Assessment without levels: Keep it simple

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Assessment without levels has caused stress and anxiety for many primary schools, but a simple, stripped down approach that minimises paperwork and focuses on conversations could provide an answer to the assessment challenge. Colin McLean explains

The first summer after the end of levels has been an anxious one for many school leaders and teachers, with many worrying about the lack of clarity and support on how to put new systems of assessment into action.

Most primary headteachers will be in the middle of a learning process when it comes to this new era, and the dust probably won’t settle for a few months yet. But the end of the academic year and the prospect of a new one might be the opportunity to review where you are with assessment and think about how you can build a simpler, more focused form of assessment that fits your needs and helps you better support your pupils.

At Sheringham Primary in Newham, east London, executive headteacher Gary Wilkie and his team have devised their own, stripped down approach to assessment. Mr Wilkie himself admits that the approach won’t fit all schools, but there is much in the approach and its underpinning philosophy which many leaders will find useful.

He explained: “I’m not saying that we have the only answer to the challenge of assessment without levels. There are lots of answers out there but I think it is useful to look at the systems you are currently using and ask if they doing the right things for you.

“Are they answering the questions that you need to be answering or are you being driven by what the commercial tracking systems are getting you to do? My message is make sure that it is you and your school in control and that you have an assessment approach that does what you want it to deliver – not what someone else wants you to deliver.”

In developing an approach to assessment without levels, Mr Wilkie and his team focused on getting back to basics, asking themselves fundamental questions about what it was they wanted and needed from assessment, and moving away from rigid processes and towards a framework with an emphasis on conversation-based moderation rather than complicated box-ticking. He’s drawn from these experiences to offer this advice for fellow primary leaders.

  1. Ask a set of fundamental questions of what you want from assessment: “Any assessment approach does need to give you information that will help inform your pupil progress meetings, help teachers know what the next steps are in the children’s learning and ensure that governing bodies know about progress in school. But does it need to tell you if a child is able to do what they have yet to be taught? Probably not, but that is what a lot of levels were about.”
  2. Go for simplicity: “We wanted more than anything to be clear about how successful the children are in what they have been taught so far, how much support they need to be successful and how on track they are to reach their end-of-year expectations, rather than how likely it was that they were going to achieve the things that we were going to teach them in the next six months.”
  3. Frameworks are better than rigid processes: “It doesn’t matter if one teacher’s tracking system is different to the one used by a colleague in the classroom next door, as long as they all share common features. Their approach must help them know what is next for their children and help them identify any significant learning issues. And it must help them identify what it is they need to focus on a child’s specific learning needs. And it must provide evidence.”
  4. Conversations matter more than numbers: “We’ve developed our Point in Time Assessment (PITA) which we use to assess our children’s progress in reading, writing and numeracy. It could be used for all subjects. It’s basically seven brief, simple statements against which the children are assessed so we can see where they are at one particular point in time. They are numbered, but only because it makes it easier for our own conversations. The numbers don’t really matter – what does is that they provide a framework for conversation in our year group meetings where we moderate our teacher assessments to make sure they are accurate and consistent. It’s the conversation between teachers that make all the difference to a child’s next steps, not a set of ticked boxes and grids.”
  5. Fancy graphs doesn’t mean effective: “We’ve spoken to a number of Ofsted inspectors about it. They tell us that they are looking for evidence that schools really know their children and that they are able to see how their children are making progress. You can pull fancy graphs off our system – for example to compare PITAs for boys and girls or to show PITAs for each class – but the only reason to do this really is as an internal aid, so that you can identify issues in teaching and learning or moderation and address them.”
  • Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development. Visit

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