Initial and Diagnostic Assessment: effective approaches for adult and community learning.

South Tyneside Council, Community First North East and AutismAble

South Tyneside Council brought together community-based partners commissioned to provide education and training by the Business, Employment and Skills (BES) service of the council to undertake an evaluation of their current initial and diagnostic assessment tools and approaches. The project team analysed and evaluated initial and diagnostic assessment processes, which they had identified were not working effectively, with the aim of developing processes tailored to the needs of the individual, as opposed to a comprehensive and standardised approach for all South Tyneside Council service providers.


A report (Ofsted, 2011) stated that ‘the initial assessment of learners’ … skills was no better than satisfactory in 19 of the 35 providers of full-time vocational provision visited. The weaker providers either did not assess all their learners effectively, or tutors did not use the results of the assessments in sufficient detail to plan learning.’ The South Tyneside Council project team were concerned that the situation had not improved since 2011 and partners reported that the assessment practices they were contracted to carry out by the council were leading to disengagement in learning.

Local quality assurance work also indicated that many learners were not being effectively assessed in order to sufficiently plan learning. The project, therefore, aimed to improve the quality and consistency of initial and diagnostic assessments made by BES-commissioned providers. It was hoped that this would lead to more effective personalised learning, better outcomes and a more positive learning experience for students.

Project Activities and Outputs

Approach and Methdology

All teaching and support staff from the two community partners were involved in the project, with their management teams working closely with the council’s BES manager to coordinate and validate project activities. Providers participated in a self-assessment and peer review of their current practice against national effective practice guidelines (EPGs) for assessment and tracking (Education and Training Foundation, 2017), as well as research with learners about the impact of assessment practices on them.

Providers used six focus groups with different groups of young people and adult learners. The results were distilled into an impact document which evidenced particularly the mostly negative effects of the process; e.g. re-enforcing a sense of failure, ‘it’s a test’, etc. Staff additionally attended a CPD event focussing on the EPGs and completed their own ‘exit ticket’. This event made staff particularly aware of EPG 7 (assess for self-belief and motivation) which has subsequently been incorporated into provider processes.

The two providers and staff met regularly to share good practice for the benefit of learners. Centre managers for the two providers have promoted their research and outcomes at local training provider network meetings. Each provider is now implementing changes to their process which will be in turn subject to practitioner and peer review.

Professional Learning

Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices.

Organisational changes are now being piloted that will enable practitioners to better understand the starting points of learners. These changes will support the creation of an inclusive culture which enables all learners to fully participate in the learning process and achieve their full potential.

From the starting point of considering initial and diagnostic assessment, the project team members soon learned that they needed to focus on the impact of the process of assessment on learners. In addition, they needed to make better use of assessment outcomes, particularly within the embedding of maths and English in vocational subjects (Hunter & Brown, 2018).

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisational practices

Providers are now in the process of implementing changes which include much wider assessment of the learner as a whole e.g. their emotional and social needs and mind sets. Such factors influence the way feedback is best given to individual learners, their group skills development and how these will be transferred to work. This information is contained with detailed group profiles. Through the widening of assessment, learners have much more individualised targets, linked to all aspects of themselves, not just their academic goals.

As a result of lesson study ideas introduced by the OTLA team, alongside action research approaches, project team members are now involved in peer observations in a more structured way.

Tutor reviews/appraisals in the first term of the project were based fully around the 2014 Professional Standards self-assessment questionnaire introduced by the OTLA team. This then informed the action plan for all tutors. Due to raised awareness of these standards, all tutors identified keeping up to date with research as an area they all realised they needed to develop. The group is now considering how to manage its future, particularly in relation to reflective practice and how to ensure sustainability of further shared research. Providers have indicated support for the development of a wider Community of Practice for South Tyneside. This includes, participation in the regional Professional Exchange networks and embedding the use of the 2014 professional standards in their own quality assurance procedures.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression.

556 learners were directly involved and have benefitted from the project through the three project partners, with over 5000 more learners, from across South Tyneside Council commissioned partners, potentially benefitting from changes to assessment processes.

Improvements include; one provider introducing Growth Mindset training to the curriculum and another evening and daytime drop-in sessions to ensure that adult learners can be assessed fully and sensitively in accordance with their revised procedures. Both of these changes are directly benefitting learners.

Concluding Remarks

Learning from this project

Staff have significantly improved their own knowledge and understanding of initial and diagnostic assessment and where it fits into the continuum of assessment for learning.

• Providers have developed their own ‘professional exchange’ within and outside this project,
• Practitioners have developed their practice when measured against the Professional Standards.
• The project team hopes that their collaboration will lead to a more sustainable approach and the development of a wider Community of Practice for the benefit of all South Tyneside learners.

Ongoing impact of the project

Community First North East has continued to evolve its processes for initial and diagnostic assessment, with input derived from tutors and learners.

New focus groups have been carried out with adults and young people, using the same action research methodology that was used for initial findings. The feelings outlined earlier in this summary (‘it’s a test’, ’scared’, ‘pressured’, ‘bored’, ‘I failed it for 5 years, so why do more of it’) have been replaced by more positive learner statements, including:
• Easy to join/friendly
• Course explained well
• Calm environment
• Approachable staff
• Worried before but fine once got started
• Supported
• Put at ease
• Expected it to be like school but it was more relaxed
• I didn’t really know I was being assessed at the time (commonly expressed)

A Good Practice Guide has been developed which covers:
• What do we want to know from initial assessment?
• How the information can be used
• Who needs to know the outcomes of the initial assessment?
• What needs to be taken into account when carrying out initial assessments
• What are the organizational and management issues?

CFNE plans to continue the reflective practice into the next academic year, involving both tutors and learners in evaluating the initial and diagnostic assessment processes to determine the extent of continued and sustained improvements.

CFNE Good Practice Guidelines will be used and disseminated by South Tyneside Council at all Tutor Induction sessions from August 2018. It is anticipated that over 100 tutors from up to 30 training providers will attend these sessions.

AutismAble has continued to refine its processes for supporting those learners with autism. A comprehensive and outstanding Baseline Assessment has been developed which is learner- centred and establishes the starting points of learners in fine detail. This enables the provider to accurately measure distance travelled whilst in learning, along with the achievement of regulated and non-regulated goals. Devised in partnership with an autism specialist consultant, the document is presented so that learners can complete it as independently as possible. Sections include:

Views, aspirations and interests

Educational needs – includes communication and interaction, cognition and learning, independence, daily living and self-help, employability and vocational skills, social and emotional skills, including mental health.

Sensory and physical needs

Health care and social needs

This in-depth assessment is used to inform the type of regulated and non-regulated programmes suitable for the learner.

Additional impact and outcomes

Both training providers have continued to work together on other initiatives. For example, both are involved in the ETF supported digital OTLA project and working towards developing a digital community of practice.

Working collaboratively has also led both providers to develop an ESF-funded project. Titled ‘REACH’, it is an inclusion programme designed for those over 18s who are more difficult to reach and engage.

It is an intensive programme that focuses on individual needs, including beliefs, values and emotions. They will work with other key professionals and local employers. Their development of high quality initial and diagnostic assessment processes will be utilised on this project.