing it in detail and reacting to it in an appropriate manner which most other pupils do not do (Faultley and Savage, 2007).

This may take form of a ‘commentary’ between the pupil and teacher which could also involve parents in the dialogue (See Appendix 1, p.28).

Involving parents may be advantageous if it results in them gaining a more detailed knowledge of how their children are assessed and working collaboratively with the teacher to ensure a more personalised learning experience for the pupil (Black, 2003). However, the weakness of this approach is that it is largely subjective and relies on the teacher’s formative assessment of how pupils perform in the lesson, although it could be argued they have the pedagogical skills to do this as part of their training in meeting Qualified Teacher Status (DfE, 2012 c). Furthermore, this technique may help identify ‘submerged talent’, pupils who are gifted, but are not recognised as such, thus seeming to validate a teacher’s professional judgment (Smith, 2006).

This strategy may be even more effective when used parallel to rigorous and continuous summative assessment such as module tests and homework. This could allow progression to be tracked and for the subject leader to play more of an active role in liaising with teachers to ensure that all pupils are making the required amount of progress. However, too much target setting and focus on attainment may actually be detrimental to children’s performance; gifted students are more likely than any other group of students to develop existential depression due to positive disintegration (although in this model stress is viewed as an opportunity for growth) and increased emotional awareness (Dabrowski, 1970; Daniels and Piechowski, 2009). Raising a gifted child’s self-esteem may allow them to cope with the demands of school better. Kagan (1995) advocates using group and collaborative activities to boost pupils’ confidence and facilitate better integration in the classroom. This may not account for pupils who are quiet and do not contribute much to discussions although the tasks could be scaled down to partner activities such as think-pair-share (Kagan, 2001). Although explicit strategies such as praise may make a gifted child more aware of their abilities, co-operative activities could have the duality of improving gifted childrens’ self- esteem whilst helping other children learn.

Another way of improving able pupils’ well-being could be through Supplemental and Peer-Mediated instruction where pupils teach other. This could be particularly useful in subjects like Mathematics and Science where children historically struggle (Burmeister, 1996, p.23). Vygotsky (1978) provides the theoretical justification for peer teaching by stating that fellow pupils’ Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD) (cognitive ability) are closer than that of a teacher and pupil and so more learning will take place. However, this seems to infer that such a scheme should be carefully managed in ensuring pupils are teaching the correct content, and that it has heavy teacher input (Chan et al., 2009). Such a method may also be time-consuming and seems to disregard the arguably superior pedagogical skills of a teacher compared to a child. Furthermore, such models have mainly been used in higher education and may not be applicable to secondary schools, although some aspects of the method may work if they were closely monitored.

Gifted children may not benefit from acceleration where they progress through the curriculum at a faster rate than those of lesser ability (DfE, 2012 a). ACME (2011) sees the wider nature of implications early entry could have on a child’s life, including initiating dissatisfaction with the subject and a reluctance to carry the subject on in post-16 education. This eager approach seems to weigh negatively against a more patient one which, if all exams were sat at the end of Year 11, could leave pupils with a deeper knowledge of a subject and a willingness to engage in further study of it (Ofsted, 2006; QCA, 2009; DfE 2012 b). This seems to be an opinion reflected in recent government reforms, with assessment in GCSE moving from modular to linear where all exams are taken at the end of Secondary School (DfE, 2013 a). Black and Wiliam (2001, p.8) extend this sentiment further, by advocating a balanced and strategic approach to assessment where a learner’s well-being is considered. DfE (2011 b) encourages collaborative practice between teachers, subject leaders and leadership where individuals’ needs are considered and met as being exemplary practice. Although the HOD has a role to play in improving standards in this aspect, to be effective they seem to have to be part of a team of other professionals such as middle leaders, Senior Leadership Team and the G and T co-ordinator.

Collaboration could be key to raising standards across all subject areas. Savage (2011) advocates establishing cross-curricular links in lessons and teachers liaising with other subjects when planning lessons. DfE (2013 b) seem to agree with this with their policy of replacing ICT with Computer Science under the expectation it is to be incorporated into every other subject in the curriculum. Literacy is also supposed to be promoted across all subjects (DfE, 2012 c). Whilst this may allow pupils to be assessed more accurately and in-depth by comparing their performance across all subjects, the practicalities have to be considered. It may be difficult to implement this strategy due to timetabling constraints and the fact that all schools have to follow the National Curriculum. However, Academies have a degree of autonomy in being allowed to design and implement their own curriculum to suit the needs of their pupils, although it must be broad and balanced (DfE, 2010 a), which may result in the reality of little distinguishable differences between schools’ curricula. Furthermore, this in turn could create a further negative; schools may place an importance on a particular subject(s), once again seemingly evidencing the importance of a school’s ethos and orientation as being a factor in raising standards. However, this could be partially negated using holistic summative assessments such as the OECD’s Test for Schools which gives a global comparison of 15 year old pupils’ performance against other countries in English, Mathematics and Science. This also has the additional benefit of ascertaining students’ attitudes to learning, which could be used constructively to improve teaching in schools (OECD, 2012).

Subjects in which many links can be made between could be clustered by which hemisphere of the brain they correspond to (Josse and Tzourio- Mazoyer, 2003, p.3), with the left side being more logical subjects like mathematics and the right creative subjects like English, though the validity of this theory has since been questioned by OECD (2002) who acknowledge that the curriculum is a spectrum and that subjects cannot be arbitrarily classed as being ‘left’ or ‘right’ because most exhibit features of both. Regardless of the reliability of the theory, it could be questioned whether teachers have the necessary subject content and pedagogical knowledge to exploit and deliver a cross-curricular approach. Reforms such as increasing the pass mark and difficulty of the QTS Skills tests, a possible future requirement for teachers to achieve a grade B at GCSE in Maths and English and take an A Level in one of the core subjects seem to support the view that the government feels teachers’ core skills need to improve (DfE, 2011 b; 2013 c). Ofsted (2009) identify the subject knowledge of a teacher as being pivotal in the formative and foundation stages of a child’s education so essential skills can be adequately learnt. A contrasting view is presented by Cramlet et al. (2005) who perceive a teacher’s personality as being a key variable in successful teaching. Although personal attributes undoubtedly have some input in determining successful teaching, it seems likely to assume that subject and pedagogical knowledge need to be present for standards to be raised. DCSF (2008 a) recognises the subject leader’s responsibility in identifying and monitoring training needs of teachers, although they may not be responsible for delivering such training. Collaboration amongst other teachers again seems privy to doing this: through events such as INSETs and TeachMeet (See Appendix 2, p.29).

The potential disadvantages of using summative assessment may be negated by the self-assessment and reflection that could stem from this approach, particularly in using module tests (See Appendix 3, p.30).

Black and Wiliam (1998, p.27) suggest self and peer assessment are crucial to the success of formative and summative assessment as progress is enhanced when pupils learn internally rather than externally what they need to improve on.

Regular modular tests could be a great opportunity to promote this type of thinking because pupils get an opportunity to view their own, and possibly others’, work to ascertain 3 dimensions of their progress:

  1. Desired Goal
  2. Present Position
  3. Way to close the gap between 1 and 2 (Sadler, 1989, p.125)

Some external feedback may still be required from the teacher, however, particularly to make the pupil aware of the totality of their progress and what they need to do to get better in a particular area. In this case, a practice exam paper which covers all of the test content may be a better summative measure of assessment than a selection of isolated module tests. This may help teachers find a better way to assess pupils’ progress and eliminate the potentially subjective aspect of marking (DCSF, 2008 f). Study of selected National Curricula (DfE, 2011 a; DfE, 2012 d) seems to show that particular subjects lend themselves better to this approach than others: Mathematics, for example, is clearly disseminated into four clear subject areas, whereas the divisions for ICT are less clear.

Using test results as a tool for summative and formative assessment may be particularly useful if coupled with numerical levels which the pupils could track using progression maps or make reference to using the learning objectives given in the lesson which could be continually referred to by the teacher as the criteria for success (Dixie, 2011). However, an overreliance on summative assessment may result in teachers structuring their lessons on test content, where pupils have surface learning of a series of arbitrary concepts, rather than a rich relational understanding of the why and how of topics (Askew et al. 1997; Hewitt, 1999). DfE (2010 b) highlight an unhealthy focus by schools on raising exam results, particularly those students on the C/D borderline at GCSE, although this is perhaps contradicted by the many academic reforms which have since been introduced. Black and Wiliam (2001, p.34) highlight patience in being a key factor in improving attainment and that strategies for doing so should be gradual and progressive. Dylan and Wiliam (2001) recognise the importance of leadership and Government policy, but they propose that the teacher is the most significant figure in assessment as they are the ones who converse and liaise with students on a daily basis. However, Harlen (2005, p.210) makes the reasonable judgement that such a progressive approach would have to stem from senior management and be a whole school assessment policy to be successful.

Similarly with Gifted and Talented pupils, identification of low-attaining pupils may be fundamental in providing effective provision and uses both summative and formative approaches to assessment.

DfE (2013 d) suggests that KS2 SATS data may be the most useful summative assessment used for secondary school, particularly in dividing pupils into sets and diagnostically identifying appropriate provision. This could then be used as an ipsative assessment strategy where their present performance is compared with their prior attainment in their KS2 SATS exams. Coupled with the Fischer Family Trust (FFT) assessment, this could even be a predictor of future GCSE results and allow appropriate interventions to be made. Downey and Kelly (2011) argue that FFT is statistically weak as it is heavily influenced by environmental and socio-economic variables and assumes progression is linear which it may not be. A better system may be the Jesson Scale which, whilst comparing pupils on a normal distribution, can also be used as a tool for measuring progress on an annual basis (Jesson and Hedger, 1998). For simplicity however, measuring ability against the expected Government levels of progress may be more practical (DfE, 2012 e).

However, FFT does consider the socio-economic characteristics of the area the school is located in which may be an important variable. DCSF (2009) concluded that pupils who do not have Free School Meals (FSM) are twice as more likely to be identified as G and T then those who do have FSM which seems to indicate that although ability may be roughly uniform across the school population, achievement may not be.

DCSF (2008 e) concluded in a study of young people in deprived communities that childrens’ aspirations are very closely linked to that of their parents; in deprived areas, ambitions may be quite low and this and the community environment could lead students not to regard school as necessary and reduce attainment. However, this does not take into account that students may be intrinsically motivated to do well, which may be exacerbated by the need to escape the community they live in (Guthrie et al., 2004). DfE (2013 e) reports that the attainment gap between affluent and effluent pupils is 16% at age 11 and 26% at age 16, which seems to indicate that such intrinsic motivation may be rare, particularly if it is hampered by low cultural aspirations.

Pupils such as these may certainly be encouraged by constant formative and summative assessment although praise may be the most effective form of encouraging these types of children as their self-esteem may be quite low if they have a lack of a support network at home (Capel and Gervis 2007, p 127). However, support may be needed from outside the classroom. External initiatives, particularly sporting schemes such as the Athlete 4 Schools and Kickz may provide pupils with role models other than teachers and parents whom they can model good behaviour and values from (Bandura, 1977). DCSF (2008 g) suggest that peer mentoring from older students who have had similar experiences may be particularly beneficial to young pupils in deprived areas and lead to fewer anti- social incidents. Whilst recognising the influence of peer mentoring, Sutton Trust (2012) only values it as being moderately effective.

Formative assessment by the teacher and HOD in recognising personal characteristics may be effective in determining which children need this extra pastoral support. Children who display overt and maladaptive behaviours such as poor organisation, lack of classroom contribution and disruptiveness may need to be extrinsically motivated, particularly if they derive no pleasure from learning (Little and Walls, 2005, p.24). Carefully managed transition could increase future achievement of such pupils. Successful practice can reap great rewards; Mossbourne Academy, an inner-city academy in London, used a careful mix of family liaison officers, pastoral support and a separate building for Year 7 pupils to receive an outstanding grade in a recent Ofsted inspection (Sutton Trust, 2012). However, such an approach may lead pupils to be unprepared for the realities of the rest of secondary school, although low ability learners can often demonstrate resilience and have a positive, ‘growth’ mind set in facing problems (Dweck, 2006). Goleman (1995) identifies emotional intelligence as being more important to success in life than cognitive ability. Relating to this to the classroom, he says that pupils who are competent at deferring gratification, having the patience in solving a problem to receive a bigger reward as opposed to giving up, were happier, more socially competent and had a better quality of life than their less patient peers. This seems to indicate that the type of goals pupils have may affect their well-being in life. Senko et al. (2011, p.27) argue that pupils who have mastery goals (focusing on develop competence and a deep understanding of the topic) will do better in life than students who have performance goals (only wanting to do well on the test and retaining little knowledge). The educational philosophy of the teacher could determine the types of goals pupils form: Kitching (2008) argues that a constructivist, student-orientated style of teaching may enthuse and inspire pupils to develop mastery goals whereas an objectivist, exam –orientated style may only give pupils knowledge of how to pass a test and hence initiates them to create performance goals.

Ofsted (2013 a) advocates teachers recognising all multiple intelligences (Gardner, 2004) including spatial and kinaesthetic to ensure that all pupils are catered for and that their talent is not lost. This could be both inside the classroom and out. Michael (2006, p.130) found that pupils who are of lower cognitive ability responded better to active learning strategies. Dale (1969) extrapolates this to all pupils by identifying kinaesthetic teaching strategies as being one of the most successful models of learning.

The effect of this could be even greater if a teacher incorporated rich problem-solving skills in their lessons to stimulate higher order thinking skills (Krathwohl, 2002, p.214) (See Appendix 4, p.31).

Schön (1991) argues that reflective practitioners may result in reflective learners which could be a realistic way of raising standards for all abilities of pupils. De Bono (1985) argues that critical thinking could be stimulated through his system of categorising activities as hats (See Appendix 5, p.32) which may make children aware of the modality of thinking required to successfully complete the task. Arguably, metacognition could also be fostered if pupils were to self-evaluate their own performance using models such as Even Better If (EBI) and What Went Well (WWW). Chambers and Timlin (2013) advocate metacognitive tasks such as these as a powerful tool for raising standards. However, it seems improbable that this approach could be incorporated into every lesson. Students may lack the cognitive skills to think reflectively and it may be hard to implement in larger class sizes due to behaviour management challenges (Chung and Konstantopolous, 2009, p.129). According to Basset et al. (2011), a reflective approach works best in classes with a smaller student-teacher ratio where low-attaining pupils in particular will benefit from close work from the teacher. Rees and Johnson (2000) question the validity of the research into smaller class sizes by arguing that it is heavily generalised and may not be applicable to all levels of education. It seems discernible that class size is a factor in raising standards although it does not seem to have a major impact on attainment.

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Dale’s model (1969) seems to advocate ‘flipped learning’ which uses peer teaching in groups and this approach may even decrease the need for behaviour management (Bergmann, 2012). However, Nuffield Foundation (2005) found that pupils often lack independent thinking skills, arguably because of the abundance of didactic, teacher-led strategies in education, and may lack the creative thought patterns to successfully carry out flipped learning. Furthermore, although this approach may allow students to cognitively analyse content at a higher level, opportunities for this style of teaching may be limited given the need for formal, passive learning in some subjects like Mathematics (Ofsted, 2008). However, Bartlett (2013) advises fully involving pupils in the teaching and learning process so they can enjoy inactive subjects like mathematics more. Given the likely diaspora of learning styles within the classroom, a mixture of multisensory approaches may result in an increased amount of learning. This seems to be something that the subject leader will initiate in collaboration with other teachers, although practitioners may have their own style and teacher identity (MacKinnon, 1996, p.354).

It seems that an interaction of all methods is effective in raising standards and that their impact may depend on a school-by-school basis depending on variables such as ethos and orientation, socio-economic characteristics and teachers’ subject and pedagogical knowledge. Formative and summative assessments seem to have a symbiotic relationship where each relies on the other to succeed. Formative assessments may predict and give meaning to a summative assessment of childrens’ performance whereas summative assessments can be used to inform formative assessments and measure a child’s performance. It seems too simplistic to judge a school’s performance on exam results alone. The literature explored seems to suggest that a child’s well-being, aspirations and relative attainment are equally important in judging the ‘standard’ of a school. Alternative ways of raising standards such as mentoring schemes and motivational speakers may be the best way of increasing these variables. A long term, progressive approach to assessment may yield better results than a short term ‘fix’. Whilst teachers may be responsible for daily formative assessment; HODs supervise this and both teachers and subject leaders facilitate periodic and transitional summative assessment which could be key indicators of a child’s performance. A subject leader does have an important role in raising standards, but their effectiveness will be boosted by good teachers and a solid and harmonious hierarchical structure in the school. Overall, it does seem that weighing a pig makes it fatter although the assessment strategies need to be carefully managed for it to do so.


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