Published on: 08 Mar 2017

It was heartening to see how creative, innovative and flexible schools can be in managing these challenges while delivering high quality teaching and learning

Sarah Haythornthwaite, Sales and Marketing Director at GL Assessment, summarises the key issues discussed at our 5th National Assessment Conference

“We have a 20th century workforce working with children with 21st century problems.” Lorraine Petersen’s presentation on ‘hard to spot’ children at our 5th National Assessment Conference last week was as sobering as it was enlightening. 

Who of us knew, for example, the extent of mental health problems among children and young people that inhibit learning? Or that girls are generally diagnosed with autism two years later than boys, because the testing methods used are geared towards male characteristics? Or that 700,000 children are carers and juggling school work with a home life of looking after sick and disabled relatives?

The facts and figures came thick and fast from Lorraine, an independent consultant and former Chief Executive of nasen, and left us all with food for thought. So many children are currently going through our education system without the help and support they need to fulfil their potential. It is for us, as teachers and educators, working closely with parents, to guide them through these difficulties and challenges using our knowledge, expertise, skills and ideas for what is effective. But, as Lorraine rightly pointed out, teachers also need support in the form of improved continuing professional development and training. 

This year’s conference theme, Successful solutions and practical advice for schools, offered a platform for schools to offer practical insights into how they are raising standards and delivering academic opportunities for all pupils, regardless of background and ability. We heard how pastoral care and use of data can contribute to providing a nurturing and enriching environment to learn, and how high expectations and aspirations can filter down to the hardest to reach children, who then feel confident enough to identify not merely as learners, but as mathematicians or scientists at an early age.

There is undoubtedly some outstanding practice taking place in our schools, often quietly and without fanfare, that is reaping huge benefits to children and young people against a continued backdrop of policy flux and financial constraints. It was heartening to see how creative, innovative and flexible schools can be in managing these challenges while delivering high quality teaching and learning.

David Laws, the former Schools Minister and now Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute, reminded us about the links between poverty and underachievement and how these often begin in early years and the continue in secondary education. Pupils in ten local authorities can expect to complete their education two years behind their peers in other parts of the country – a situation that is clearly unacceptable. 

But he also had strong words about the government’s policy of academisation, and the lack of scrutiny around the effectiveness of these schools. He likened the Department for Education’s treatment of academies to that “of a precious flower which might be blown away with too much scrutiny and transparency”. He said the EPI was working with the London School of Economics to measure the impact of Labour’s academy programme and the more recent converters academies programme implemented under the Coalition government.

The evidence so far, David suggested, was that the Blair academies had been the more successful and suggested that effective leadership was a bigger trigger for success that freedom from local authority control. He also raised questions about the relative success of pupils arriving from overseas compared with their native peers, and why the newcomers often achieved higher grades.

Again, he left us with much to think about and we await the publication of his further findings with huge interest.

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