Assessing students’ needs for their return to school

May 26, 2020
Harry Fletcher-Wood

Harry Fletcher-Wood

Associate Dean, Learning Design

When schools gradually reopen to more students, the children who return will not be the same as those who left in March.

Many will have learned new things from family members, and acquired new practical skills.  Some will have studied diligently, revising from past work and taking up resources and learning from their schools and from online providers.  Some students will have had limited opportunities to learn however, and all will have forgotten at least some of what they knew in March.   

Given this diversity of experience, how should teachers and school leaders prepare to meet their needs? 

As part of Ambition Institute’s Summer Series, I discussed this question, and its practical implications, with three inspiring people:  

  • Daisy Christodoulou – Director of Education at No More Marking, author of Making Good Progress and, more recently, Teachers vs Tech? 
  • Janice Allen – Headteacher of Falinge Park High School in Rochdale 
  • Jo Riley – Headteacher of Randal Cremer Primary School in Hackney 

Three things stood out from our conversations: 

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1. Start with the purpose 

Purpose has two important roles in planning assessment for when students return to school.  As Daisy Christodoulou noted, “There’s really no such thing as a good or a bad assessment: there are assessments that are well-designed for a purpose, and badly designed for a purpose.”   

So, the first step for teachers and school leaders is to identify what they will use their assessment to do: for example, adapting the curriculum or offering targeted support.  Having established the purpose of the assessment, the design should be easier – what Dylan Wiliam calls “decision-driven data collection.” 

A second purpose consideration is school leaders’ desire to ensure that the return to school is a positive experience for students.  Teachers need to know what students know if they are to plan their teaching effectively, but this can be combined with activities to rebuild the school’s culture and students’ sense of belonging. 

2. Build on the strengths of the school

When I asked Jo Riley how she was going to support her teachers to meet children’s needs, she emphasised the importance of using the school’s professional development programme. For example, she might support teachers to identify and model the most important skills children need.  She also emphasised how important the support of senior colleagues would be for less experienced teachers.   

Janice Allen emphasised that this was an opportunity to use the extensive curricular thinking her colleagues have done over the last four years. Her teachers have spent time carefully identifying the curricular priorities and likely misconceptions in each topic, and these can be the focus of an assessment.   

The current situation is new to everyone, but the fundamentals of effective teaching and learning have not changed. Students’ return to a school is a chance to build on the positive foundations which teachers and leaders have already laid.  

3. Keep it simple 

As Janice Allen noted, one big risk is that “We might try to do too much” with assessment.  Daisy Christodoulou cautioned against doing things “for the sake of doing things, for Ofsted, because other people are doing them.…  stay true to your principles, don’t be rushed into doing things because other people are doing them, and definitely don’t be rushed into things where there’s a big workload implication.”   

For example, if teachers are designing an assessment to inform their teaching priorities when students return, attempting to use the same assessment to create new predicted grades (for example) would be both a mistake and a distraction. 

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Drawing this together, the key ideas I took from my conversations were:

  • To decide first how schools might adapt to meet students’ needs– then design an assessment to identify which students need what;  
  • To draw on the hard work that teachers have already done in curricular thinking and assessment, and the school’s existing support system for teachers, rather than beginning from scratch, and;  
  • To avoid over-complicating what teachers are asked to do.   

This is a new challenge for everyone and, while teachers and school leaders are striving to plan for re-integrating students into school life, no-one has all the answers. But, as Janice said in our conversation, “If we’re clear about what we want, and how it’s going to help our pupils in the future, then our good enough, is enough.” 


Harry's reflections follow his #SummerSeries webinar on understanding and meeting the needs of pupils when schools re-open. We're working with our partners across the sector to deliver a programme of free webinars to support teachers and school leaders through, and beyond, the coronavirus outbreak.

 Find out more, and watch a recording of Harry's webinar, here > 

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