A discussion about levels

Written by: Graham Cooper | Published:

A recent roundtable discussion brought together school leaders from both the primary and secondary phases to discuss what works in a world without national curriculum levels. Graham Cooper was there

As headteachers get to grips with the new and uncharted territory of life after levels, what approaches are they taking to track pupil progress? Capita SIMS, together with the Association of School and College Leaders, brought together 25 school leaders in a workshop to find out what's working and what isn't.

Faced with a never-ending stream of reforms, it is not surprising that many of the school leaders who attended the post-levels workshop stated that they were happy to stick with the current system for the moment. They wanted to be able to evaluate the approaches other schools were taking, rather than rushing in to replace levels in one fell swoop.

"We intend to maintain levels for the time being but we are keen to speak to other schools in the area to find out what is working for them. This will help us to find the best fit for our school to assess pupils in the future," one headteacher told us.

Another echoed this view: "We do not want to be the first ones to dip our toe in the water. We would rather see what other schools are doing and move forward once we have found the right system for us."

However, there were also those happy to leave levels well in the past: "We have done away with levels completely and subject heads are using their own descriptors," said one attendee. "Our geography department is already using terms such as 'foothills and summit' to describe pupils' progress."

It seems that schools felt free enough to make their own decisions – to change if there was an overwhelming desire to do so, but to remain with levels for the time being if there were other priorities to focus on at the school.

The need for data

One point all the school leaders were aligned on was the need for data, in particular surrounding the transition from primary school to secondary: "It is critical that we have accurate information about the achievement of pupils when they join us as we will be judged on the level of progress they make," said one secondary school leader. "This is particularly important for children eligible for Pupil Premium funding."

With the possibility that feeder schools could be using an array of different methods to assess their pupils' achievement, secondary leaders highlighted the importance of understanding what stage a child was at in their learning when they arrived in their school. This would mean closer liaison with feeder primaries and perhaps even adopting a shared language or system related to measuring progress.

In the meantime though, many attendees felt that to get an accurate baseline to track progress and prove added value, it was still necessary to complete an additional assessment of all new pupils when they joined secondary school.

"The quality of assessment information we receive can differ from school to school so we have found it helpful to baseline all pupils as they join us," explained one secondary leader.

Workload matters

Many leaders were worried that more detail about progress levels – such as measuring every child's progress against each of the new knowledge descriptors – would mean more data-inputting. This in turn raised concerns about the increased workload that could result from a life without levels. One headteacher said: "With all the different stakeholders needing information on children's progress – from teachers to governors and parents – I am concerned about how this can be managed simply."

Another felt that technology should help ease the burden: "There is a real need for our management information system to be used to full effect to reduce the burden on staff workloads that the pupil assessment changes could bring."

It was felt that the systems could be used effectively to allow primary schools to exchange assessment data electronically with the local secondary schools

Keeping parents and pupils engaged

One area of concern raised by many was the need to maintain engagement with parents and pupils while the changes took place in order to avoid confusion.

"It is important for the children themselves to understand their own progress," said one contributor. "They need to know where they are in order to understand what they need to do to achieve what they are capable of."

One head spoke about the benefits of engaging parents early in the process and even asking their opinion of the possible different approaches.

Another spoke of how much simpler it would be for parents if there was a similar approach adopted by primary and secondary schools in the same area.

They said: "There are advantages in having a standardised approach within a geographical area, as families with children in different schools will find it much easier to ascertain how they are progressing."

A long journey

There was no doubt among the leaders that the transition to a life without levels will be a long journey. In fact, we will not truly know the outcome until the first pupils complete their whole education without levels in 2023.

This fact reinforces the point that whatever assessment methods are introduced they must be entirely fit for purpose, meet the needs of all stakeholders, teachers, parents and pupils to track progress and give an accurate picture of the pupil journey.

The workshop made it clear that measurement and data will be a critical part of this transition, giving senior leaders the checks and balances they need to ensure that no matter what changes they bring in, their pupils and teachers are being challenged to reach higher. It also emphasised that the technology that supports the system, needs to be flexible enough to fit with the unique and changing needs of each school.

As a former school leader, I was pleased to realise that the one overriding message that came from our workshop was that assessment delivered as a one-size-fits-all approach would not work. I am pleased that, years after I packed up my white board marker, each school still celebrates the fact that it is unique and so are the pupils it teaches – and any assessment system needs to reflect each school's values and goals.

  • Graham Cooper is head of product strategy at Capita SIMS. To download a PDF of the roundtable report, visit http://bit.ly/1EX4kRE

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