Performance Descriptors – what they will mean for me and my school

Thank you to Michael Dillon, Head Teacher at Kew Riverside Primary School for this guest post

I recently attended our Local Authority’s (Richmond & Kingston) annual Assessment and Learning Conference, which is always well organised and extremely informative.  Throughout the day there were several excellent speakers and presentations, including South Farnham School[1], the Institute of Education and the assessment consultant and writer Shirley Clarke[2].

However, what was particularly interesting this year, was the presentation by the Standards & Teaching Agency of the draft Performance Descriptors for Key Stage 1 and 2 teacher assessment.  I know that all my colleagues found the information really useful, especially as it was coming directly from the STA.

As you are no doubt are aware these have recently been published and are open for consultation until 18th December 2014.  These will eventually become the new indicators by which performance will be measured for Y2 and Y6.

So what does this mean in practical terms for us in school?  Well, I will be spending the rest of the academic year reviewing our whole school assessment policy.

I know the Performance Descriptors are still in consultation, but we will start with using our next INSET day (January 2015) to read them in more detail and take the opportunity to review them against our curriculum, particularly for Y2 and Y6.  We will also discuss different options available to describe performance.  Finally, and to be honest, most importantly, we will begin to review our assessment culture, assessment principles and what is actually happening in the classroom (our procedures).  Our initial focus will be the quality of the marking in children’s books, including evidence of peer and self assessment.

In reviewing the Performance Descriptors there are several key aspects that I think are worth noting with staff.  One of these is the different criteria being used to describe performance (depending on whether teacher assessment contributes to the new floor standards):


In Reading, Writing, & Maths there are four performance descriptors:

  • Mastery standard
  • National standard
  • Working towards national standard
  • Below national Standard

For science there is only one performance descriptor:

  • National standard


In Writing, there are five performance descriptors:

  • Mastery standard
  • Above national standard
  • National standard
  • Working towards national standard
  • Below national Standard

For Reading, Maths & Science again there is one performance descriptor:

  • Working at the national standard

In addition to above, I want to spend time looking at them in detail, subject by subject and by Key Stage, against our curriculum, to ensure we are pitching it at the appropriate level.

Finally I want to take the opportunity to discuss with staff the different options of describing performance.  There are several options I see as relevant here – we can either follow the language used in the EYFS of Emerging, Expecting and Exceeding or devise our own language such as; Working Towards, Working Within or Working Beyond. However, what is interesting is that the STA material is clearly steering us towards the use of a ‘mastery’ descriptor.

I believe there is a broader discussion to be had here.  The notion is that, like the old level descriptors, the EYFS Exceeding descriptor could have the implication that a child is working at the ‘next’ level; or rather accessing the next year’s curriculum.

While the implication of the mastery descriptor is that a child should be going ‘deeper and wider’.  This notion of mastery is clearly supported by Tim Oates and also endorsed by NCETM (National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics).

However, I know some colleagues are concerned about this.  While everyone clearly wants children to experience learning at a deep level, is there an implication that you can therefore not offer some children the curriculum beyond their current year group?  Would we be (inadvertently) limiting their learning experiences?  Also, how would we communicate this to parents?  Most parents are used to a numerical value (levels), which can be related to year group (we tell parents, ‘your child is working at a 4b, which is what we expect of a Y6 child).

This is an interesting debate and needs to be explored further.

Returning to our focus for the year ahead, and as detailed above, I want to spend time reviewing our assessment culture, assessment policy and what is going on in the classroom – our procedures.  At the conference, Shirley Clarke advocated that schools review their assessment culture and develop the work of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset.   She also advocated the promotion of Learning Muscles – identifying the key characteristics of learning – resilience, feedback, questioning etc as a means to helping children really understand their learning.  In terms of classroom practice, my focus will be the quality of the marking in children’s books, including evidence of peer and self assessment.  Interestingly, Shirley Clarke encouraged schools to look at more in-class based marking, what she calls cooperative feedback (p124) and individually pupil-created success criteria (p126).  A number of her ideas and suggestions struck a chord with me and I will be discussing them with staff.

In terms of our broader assessment focus, we are in the early stages of trialling the NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers) Key Performance Indicators.  During our autumn assessment moderation meeting we used this NAHT material alongside the ‘old’ level descriptors’.  Initially staff found the KPIs too vague, which is not surprising as this is really meant as an end of year assessment tool and does not have the ‘fine grading’ that would be needed for termly assessments.

During the rest of the year, I will use staff meetings, our Local Authority Assessment Leader Meetings, and links with our local schools to further develop our assessment practice.  I chair the Assessment Beyond Levels working group for the Local Authority and we are advocating three key principles (taken from the National College for Teaching & Leadership paper - Beyond Levels: alternative assessment approaches developed by teaching schools):

  1. development of assessment tools to support individual progress
  2. development of assessment tools to capture and record progress
  3. use of technology to track attainment and progress

The draft Performance Descriptors fit into principles one and two.  We need to ensure we are pitching our curriculum at the right level for our children and we need to be able to articulate what progress looks like.


[2] Outstanding Formative Assessment – Culture and Practice (Hodder Education – 2014)


key stage 1, key stage 2, mastery, maths, national standard, reading, science, writing

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