What AfL is for

Rob Coe recently posted an interesting essay about how AfL might well be over-rated.

I broadly agree. And of course I’m in no position to argue against him – my experience only relates to the impact of AfL on 12 teachers in a small primary school of around 240 children. However, my experience of AfL has been really positive and I’ll explain why…

Everyone knows that there are only 4 things that improve teaching, and one of them is subject knowledge; the purpose of AfL is to increase subject knowledge.

Teachers have curriculum strengths and weaknesses – this is particularly apparent in the upper reaches of primary school, where the required qualification in English and maths for a teacher is a ‘C’ grade at GCSE. There are significant numbers of children at this level who may be working close to that level, hence the teacher’s subject knowledge may simply be not high enough to meet the needs of the students.

This is where AfL comes in. Assessing the children closely against rigorous banks of knowledge statements such as those found in the APP materials for English and maths, means the teacher discovers holes in their own subject knowledge – they find out what their students can do, they can see the next steps and they can determine whether they have the subject knowledge to teach those steps. At this point, if they don’t have the subject knowledge, it’s either time to panic, or seek help from their senior colleagues.

It is exactly at this point that things go wrong – senior colleagues (in other schools, I might add) are often keen to tick the AfL box rather than address the underlying problem. Unfortunately it is far easier to make things look like AfL is happening than to actually increase the subject knowledge in your staff – this involves a level of skill and compassion that is beyond many senior leaders in our education system. In this culture, rather than seeking the improvement they need, teachers who need to develop their own subject knowledge will develop all sorts of strategies to conceal it. In fact one of those strategies is writing the letters WALT and WILF on your whiteboard – a point that Professer Coe alludes to.

It is the culture of the school that makes a difference here. In my school we are all learners and my headteacher repeatedly reinforces a ‘no blame’ culture. Only yesterday, my year 6 teacher (whom I line manage) was teaching me what modal verbs are. Similarly we are all happy to educate each other so that we increase each other’s subject knowledge. We have found systems such as APP and Incerts (an online assessment system based on the old National Curriculum) really useful because they have helped us identify what we are good at teaching and which areas we still don’t know much about. We use them as assessment for learning, but really that means increasing our own subject knowledge so we can teach better.