It’s all about the journey, not the destination

SSAT education lead Corinne Settle has confessions to make

My journey began as a trainee teacher being asked to read Inside the Black Box, by Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black. One of many, many books I read at university and in most cases, subsequently forgot. Then, in my first few years of teaching when I attended national strategy workshops, it all made sense, so I had a go and added to the growing repertoire of techniques I used in lessons to work out whether learners ‘got it’.

Over the last too many years I have had CPD on so much stuff, again much of which I don’t remember. But I’ve always prided myself on being a ‘keen-bean’ ready to try anything new, – but to tweak it, adapt it and make it mine. In the classroom is probably the one place where I am truly me. Mainly because I am more focused on the students.

In 2008 I became an SSAT Lead Practitioner and was given the opportunity, as part of a team of teachers, to work with Dylan Wiliam for a day on embedding formative assessment (EFA). He particularly focused on the process of bringing about teacher change through teacher learning communities (TLCs).

In the session, the group discussed two certainties in teaching:

  • Students don’t always learn what we teach them
  • We don’t know well enough what they already know (no matter how beautiful the data on the spreadsheet).

From my own experience, this isn’t just the case for the students we teach, but also the teachers. I left the session with Dylan, truly inspired about what was the right thing to do… yet I did it entirely differently, because (apparently) I knew better. I never consciously thought this, I just thought I had a great plan and my ‘keen-bean’ took over.

Over the next 3-4 years, now as a senior leader, I developed teacher learning communities in two different schools. But I wasn’t quite using the process and content Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy had developed following their 10 years of research (I am cringing as I write this). These communities weren’t entirely unsuccessful: my efforts may have contributed to both schools moving successfully out of Ofsted categories. But, they didn’t quite get there. Why? I never could put my finger on it. Great resources and ideas were developed, shared and modelled. Were these ideas embedded in teachers’ practice? No. Did I learn a lot? Yes.

Hindsight is brilliant.

I then saw Dylan speak again at the SSAT National Conference in 2012. Was I even in the room, when he first talked about TLCs? I had been there, but I clearly had not got the message.

This is starting to feel like a confessional. I now hope to redeem myself.

For the last three years I have led the Education Endowment Foundation EFA project, working with 70 schools across the country. The purpose of this project has been to test the efficacy of the embedding formative assessment programme. On planning how to support schools, I wanted to ensure they ‘stayed on target’. Each school was supported by a lead practitioner with expertise and experience in delivering the programme, whose role was to support and challenge schools in this programme. Crucially, it was to ensure schools made adaptations to the programme meeting the needs of their own context, but to prevent ‘lethal mutations’. Examples of lethal mutations would include combining/collapsing meeting agendas so that the programme is done more quickly, or reducing the consistency of meetings from four weeks to every half term. Why are these lethal? Because change needs time.

What did we learn?

It does take two years. Schools at the end of year 1 felt they had made much progress towards embedding formative assessment and could see how effective use of techniques had become much more prevalent. These schools questioned the need for year 2, feeling the urgency to move on to something else. Yet at the end of year two, these schools acknowledged the importance of the second year in truly changing teacher practice long term. And they are planning for year 3.

At the end of year 2, these schools acknowledged the importance of the second year in truly changing teacher practice long term. And are planning for year 3.


Each TLC meeting should be at least 75 minutes long, to allow quality discussion and reflection. Time also needs to be found between the TLCs for peer observations and for teachers to collaborate.

Teachers are at their best when they work it out for themselves

I nearly got that right in my earlier approach. But they need external stimulus and structure when they try new techniques, experiencing failure and success. What works for one doesn’t work for another. It’s ok to do it differently, just use the support of your TLCs to make sure it’s effective, reflect on what you do and make it even better.

Glue to make it stick

Even with the best of intentions, teachers’ plates are overflowing. As a school, you need to support teachers to clear these plates a little so they have space to focus on their classroom practice. Strategically plan how you will keep this process ‘front and centre’ for teachers.

Bridging the knowing-doing gap

Formative assessment is seen to have been ‘done’ (box ticked) yet we know from the research that if done effectively it will make a difference to student outcomes. Over time, through TLCs teachers realise this as they see the impact in their own lessons and can unpick effective practice with others. So importantly, the doing-knowing gap is also bridged as teachers gain confidence to share their great practice with others.

I have learnt so much, this project has been truly exciting and, even three years on, there is so much more that can be done. We have now developed a support package for schools, using what we have learned to maximise this impact.

The above are just a few examples of what is important in implementing this programme and making a real difference where it matters, in the classroom.

The question I have been asked most is, what works? The answer simply is the process. The process needs to be driven by determined and focused strategic leadership. The process as created in the EFA pack, the one I naively thought could be done differently.

My journey is far from over, but my confession is complete. I did learn what was taught, I took my own route and got there at my own pace in my own way, as our students do too. There is so much more for me to learn – and that, for me, is a thrilling concept. I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Place your order: Whole School Embedding Formative Assessment Resource.

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