Formative first

Assessment for effective learning

Malcolm Greenhalgh adds weight to the argument that top-down assessment in high-stakes end-of-course  examinations damages effective learning.

Constantly evaluating learning

I have no doubt that the ability to set effective formative assessment is the most important skill that any teacher can possess.Coaching skills of student self-assessment is in turn vital.  In a top down teacher/school dominated assessment arena, it is not possible to know, at any one time, exactly where each learner is on their learning journey. Only the learner, if given the right tools, can make an honest assessment of where they are, what their barriers to learning are and what their best next steps are to improve their learning.

I am convinced that the best way of matching learning activities accurately to learning needs involves a continual formative assessment process shared between learners and teachers and there is a wealth of research to support this view. Our ‘go to’ sources include Clive Watkins’ work on teacher-centred to learning-centred cultures and Geoff Masters’ work on the need for learner-centred education and his Paradigm Shift paper. We also believe the work of Hargreaves and O’Connor on collaborative professionalism is an eye opener.

The limitations of top-down assessment

Most unfortunately in England, we have taken a number of backward assessment steps and since 2010 have reverted to a teacher-centred model of curriculum delivery and assessment. The legacy of the last 15 years is that the gap between England and the best education systems in the world, is growing at an exponential rate. The blind faith of putting all our eggs in a small section of global educational research so that we can move up the PISA tables was a gamble which might enable the politicians to say, ‘haven’t we done well!’. Well, no we haven’t. More and more learners in our schools are turning their back on our archaic education system and voting with their feet and if they are not doing that, they are sitting passively in their learning seats.

Educational realists agree that education shouldn’t be a political short-term game but a long term strategy to ensure we build an education system fit for the second half of the 21st century. We certainly need to start the paradigm shift now as it is worth bearing in mind that children born today will be leaving full-time education with 2050 approaching!

Taking formative assessment forward

So, what pathway should formative assessment be taking to ensure every learner is given the opportunity to make outstanding progress? Here are some suggestions.

Step 1: Appoint an assessment lead in your school

Firstly, before we start our organisational learning journey, we have to believe that a cultural shift is needed and that we should support the voices of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIAE) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) who are making a strong case to have a well-trained lead assessor appointed in every school – assessors that understand the importance of formative assessment and learner ownership are of paramount importance.

Step 2: Develop professional assessment skills

Believe and acknowledge that accurate assessment practice is the core skill needed by all teachers in all lessons. Professional development in assessment has to ensure that:

  • every teacher understands that a teacher is unable to assess where every learner is at any one time all the time using top down methods.
  • formative assessment needs to fully include learner ownership through effective self and peer assessment.
Step 3: Establish specific and understandable learning criteria

Ensure the academic learning criteria for the learning journey in any specific subject is explicit and layered with ‘learner-speak’ mini-success criteria. This will ensure the long-term learning journey is developmental and progressive. Learners will then become clear about the long-term steps they need to take to advance their learning, becoming motivated and developing a desire to self-learn.

Step 4: Facilitate effective self-assessment

Ensure learning is experiential and application-based, enabling learners to make accurate assessments of what they have learned, rather than simply regurgitating facts and knowledge. Facilitate self and peer assessment against the mini-success criteria while encouraging students to make effective learning decisions – for example, whether to take on a new challenge or whether to consolidate a skill.

Step 5: Establish reliable moderation procedures

Ensure that a variety of moderation procedures are established to validate the accuracy of assessment against the mini-success criteria. These procedures will include

  • The moderation of student self-assessment
  • The moderation of peer assessment (pupil talk learning)
  • Teacher/pupil assessment dialogues
  • Teacher/teacher assessment dialogues and
  • School/school assessment dialogues
Step 6: Use lesson-based assessment
  • Ensure that ‘learning talk’ is central in lessons to enable the assessment of personal development and academic progress being made against mini-success criteria.
  • Make sure there is space at different points throughout the lesson when learners can reflect on how well they are learning in order to make formative assessment progress judgements and so to take high quality learning decisions.
A change of mood?

I think that Professor Stuart Shaw, Chair of the Board at CIEA in his TES article about ‘Assessment Literacy’ ( is right in sensing that a mood change is afoot and people in influential positions are shifting the discussions being had in the right direction.

At last, momentum for change seems to be growing and worthy discussions are being had, but we do have to be patient and think long-term. Getting back on the right track will need persistence and determination.


Malcolm Greenhalgh is a primary education specialist and educational entrepreneur who has created successful education businesses since 1993. He is passionate about students taking part ownership and direction over their own learning to maximise gains in their own knowledge and skills and contribute positively to the health and wealth of the planet.

For more about Malcolm’s work see:





Support Image:     by SolStock





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