Assessment as control: a teacher’s experience of the pecking order in schools.


A London teacher speaks about their own experience of the use of assessment as a form of social control in schools. From the spring 2010 issue of The Leveller.

Assessment is a normal and sometimes valuable part of education. There’s nothing wrong with checking whether some sort of training or education has achieved its goal of helping someone learn a new skill or a piece or knowledge. Indeed it is a necessary and vital part of many aspects of education. This article however, focuses on the reactionary uses of assessment in schools. It effectively has dual-purpose - a) establish a pecking order from the early years onwards, and for pupils to ‘know their place’ throughout their educational life, and b) monitor worker performance. The examples refer specifically to experiences in England but may be of relevance to education workers elsewhere.

Monitoring students
The language is encouraging; ‘getting the most out of our learners’, ‘levels in the air’ and ‘adding value’. The rhetoric within many schools now is that in order to achieve such goals, we need to be quantifying the learning every step of the way, checking that those incremental gains in ‘knowledge’ are being maintained. In effect what this means is pupils, learners, students, whatever terms is in-vogue now, being overtly conscious of their place in the school pecking order at all times. Not only being aware of their own place, but that of every other pupil they share a class with, and the pecking order of each class.

Labelling pupils from the earliest years of school is now common practice. By the end of primary school, pupils are expected to have a firm grasp of what ‘level’ they are in core subjects (maths, science, English), and those levels are increasingly used to ‘stream’ or, as has been common practice in core subjects for a long time, at least ‘set’ pupils depending on ability. Streaming is a more divisive version of setting where pupils are not just set within an individual subject, but effectively separated for the whole of the school lesson time into different ability classes. This effectively creates schools within schools, enabling the establishment of hierarchies within supposedly comprehensive schools.

What does ‘levelling’ mean? In England, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), sets out the levels within subjects, from level 1-8 in most subjects. These levels map onto what’s known as Bloom’s Taxonomy – a classification of learning objectives, which is supposed to progress through basic skills and sounds a bit like this – recall, describe, explain, analyse, evaluate, synthesise. They roughly translate to levels 3-8 of the QCDA’s descriptors.

If this all sounds boring, it’s because it is. It relates little to the content of the subjects kids are learning, and is more a process of quantification that suits micromanagers who want to easily monitor performance of staff and students. The effect on pupils in the classroom is tangible. In the days when tests were measured in As, Bs, Cs etc in early secondary education, pupils of course had awareness of who was a the ‘smart kid’ and who wasn’t. But they didn’t wear that label for every minute of every lesson, of every day of every term. The new ‘levelling’ in its most extreme forms means that pupils must be labelled at intervals throughout the lesson, and may even be divided within lessons in ‘level 3 tables’ and ‘level 6 table’ and so on. Thus the hierarchy is a constant, throughout all lessons.

Depressingly, the overt and pervasive form of academic labelling is internalised by many students, who will refer to themselves and their own abilities negatively. Many underestimate the degree to which pupils internalise the labels we assign them, and unfortunately some don’t care, because they’re genuinely only interested in generating graphs to show their departments are ‘performing’.

The impact on students is very real, and should be of deep concern to anyone genuinely interested in education.

Monitoring the staff monitoring the students.
Beyond labelling individual students, the overtly quantitative forms of assessment that now exist in most schools are used directly, and openly, to monitor staff performance. Most schools have a computerised record system that monitors everything from attendance, to test scores, to behaviour management. But the scope of these systems, and the uses to which they are put, may vary from school to school.

In its most pervasive guise, these systems are a tightly quantified form of both pupil and staff monitoring. The data from these systems can be used explicitly in ‘performance management’. Performance management amounts to bosses monitoring staff to check they are doing the job. In some instances, provided your line manager isn’t a jobsworth and simply is in their position for a bit of extra money, it can be supportive – it can identify areas for improvement, and suggest ways to move forward and make teaching and learning better.

However, increasingly, the data is used to identify ‘underperforming’ staff. Performance management does not apply to trainee teachers or NQTs (Newly Qualified Teachers i.e. those in their probation period) – it applies only to teachers in their second year in the profession and onwards. I have seen instances where data from pupil monitoring has been used to build cases against so-called underperforming staff. In those that I have witnessed, it has been where a line-manager is an ‘aspiring leader’ – someone who wants to get out of the classroom and into school management. They will use the data to openly criticise colleagues and show quantitatively how they ‘aren’t doing their jobs well’.

Quantifying performance
What does this data involve? Ok, say you give a class an assessment. You mark it, record you marks, and enter it into the computer system. So far, it’s no more than a glorified version of the old fashioned mark-book, those folders you see teachers carrying around (most still carry the old ones too, so effectively work is duplicated, but most of us like to have a paper copy of marks).

But further to that, the mark is then mapped against a pre-determined ‘target’ for each pupil. At key stage 3 (11-14yrs) this target is usually based on the scores they come from primary school with, and mapped across the three years of the curriculum. These projections are often wrong – perhaps the pupil has a ‘good day’ on the assessment day, perhaps they had a ‘bad one’, but for the next three years, every test they take will be matched against that yardstick, and both the pupils performance, and their teachers’ will be judged in that light.

At this stage, each mark can then be flagged as ‘on’, ‘below’ or ‘above’ target. And here is where the managers come in – they have access to this data for every member of staff and can use it in their ‘performance management’. In some schools, such data has been used to ‘get rid of dead wood’.

“Driving Licence for Teachers”
So this overt form of easily-quantifiable assessment can be used as a stick to poke both students and staff with. Teachers have some the highest stress levels in any sector. The already excessive demands of many performance management procedures and Ofsted inspections are potentially to be made worse with the government’s proposed ‘Licence to teach’* being put forward last year. Under the proposed licence, teachers would have to ‘renew’ their ‘teaching licence’ every five years or face the sack. Speaking to experienced classroom teachers, it’s clear that most view the proposal as nothing short of cretinous and an insult to their integrity. Teachers are already subject to an ever-mounting degree of invasion into the professional life and with the prospect of more of this it’s no wonder than retention of workers in the sector has been so difficult.

The prospects
Education is a mess at the minute. Higher education is facing a total collapse, with £900m to be cut from the university budgets and 14,000 jobs to be cut, despite 20,000 more university places being announced - less staff, less money…. but more students – I’m no mathematician but something doesn’t add up. The examples of a fightback in the form university occupations at Sussex, London Met, Westminster, and the London College of Communications, and proposed strikes at Leeds are encouraging, but workers in the secondary and primary sectors need to wake up.
Quantification and the growing meddling in our working lives, both from micromanagers and bureaucrats is just one problem we face. The march of Ofsted, as well as the growth of academies and the increasing involvement of private investors in schools should be of grave concern to us all. Workers in schools need to stand in solidarity with the counterparts in universities, and to learn from their experiences. The attacks facing higher education at the minute are unlikely to stop there, and workers in schools need to be ready to fight back.

By a member of the London Education Workers Group

Further reading:
NUT’s campaign against ‘Licence to Teach’ -

* - the License to Teach plans have been dropped since the author wrote this piece

Posted By

May 30 2010 17:37


Attached files


May 30 2010 18:17

Thanks for this. Really interesting.

May 30 2010 18:25
A London teacher speaks about their own experience


May 30 2010 22:47

perfectly fine when not specifying gender

May 30 2010 23:07

no, it mixes numbers.
"a london teacher speaks about the experience of..."

May 30 2010 23:19

I can speak from experience that the current school system is terrifying, isolating and just downright mentally damaging for any child with the slightest desire to not conform. I'm very thankful that my high school days are done.

jef costello
May 31 2010 10:56

Good article.
The other problem with levels is that they are set up as descriptive ways of evaluating pupil skills but are in practise used as if they are definitive calculations on a pupil's status.
It comes back to the idea that we're supposed to do asssessment for learning (where the pupil is assessed continuously based on the work they are producing rather than by a test score) but a pupil's level is still usually based on an exam. Also every school I have worked at has made it impossible for a pupil to drop a level so once a kid has achieved level 6 for example once they cannot get a level 5 at a later date, which defeats the point of the assessment. Some places claim it's too demoralising for students to drop down a grade (but they should understand that with each new module they are to an extent beginning from scratch) but I think it's more about teachers hitting targets. I've also noticed that no teacher ever calculates student levels for reports without a copy of the predicted grades in front of them.
This is why I hate teaching, everything suggests that actually educating young people requires a lot of subtlety and is not a predictable process and is one that is hard to measure in a quantitative way yet they still insist on measuring all performance like that. At my last school we spent six weeks of the term teaching, one week preparing for the test, one week giving it. Which was fine when the test was fun or creative, but it rarely ever was.

May 31 2010 11:30

Are you still teaching atm?
Would be good to see some more pieces on this stuff.

May 31 2010 11:45

Choccy, do you feel that more and more you are doing things in your job that go against your principles? How do you counter some of these draconian practises in your classrooms, without getting disciplined yourself?

May 31 2010 12:32

At the end of the day my subject hasn't changed much since I was in school - like, we incorporate new developments but photosynthesis is still the photosynthesis I learned.
So I kinda just stick to teaching my subject and building relationships with kids and coworkers, and don't give too much of a shit about the 'new initiatives' they throw at us every two months. Many students know I don't give a shit about certain things but do give a shit about them and my subject, it comes across in how I engage with them.
There's a lot I love about the job still, but the direction it's going is extremely worrying, moreso than it ever was.

May 31 2010 15:03

the jargon alone in this article sounds appalling. one reason i chose middle school over high school teaching, the last time i was looking, was precisely that it was much less tied into 'quantitative' assessment and standardization, and one by-product is that the teacher is less evaluated on these criteria. for public school teaching at any level a teachers license is a requirement here, and has been since before i started in the biz, but not for private school teaching. the only ways we answer to the state really are that we teach math and english, and are in session a certain number of days a year. this is the states mind, and the system of private schools here is, i understand, more extensive and less sectarian than in the uk, so i can't glibly advise that someone over there just make the jump.

also a and their is fine when playing the pro noun game.

it's awful, using 'his or her' is no problem nor even avoiding a pronoun as i did in that sentence above, there's no ambiguity. and whatever happened to "one" as a pronoun? too posh? solves the problem perfectly.

May 31 2010 15:48

wtf Petey- 'a teacher comments on one's experience'
seriously wise the fuck up, it's depressing that that was the most important thing you commented on in this article - and yes, 'their' as a singular possessive non-gendered pronoun is fine
eg - If my mobile phone runs out of power, a friend that I am with lets me borrow theirs.

and again:
The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. This gives you the option of using the plural pronouns where you think they sound best, and of using the singular pronouns (as he, she, he or she, and their inflected forms) where you think they sound best.

with that confirmation anything else off-topic moaning erroneously about grammar I will delete wink

oh and your points about middle school means little in the UK - the same quantitative assessment and evaluation of students and teachers applies at all levels of education in the UK, not just 'high school'

May 31 2010 17:20
oh and your points about middle school means little in the UK - the same quantitative assessment and evaluation of students and teachers applies at all levels of education in the UK, not just 'high school'

i'm glad you had something to say about the most important thing i commented on in that article: that the system of assessment sounds appalling, that i hoped there was an alternate system as we have here (because our state system in my limited (2 year) exposure is as controlling as yours sounds), but unfortunately there isn't. that quote above is helpful, at least you didn't have a recurrence of the psychotic episode you had the last time you talked about my experiences in education.

May 31 2010 19:45

Could you write a bit about your experiences?

[edit] - oh god I just remembered Petey's mental support for school uniforms!

Joseph Kay
Jun 7 2010 14:52

the meta-discussion about whether teachers are really like prison guards has been moved to theory.

Jun 7 2010 23:48

hmm, was looking for that "teachers=screws" article, but couldn't find it. Better check my daughter's not asleep upstairs in her room, rather than in the "prison" she sometimes quite enjoys roll eyes

Link doesn't work BTW Joseph,



Joseph Kay
Jun 8 2010 00:03

Link should work now!

Jun 13 2010 09:50

Very interesting article. It would be very interesting to see a cross section of my former secondary school classmates and see which ones ended up going to university out of which levels. Off the top of my head I can only think of people from level 1/2 classes who did.

Aug 2 2010 20:19

I'd say that's more than likely the case Blackout. The myth abounds that kids in 'bottom' sets really have any sort of mobility - anyone with half a brain can see that those in lowest sets will be largely written-off from a young age.

the most worrying thing is how they are attempting to completely replace the older generation with 'young dynamic go-getters' - ie naive, 'flexible', cheaper teachers with little memory of resistance in education or union activity (however shit it may have been) in school, and little critique of education itself.

The move toward GTP and Teach First style on-the-job training for 'high flyers' will completely take out any academic side to the profession, so theories of learning, philosophy and sociology of education for teachers will be a thing of the past. Like, there won't even be conversations about whether what we're doing is a 'good thing' - it's taken for granted and completely normalised sad

jef costello
Oct 11 2010 22:36

Apparently they want to take the PGCE out of the college and into the classroom. Less than a quarter of my PGCE was in the college.
It's another attack on the 'academic' side to the profession and one more attack on teachers' status.

Oct 12 2010 06:15

Yeah thats what im hearing too Jef.

Oct 12 2010 14:56
jef costello wrote:
It's another attack on the 'academic' side to the profession...

What 'academic' side would that be? In my recent, shortlived, truncated experience of a PGCE, I couldn't even get either lecturers or fellow students to discuss 'what is teaching?' or 'what is education?'.

Apparently, teaching = training instruction, and education = training. And the point is a job.

For my 20 minute micro-teach, I pointed out (with the help of powerpoint!) why 'reflective practice' was individualist, inductive, conservative bollocks; in class discussion, tried to raise the issue that Behaviourism, Constructivism and Humanism were essentially fronts for, respectively, Conservative, Communist and Liberal ideologies. Talk about lead balloons!

For them, teaching is a trade you learn, in which you transfer a pre-existing entity called knowledge to the passive recipients. It's easy to assess - simple memory will suffice. Testing tests knowledge. This is nonsense - testing tests your ability to do tests. Funnily enough, often the thick ones are the best at that! Have you met some 'academics'? (sic)

Any idea that education is about developing the student to replace the teacher, to develop individuals to be critical thinkers, has gone out of the window.

I'll tell you how to assess a pupil - when they can put together an argument that disproves what you've told them, and decide to run the class themselves on the elective principle, they'll do! Probably produce good critical Communists, too, who question hierarchies.

Wonder why the authorities just don't listen?

Oct 12 2010 20:42
jef wrote:
Apparently they want to take the PGCE out of the college and into the classroom.

Well more that they want to get rid of PGCEs altogether and roll out widespread Teach First-style 'on the job' training.
You're right though, it's the final nail in the coffin of any academic pretense education ever had and a move to out and out uncritical service delivery.
I'm witnessing it right now in my school.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 6 2011 21:46

So I know there hasn't been much action on this thread lately, but I've been reading the education articles on libcom and...

The myth abounds that kids in 'bottom' sets really have any sort of mobility - anyone with half a brain can see that those in lowest sets will be largely written-off from a young age.

...the school where my partner works have recently brought in some extra help to get kids up to the next attainment level. Only it's not for the kids who are in the low levels, it's for the kids who are level 3 verging on level 4.

Likewise, at my school, the newest, most inexperienced teachers get the lowest sets. And the school is open with their reasoning (as flawed as their reasoning is): the "best" teachers go to the highest achieving students to ensure every A* is an A*, not just an A. Whether the lower sets get an E or F that doesn't matter as all the government measures is A* - Cs.

Just disgusting, all of it. And that's not even getting into the inherent problems of attainment-based learning and teaching to the test...

jef costello
Jan 20 2011 15:46

In struggling schools you'll find the most effort goes to the D students who could be pushed up to C grades at GCSE. Like CS says it's about government targets. As long as a kid hits their predicted grades then the only other measure is the GCSE results. The basic measure of 30% of students gaining 5 A* to C grades is more important than anything as it will trigger the school being put into special measures which nobody is in favour of.
I think choccy's point about sets is very important. Few students ever change sets and even fewer ever move up. In fact upward movement usually only happens if a student was placed or dropped into a lower set to try to push them to work harder.

jef costello
Nov 13 2011 20:18

School policy where I am does not allow us to give students levels until Y9. We select 10% of our intake for our specialism but otherwise run a lottery for admissions. Highest rated state school in the area, although there are now rumblings about making us an academy.

Nov 13 2011 21:52

Opposite here, kids have internalised labels since primary and are tested to death and we're swamped with meta-data, under-subscribed and competing with other schools to get 'the kind of kids we want'.