Learning First Sheffield: Key Messages

The #LearningFirst movement is something that turned up on my radar after the conference held in Sheffield last year. At that time, my Twitter feed was awash with tweets from colleagues excitedly reflecting on what they were hearing and sharing the the thought-provoking and progressive comments made by the speakers.


Yesterday, I attended the second #LearningFirst conference to be held in Sheffield and heard from a number of different speakers on issues that I am facing directly in my current role. My thinking and ideas were challenged, poked and prodded. My teaching, learning and assessment philosophy, happily, was reaffirmed and given greater emphasis. I was able to connect with more people facing the same challenges and sharing the same ideals.

I’ve collected copious amounts of notes and images from the day and will reflect on this in the coming few days but on my way back to London (with wifi on my train) I put together a few of my notes. I’ve briefly collected my thoughts under some key headings that I feel link to the main themes discussed during the day.

Learning is the most important thing to focus on in schools.

Stephen Tierney kicked his session off by reminding us that, “Life without levels is a curriculum issue, not a data issue.” Schools should put learning at the heart of their assessment systems and learning should be the driving force behind assessment. In doing so, we must consider exactly what it is that is important in terms of learning. Ofsted’s National Director of Education Sean Harford encouraged us to take back some ownership over what we teach and how we teach it; to regather some agency and remember the freedoms of recent education policy that, it seems, have been lost and forgotten about.

Dialogue around assessment should focus on learning.

We should be discussing what children know and can do, and identifying what they do not know and cannot do. Talking about children in terms of emerging, developing, securing and mastering is not helpful and does not support learning. Rather, it is almost a direct replacement for levels. Simply knowing who is ’emerging’ doesn’t help support their development. A group of children who are all ’emerging’ can have vastly different areas for development.

We need to rethink the data we gather.

One key question Simon Smith asked at his school was, ‘who is the audience?’ Who are we gathering data for? Is it having a direct impact on improving learning for the learners? Does the information we have help us get it right for the pupils in our school? Simon reminded us to only ‘measure what matters’. There is a lot that children need to learn but what is it that we need to assess? During Simon’s session we also discussed the external barriers that can seemingly force schools to go overboard with the collection of data. Helpfully, later on in the day, Sean Harford reconfirmed that there is no expectation on schools to gather specific sets of data. The only questions an inspector will be asking are: what assessment info have you got? How do you use it to improve learning/support learning? Show me how you do that.


We need to rethink tracking.

‘We track parcels and satellites. Please stop tracking children,’ exclaimed Mick Walters. James Pembroke highlighted the futility of using the new data and progress measures to set targets and judge progress and attainment. In his excellent speech-come-rant, he took the audience through the new RAISEonline reports, value added progress measures and floor standard. Listening to him yesterday afternoon and hearing the audiences’ responses, the absurdity and complexity of these new measures made them seem all the more ridiculous. Following James, Michael Tidd explored the idea that just because you teach something doesn’t mean you have to track it. As schools, we must decide what we want to track and why we are tracking it.

Teacher honesty is crucial in the assessment process.

All of this will be pointless if teachers are not assessing honestly. It is a disservice to the children, and as Simon Smith put it in his workshop, ‘If our assessment isn’t honest, the only losers are the children’. For this reason, we must consider the time we give teachers to assess, and rethink performance management targets that link pupil attainment percentages to pay. At Simon’s school, teachers are given an extra hour a week to focus on assessment and conversations surrounding children’s learning are constantly happening. Talking about learning at all levels (children, support staff, teachers, leaders, parents, governors) should be promoted.

Teachers, leaders, educators: we have been deskilled.

We have had ’20-30 years of deprofessionalisation’, remarked Stephen Tierney, a thought that was echoed by many throughout the day. The difficulty with life without levels is that teachers are used to being told what to teach; we are used to being told what to assess and how to assess it. This is why, when levels were removed, we saw so many schools panic buying ready made assessment systems that were totally unfit for purpose or simply replacing levels with something that, ultimately, did exactly the same thing.

We need to have the courage and confidence to expel external fears.

Hearing from Sean Harford was particularly interesting and useful. Ofsted have done a great deal of work to dispel some of the myths around inspection in recent years and Sean reminded us of this. He reminded us to use the documentation to professionally challenge external pressures (including Ofsted inspectors) and encouraged us to have real confidence and conviction in what we do.

Vision is vital.

I think it’s important to add that all the colleagues we heard from today clearly had a very strong vision underpinning everything they do in their practice. For principled assessment to work in practice, all stakeholders must understand the concepts and ideas behind it and, perhaps more importantly, believe in that philosophy themselves. The stories that were shared about successes and improvements in schools would not have been possible without a real clear focus on the ‘why’ behind assessment.


The focus of the conference today really sums everything up: #LearningFirst.

Photos of Sheffield by me.

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