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Home thoughts from abroad: WAPPA and assessment

I am currently in Western Australia as part of an extended summer holiday to visit family in Perth. Me being me, I thought this might be an opportunity to catch up with Australian colleagues who I have communicated with for some time through Twitter or my blog. I met up with the first of these yesterday in Stephen Breen, who is President of the Western Australian Primary Principals' Association (WAPPA) which is the professional organisation for primary school principals in the state. WAAPA's role is to represent school principals and work with the state government to support schools in order to help shape education provision in the state.

Stephen and I have communicated online for a number of years and it was great to get the chance to meet up and chat face to face. We share a lot of the same views and opinions regarding education and the issues we face within our respective systems, but it was reassuring, as well as informative, to get a perspective from 12000 miles away from Scotland that identified similar issues and concerns, as well as possible ways forward. Stephen told how, because of financial cuts, less and less support was available for schools and principals from the centre, and how more and more 'autonomy' was being placed on school principals and their schools. An issue for WAPPA, and Stephen, was how do they support principals and teachers, and help up-skill them, so they are better able to meet the demands of this new found autonomy. He spoke of how for many years teachers and principals had been de-skilled by being seen as mere 'deliverers' of systems, structures and curriculum decided elsewhere, and now, especially with younger principals, there was a lack of knowledge and understanding of how to carry out functions that previously had been dealt with from the centre. He cited HR as a particular area where principals were struggling with the new demands and expectations being placed upon them. All this, of course, sounded very familiar to myself and I am sure many in the Scottish or UK systems of education.

We quickly got into a discussion about the Australian government's National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy, commonly known as NAPLAN. This is the Australian system of national standardised testing and which runs concordant with a My School website, that requires schools to report student achievement using grades. Helpfully, those above average are shown as green and those below as red on this site. Of course, alongside this has grown greater accountability and more inspections as successive governments have determined they know how to improve schools through stronger accountability, more standardisation and more testing. Sound familiar? Stephen spoke of how WAPPA were now trying to adopt a more proactive approach to such direction from national and state government. Previously they had waited for new reforms, or directions of travel, to be introduced and then reacted to these. The new approach was to decide what WAPPA's members wanted, and knew to work from a strong evidence base, and then lay this out for the state, government, principals, teachers and parents ahead of any new policy or directive from above. 

WAPPA have been working with universities and academics to ensure proposals are grounded in sound research, and Stephen and colleagues have visited quite a number of foreign systems to look at what works for them in their particular contexts, and what Western Australia can learn from their insights and experiences. He and WAPPA understand the importance of context, but they are also clear about what works, and what doesn't. They carried out one piece of research with a local university which looked at a group of the highest performing schools in the Perth area in an effort to identify what made them successful. The one characteristic that stood out above all others was that in each of these schools the principal had been in post for over thirteen years. This re-enforced Stephen's view, and my own, of the complexity of developing an effective learning environment and culture and which requires time to develop. Not good news for some of our politicians and those who still search for 'silver bullets', 'quick fixes' and results. He, like many, feels that NAPLAN has failed to deliver what it was supposed to deliver i.e. raised attainment and closing of equity gaps. Instead, it's over-simplified approach and false connections made to school and principal performance has distracted many from what really makes a difference and has had negative impacts for many learners. Hardly a resounding endorsement of such approaches to school and system development. 

In their latest statement,  which focuses on assessment in schools, Informative Assessment: A Position Paper, WAPPA lays out their case for what sustainable and meaningful assessment in schools should actually look like, and they express many of their concerns with the NAPLAN approach, and back this with research to support their stance. Various academics helped in the research process and with consultation in drawing up this position paper, including Dr Phil Ridden, Dr Sandy Heldsinger and Dr Paul Swan.

At the start of their paper, they point out that the discourse around NAPLAN has 'identified a number of 
unintended consequences' which have caused concerns for many educators, including principals and teachers throughout the system. As a result of the issues thrown up, the WAPPA paper encourages schools and principals to revisit their assessment policies and procedures and ensure that what they have in place is consistent with sound research. At the outset WAPPA lays out its own beliefs and understandings regarding effective assessment practices. 'WAPPA believes that improvements to the quality of teaching and learning go hand-in-hand and that the skilled use of assessment by teachers and by schools is essential to improve the quality of teaching, the quality of learning and the achievement of learning outcomes.' 

They then make eight key statements regarding fundamental understandings about assessment. These are:

1) The purpose of assessment is to improve teaching and learning
2) Assessment requires skill and professional judgement
3) Assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning
4) Students are participants in the assessment process
5) Assessment information should be obtained from a range of appropriate strategies
6) All assessment strategies and instruments have strengths and limitations
7) Assessment is a professional skill and responsibility
8) Assessment informs school improvement 

The paper then goes on to develop each of these key understandings further. None of the above are particularly new or insightful. We have known and understood them all for some period of time, and all are based on sound research. Perhaps what has happened in Australia, and elsewhere, is that the profession has allowed itself to get distracted by other 'things' and other agendas, and has lost sight of what we know really works. We are still subject to the mutations that sound research often turns into as it is filtered through all levels of the system. We are still too often sweet-talked by snake-oil salesmen  who promise us the Holy Grail of education, guaranteed to deliver and improve everything we do, when deep down what we know really works is that relentless determination to get a little bit better every day  and to do what works and what is sustainable, and which is supported by sound research and evidence.

I applaud Stephen and WAPPA for their attempts to support schools and their principals by showing them what works and helping them to implement change over time. They understand the complexity of what schools and their leaders are asked to do and give short shrift to those who seem to think this is an easy fix. We all know it isn't. Perhaps there are too many 'shooting stars' in education, who make big impacts quickly, then move on just as quickly, before the quick wins start to dissipate. Deep change takes time so that it is embedded and sustainable and has impacts for all. This requires more than the life of a senate, or a parliament, or two. It requires a mindset that understands the need for resilience and persistence, as well as the ability to ignore, or minimise, the distractions in the system and from outwith.

I wasn't making notes as I spoke to Stephen yesterday, so I hope this is an accurate summation of our conversation. Thanks to him and his colleagues for making me so welcome and for giving me their time. Professional collaboration and dialogue is such a powerful tool for change, and we are fortunate to be living in a time when the world has shrunk due to transport and infrastructure changes that have taken place, as well as through the growth of social media. We no longer have to wait for a meeting, courses or conferences to engage with colleagues, now we are able to engage 24hrs a day and across the globe if we wish. We owe it to our learners, and our profession, to engage whenever, and by whatever means, we can and I look forward to meeting and sharing with more colleagues during my stay in Australia. However, I am still on holiday and will be heading off to Cairns next Monday for a bit of snorkelling and sightseeing down the east coast. Yes, I do appreciate how lucky I am in having a job that allows me to do all this, but I also appreciate being part of a profession that is often willing to take time to share and support colleagues to develop their own understanding and practice, wherever they might be, or where they may be from. Thank you Stephen and WAPPA for making me so welcome.

Reference: Informative Assessment: A Position Paper: an examination of research and response to the concerns of Western Australian school leaders. May 2016, WAPPA, Perth WA

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