Assessment in the Foundation Subjects

Between summative, formative, and assessment as learning, which is the best approach? Find out in this blog, as we explain how you can confidently identify pupil strengths and areas to develop, whilst empowering them with self-reflective skills to last a lifetime.
A teacher supporting two children in the early years classroom.
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A quick Google search reveals that there are many different definitions for assessment and different types of assessment…So where do we start!? In the foundation subjects, the path towards assessment is less clearly defined than with the core subjects. Whilst we have a lot more room for flexibility and freedom, teachers can often find it challenging to ensure judgements are accurate, fair, and consistent. 

The purpose of assessment

Assessment comes from the Latin verb assidere which means to sit with. Considering this, before any assessment, I would ask: 

  • What are we doing?  

  • Why are we doing it?  

  • What value does it have to us as teachers and for our students? 

There are many methods of measuring pupil progress and attainment. To determine the best course of action to take, it’s important to consider the purpose of the assessment: 

  • Do you want to identify what children know and have remembered prior to starting a new unit? 

  • Do you want to understand learners’ current knowledge and determine the next steps to move their learning forward?  

  • Do you want to help pupils develop as independent learners who can set their own goals and reflect on their journey towards improvement? 

  •  Do you want to gather evidence of pupils’ achievement, either for themselves, for parents, educational institutions, or other stakeholders? 

There is not one single assessment that paints a full picture of everything a child knows, understands, and can do – we need to consider assessment in a more holistic way to support children on their journey. Using different approaches can help us to gain a rich and valuable insight into what our pupils have mastered, what they have missed, and what help they need to progress.  

One blog could not explore assessment, or the many elements within assessment, in its entirety. In this blog, we will focus on the strengths and barriers of three key methods of assessment, considering how we can ultimately support pupils to achieve their full potential in the foundation subjects.  

Summative Assessment

As we know, summative assessment is a method of measuring pupil achievement by comparing learning to a set standard or benchmark. This generally takes place at the end of a unit, term, or academic year. Summative assessment can be used in foundation subjects, through the use of tests, observation, discussion, written evidence, or perhaps a final project or performance. However, this isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it is in core subjects. 

Even without the high-stakes implications that it can bring, summative assessment does not always capture the full spectrum of a child’s knowledge and understanding or, indeed, have a clear benchmark or standard to assess against, as it depends on the curriculum design and the way in which assessment has been considered in relation to this. It is important to consider what criteria is being used to assess, why those aspects have been chosen, and how children can demonstrate their knowledge of what has been learnt over time. For example, if children are learning about the Roman Empire, we might consider what they can remember about empire the next time they come across this concept, perhaps when studying the Ancient Greek Empire. We also need to remember that consistency between how subjects are assessed is tricky – art, for example, may be assessed very differently to history.  

Though we, as educators, understand that summative assessment is a useful way of showing a clear snapshot of where a pupil is at, the data collected through summative assessment should be analysed and used to adapt the curriculum; mapping out future learning goals and pathways. Notably, summative assessment is more removed from the Latin definition of assessment than other forms of assessment. Indeed, if we have a curriculum that is mapped out progressively across the school, it can be tricky at times to take a step back and reflect on what children know and have remembered before teaching new content. Nevertheless, this is the most beneficial way, for children, to use the assessment data you collect. 

Some schools are now choosing schemes for their foundation subjects which include an element of summative assessment, so please do bear in mind what elements of the curriculum they are assessing and why. Remember to also consider that if adaptations are made to the curriculum to support your cohort and enhance their cultural capital, then the assessment element of the scheme may also need adapting. 

Formative assessment

Formative assessment, in my opinion, is the most useful way of assessing pupils as it helps to quickly inform teachers where a child is in their understanding, which then enables educators to adjust their teaching strategies and address any gaps in learning. As we know, this approach is often fast, fluid, and fits seamlessly into classroom practice. It could be as brief as asking a question to gauge understanding, or it could be lengthier and involve class discussions, knowledge organisers, quizzes, flashbacks, and exit tickets. 

Formative assessment happens continually – it would be impossible to include every single formative assessment opportunity in a scheme of work or a lesson plan as it can often be based upon what arises within the lesson. However, formative assessment allows teachers to create a rigorous learning experience that appropriately challenges pupils, without the implications of high-stakes exams. Expert educators within the classroom often have formative assessment skills down to such a fine art that a single nuanced question provides all the evidence a teacher needs to adapt their teaching so significantly to support a child’s learning.  

Formative assessment can be time-consuming and it does require skill from the practitioner to know what questions to ask and which techniques of formative assessment will be most effective. This means that, for some less skilled or confident educators, formative assessment may be applied superficially if teachers have not had relevant training. As a result, teachers may struggle to effectively support pupils to make progress in their learning. Personally, I believe that when formative assessment is used well it can provide a holistic picture of pupils’ development, whilst providing focused and targeted support to help learners improve effectively. After all, we must remember that every child is unique –  there is not one individual way to teach and assess all of our children. 

Inspirational Quote- "Every child has a different learning style and pace. Each  child is unique, not … | Preschool quotes, Teacher inspiration,  Inspirational quotes

Assessment as learning (AaL)

Assessment as learning is an approach that we may not be as aware of, but in fact, it is something we regularly use within our classroom, and often sits within formative assessment. It occurs when pupils are actively involved and aware of the assessment process, taking responsibility for their own learning, asking questions about the learning process, and exploring ways they can improve. It is fundamental to metacognition and self regulation within learning. Through self and peer assessment, children can learn about themselves as learners, developing the agency to decide on their next learning steps. One example of this is introducing something around dynamic assessment and the Zones of Proximal Development (Lev Vygotsky 1896 – 1934)

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding - Educational  Technology

Linking back to the original definition of assessment, to sit alongside, I want to mention that so much of our current assessment system is about test of memory and knowledge. It’s a “done to” process not a “done with” process. What I would want to ask here is, ‘What is a more effective process for individual students?’  Ask yourself: Am I alongside the student and meeting where the child is at?  This is often very evident in early years and effective play-based provision, but can also be an effective approach in classrooms across the school in order to engage pupils as partners in the assessment process. This not only promotes engagement and motivation, but creates a more personalised learning experience that helps pupils to build on their individual strengths and areas for improvement. It also allows children to develop the reflective skills and self-awareness that will support learning throughout their life in school and beyond.  

In order for this approach to work, teachers need to develop a system which allows for consistent good practice, personal targets for children, and opportunity for children and teachers to monitor progress. Without this, children will repeatedly look towards the teacher to determine whether they are on the right track. Mastering complex skills, such as monitoring and self-reflection, require carefully-considered and consistent support. Pupils must learn to become comfortable with embracing uncertainty, taking chances, and even getting things wrong – an inevitable part of learning something new and a skill that goes beyond learning in the classroom. 

Final thoughts

As school leaders, it can be useful for us to look at our assessment policies alongside our curriculum plans for each subject, considering: 

  • What opportunities are there for assessment? 

  • Is it clear what is being assessed and when? 

  • What is working well and what could be developed in terms of assessment? 

  • And, likewise, what is the assessment telling us about what is working well or what could be developed within our curriculum? 

By considering assessment in a systematic way, we can create an approach that is holistic and essential to high-quality teaching and learning. Using a variety of assessment approaches not only supports us as educators to identify pupil strengths and areas to develop, but it provides opportunities to look at the impact of the curriculum and, most importantly, it supports children to develop the tools to take ownership of their learning, develop resilience, self-awareness, and actively seek out opportunities to improve – empowering them with skills that last a lifetime. 


To learn more about subject leadership and assessment, please reach out to our School Development team to find out how we can help.

Alternatively, you can explore our Training Courses & Conferences to discover opportunities for professional growth and development.

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