Life after Levels: FAQs

Written by: Andrew Lifford | Published:
Photo: iStock

How have schools responded to the removal of national curriculum levels? Andrew Lifford answers some of the most common questions from school leaders on assessing without using levels

"Is there guidance on setting whole-school targets without levels?" "How do we assess without using levels in PE?" "Can we continue to use levels?"

These are just some of many assessment-related questions school leaders have been asking researchers at The Key since level descriptors were removed from the national curriculum and schools gained the freedom to develop their own internal assessment systems.

Just over two terms into the first year of the new system, it is safe to say that the removal of levels has caused some confusion in the sector. Of 1,000 school leaders who responded to the latest State of Education survey, run by The Key and Ipsos MORI, 75.3 per cent said they have found the removal of levels difficult.

When asked to rate how easy or difficult they had found implementing and/or managing a number of changes and challenges in the sector over the past year, school leaders across the country rated the removal of levels as the second most difficult – behind teacher workload and ahead of teacher morale.

The survey also found that 71.4 per cent believe that their school is not comfortable with the new assessment arrangements and 82.6 per cent do not think that the removal of levels has had a positive impact on their school.

School leaders' questions on this topic have become increasingly sophisticated as the change takes root and schools gradually get to grips with designing and implementing new systems. Taking inspiration from some of the questions we are most commonly asked, here is some need-to-know information on this topic to help school leaders manage this tricky area in the year ahead.

How should schools assess pupils now?

National curriculum levels will be used to report pupil attainment and progress for the last time this summer for pupils in years 2 and 6. In 2015/16, external assessments at the end of key stages 1 and 2 will be updated to reflect the national curriculum, test results will then be reported as scaled scores, and statutory teacher assessments will be informed by new performance descriptors which are being developed by the Department for Education (DfE).

All schools can now adopt their own approach to internal assessment. The DfE does not specify what this should look like, but says that each school's assessment system should be designed to check that pupils are on track to meet expectations at the end of the key stage, as set out in the programmes of study. It should also enable the school to report regularly to parents.

Schools may still use levels to assess attainment and progress if they believe it is the most effective way of doing so. However, the DfE warns that levels no longer reflect the national curriculum, so, in the long-term, schools should look at developing assessment systems that complement the new programmes of study.

Is there any support for schools developing and implementing a new approach?

A Commission on Assessment Without levels – an independent group of education experts – has just been set up by the DfE to identify and share best practice in assessment and publish guidance on how schools can develop assessment policies (see page 3 for more information).

The Commission will not encourage schools to adopt any particular approach but will focus on supporting schools to choose systems which work best for their pupils and staff. It will also provide information about the legal and regulatory assessment requirements, so that schools and parents may know how and when children's attainment and progress will be measured and recorded by the government. A report on the Commission's work and recommendations is expected before the end of the summer term.

How have schools been approaching assessment without using levels?

School leaders looking for inspiration may find it useful to look at some of the assessment methods designed by schools awarded funding from the DfE to scale up their approach for other schools to use. Assessment resources from these schools are available on the TES Connect website.

Hillyfield Primary Academy in Waltham Forest, for example, uses a "skills passport" to determine pupils' progress in key skills in all foundation subjects in key stages 1 and 2. West Exe Technology College in Devon, which covers both the primary and secondary phases, uses a "ladders" approach, with objectives led by curriculum content.

It might also be useful to consider collaborating with other schools locally to develop an assessment system which will be consistent for pupils transitioning between different phases.

What will Ofsted look for in assessment systems?

Many school leaders have asked us questions about how Ofsted inspectors will judge their assessment systems. Ofsted says it does not have any predetermined view on what system a school should use for internal assessment. Inspectors will be interested in whether the approach the school uses is effective in measuring what progress pupils are making and how this relates to their expected progress. Inspectors will look at a range of assessment data and will want to know whether the school's assessments are accurate.

  • Andrew Lifford is a senior researcher at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to school leaders and governors. Visit

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